Lessons in language: Tactfully changing tack

Some things have been jarring me lately. Jarring me until my teeth ache. So please excuse me while I have a language rant.

I love language. I love learning new words and phrases, and I love discovering how those phrases came to be. Etymology – the account of how words and phrases originated – is of endless fascination to me.

And because I love language, when I see errors in language written by novelists and journalists, I seem to suffer actual physical pain. It hurts me when people haven’t the faintest idea how to use an apostrophe, or how to spell ‘definite’, or that there is a difference between a ‘magic bullet’ and a ‘silver bullet’ when talking about problem solving.

I’m not talking about errors made by your average Joe/Jo in the street, or in casual communications. Friends writing emails aren’t necessarily professional writers and shouldn’t be held to the same standards. Even for writers – well, typos happen to the best of us. But there is a difference between an obvious typo, and when a writer (or their editor) clearly doesn’t know their grammar/vocabulary/punctuation.

My big gripe at the moment is the phrase ‘changing tact’, to indicate a change of approach to a problem.

The expression is actually ‘changing tack’. Etymologically, the phrase is derived from the nautical term ‘to tack’. When ships tack, they change course relative to the direction of the wind – zig-zagging against the wind to move forward.

Knowing the origin of the phrase makes it easier to remember how to spell it. In context of its origin, the spelling makes perfect sense. Using the word ‘tact’ makes no sense to me at all. I’m sure being sensitive and diplomatic (showing tact) is important in problem solving, but you can’t change that kind of tact. Or do people think it is related to the word ‘tactic’?

I know that English doesn’t always seem to make a lot of sense – although, once etymology is understood it does make better sense. That’s what you get with a language that has been built out of a half dozen other languages – Latin and Celtic, Norman French and Saxon German, the language of the Vikings, everything that’s been borrowed from Arabic, Russian, Hindi and more.

The incorrect use of the word ‘tact’ in this phrase indicates to me that the people using it have never seen it written down. They’ve heard – or rather misheard – the phrase and are just having a stab at how it should be written. This happens a lot with other phrases and spelling. People write ‘tow the line’ instead of ‘toe the line’ all the time; or ‘should of’ instead of ‘should’ve’ (the contraction of ‘should have’). The number of times I’ve seen ‘flout’ (often spelled as ‘flaut’) and ‘flaunt’ (which have completely different meanings) confused in print gives me a toothache.

The thing is, I don’t have a university degree in language (or in anything else, come to that). The reason I have a wide vocabulary and an understanding of grammar and punctuation is essentially because I read. Voraciously. I read biographies and histories. I read SF and crime. I read trashy thrillers and Booker Prize winners. I read classics from the 19th century and new writers from the 21st.  I read children’s books and adult fiction. I read newspapers and magazines. I read the back of the box. I read for fun and education. I read. All the time.

When I come across a word or phrase I don’t understand, and can’t work out from its context in the story, I look it up. I teach myself new language.

If you’re a writer, you should be reading. You should be noting words and phrases and exploring anything that is new, to add to your writer’s language toolbox.

But most of all, you should be writing ‘change tack’ instead of ‘change tact’.

Please. I and my aching teeth will thank you for it.

Review: A Study in Scarlet (A Study of…) by Vicious Fish Theatre

I remember discovering the stories of Sherlock Holmes. After years of being familiar with the character through films, pastiches and pop culture references, I sat down to watch the Jeremy Brett TV series in the 1990s. It was so unlike the character as portrayed elsewhere that I was intrigued. This Holmes was not kindly and avuncular, but sharp and difficult. His Watson was an active everyman, not a fat, bumbling dimwit. Intrigued, I turned to the source material, and was instantly hooked. I still reread the books and short stories regularly.

Robert Lloyd came to Sherlock Holmes much earlier than me, though the impact was no less profound.  Holmes has been Lloyd’s hero since the lanky actor was 12 years old. The culmination of the literary love affair is “A Study in Scarlet (A Study of…)”. Lloyd re-enacts the first ever Holmes novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, recreating key scenes from A Study in Scarlet. The story is interspersed with Lloyd’s comments on how he discovered the Great Detective, elements of the story he finds peculiar or amazing, and (particularly in the awkward latter half of the book) inspired suggestions for casting the wild west adventure part of the narrative.

Lloyd portrays all the characters of the book with deft shifts in posture and voice, so you’re never confused about who’s speaking. It’s an enthusiastic rather than subtle retelling, but the key plot points are all there and you are rushed along with the story.

Lloyd’s obvious affection and enthusiasm for Holmes is infectious, and it’s that passion that makes this show so enjoyable. The conspiratorial asides and gleeful observations pull the show together. It’s charming and wonderful to see literature praised so joyfully on stage, and the story re-enacted so colourfully. The effects are simple and sparing, using projections and lighting, and all the more effective as a result.

As someone who already loves the Sherlock Holmes stories, I enjoyed this production immensely. Its energy, sense of fun and clear love of the books communicates as a fresh approach to a character that many people think they already know. My hope is that others who only know Holmes through his much-diluted form in popular culture will see this, be infected by that passion, and go to the source, just as the show’s director, Scott Gooding, did.

A Study in Scarlet (A Study of…) is on at Son of Loft, The Lithuanian Club, 44 Errol Street, North Melbourne until Friday 1 October. Tickets online from the Melbourne Fringe website.

GaryView: The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod Book 1- Eighth Grade Bites by Heather Brewer

Gary and LissaLissa: Vladimir Tod reminds me of you!

Gary: A friendless, nerdy kid who’s beaten up by bullies and is clueless with girls?

Lissa: No! Dope. I mean a kid trying to find out the rules of vampirism who watches a lot of vampire films and doesn’t eat people.

Gary: Oh.

Lissa: And you’re not friendless.

Gary: I have one friend. And Vladimir Tod has one friend.

Lissa: You’re in a mood today. If you’re not careful I’ll have to give you a hug.

Gary: (looks at her)

Lissa: (pounces and gives him a hug)

Gary: Sorry.

Lissa: You don’t ever have to be sorry for feeling low. Life’s like that, sometimes.

Gary: So’s undeadness.

Lissa: Wanna talk about it?

Gary: … No… Yes… Um… Maybe I identified with him a bit. Except I was really good at maths and not so good at English. And I wasn’t a vampire in high school, just uncool.

Lissa: Most of us are uncool at school, and those that are cool, well they’re just faking it.

Gary: I guess.

Lissa: Trust me.  And I think you’re neat.

Gary: I think you’re pretty neat too.

Lissa: Vlad’s pretty cool in the end, too. He learns from his experiences.

Gary: All the stuff about discovering his past and trying to work out what’s going on when he hasn’t any data was ok. Some of the story happens a bit too quickly.

Lissa: It does feel rushed at times. It reminded me of Harry Potter sometimes too, doing the whole school year and having a weird teacher. I thought the characterisation was a bit light-on.

Gary: True. I liked his guardian, Nelly, but I wish there’d been more about her. His mate Henry too. And I didn’t get why Vlad liked Meredith so much. She was kind of …

Lissa: … Wet? Vapid?

Gary: No real personality. I always liked smart girls with a bit of character. Who laughed at me.

Lissa: Are you angling for another hug?

Gary: (laughs) No.

Lissa: Cos there’s plenty where that came from.

Gary: I’m aware of that.

Lissa: (grins) You haven’t yet had your usual rant about the inaccuracy of the vampire lore.

Gary: You know the drill. Some of it is fine, some of it is ridiculous. I wish the levitating bit was true. That would be handy. Especially when I’ve just washed the floor.

Lissa: They never write about vampires doing housework, have you noticed?

Gary: Even creatures of the night need a tidy house.

Lissa: (bunging on a bad Transylvanian accent) “I must go a wreak havoc in ze mortal vorld, but firrrst I must dust my bric a brac…”

Gary: “…und vipe ze vindows…”

Lissa: (giggles)

Gary: Just because I’m undead, it doesn’t mean I like grime.

Lissa: Doesn’t mean you don’t like hugs either.

Gary: …

Lissa: (pounces and hugs him again)

Buy Eighth Grade Bites (Chronicles of Vladimir Tod, Book 1)at Amazon.com


Melbourne Literary iPhone appA few tweaks were made to my iPhone app, Melbourne Literary – and now it’s all formatted for the iPad as well! There are some screenshots of how it looks in that format in the app store, and it’s making me covet new tech!

If any of you have bought the app, either for iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch, it would be great if you could leave a review in the app store. It needs at least five reviews for the app to indicate it has any reviews at all, and of course having reviews will encourage people to have confidence in buying it when it comes up on searches for Melbourne guides!

The app has been well received so far, and I hope to do an update in around February next year. If you know of any Melbourne writers, books set in Melbourne, Melbourne literary locations or anything else that would be good to add, let me know!

Words are like oxygen