How You Can Tell The West Wing Was Written by Writers’ Writers – Part Two


If you missed part one, see last week’s post.


Toby Ziegler: “Ms Fortis?”
Tabatha Fortis: “Yeah.”
Toby Ziegler: “I’m Toby Ziegler.”
Tabatha Fortis: “I’ve been thinking a lot about it since you called.”
Toby Ziegler: “Yeah?”
Tabatha Fortis: “There’s nothing that rhymes with Ziegler.”
Toby Ziegler: “That’s why no one writes poetry about me.”
Tabatha Fortis: “You could write in blank verse. Dylan could do it.”
Toby Ziegler: “Yeah but he hasn’t yet.”
“The US Poet Laureate”, Episode 16, Season 3

CJ Cregg: “Let me explain something to you. This is sort of my field. The people on these sites, they’re the cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The muumuu-wearing Parliament smoker, that’s Nurse Ratchet. When Nurse Ratchet is unhappy, the patients are unhappy. You, you’re McMurphy. You swoop in there with your card games and your fishing trips—”
Josh Lyman: “I didn’t swoop in, I came in exactly the same way everybody else did.”
CJ Cregg: “Well, now I’m telling you to open the ward room window and climb on out before they give you a pre-frontal lobotomy and I have to smother you with a pillow.”
Josh Lyman: “You’re Chief Bromden?”
CJ Cregg: “I’m Chief Bromden, yes, at this particular moment.”
“The US Poet Laureate”, Episode 16, Season 3

Tabatha Fortis: “You think I think that an artist’s job is to speak the truth. An artist’s job is to captivate you for however long we’ve asked for your attention. If we stumble into truth, we got lucky. And I don’t get to decide what truth is.”
“The US Poet Laureate”, Episode 16, Season 3

Nikolai Ivanovich: “On his arrival and during outdoor photograph opportunity, President Bartlet must wear overcoat.”
Sam Seaborn: “A coat?”
Nikolai Ivanovich: “He must wear coat. He must wear gloves. Scarves and ear muffs permissible but optional.”
Sam Seaborn: “Hang on ’cause… Yes, ’cause President Chigorin wants to wear a coat and doesn’t want to look like a wimp.”
Nikolai Ivanovich: “Sam, it is freezing too cold in Reykjavik. It is freezing too cold in Helsinki. It is freezing too cold in Gstaad. Why must every American president bound out of an automobile like as at a yacht club while in comparison our leader looks like… I don’t even know what word is.
Sam Seaborn: “Frumpy?”
Nikolai Ivanovich: “I don’t know what ‘frump’ is but onomatopoetically sounds right.”
Sam Seaborn: “It’s hard not to like a guy who doesn’t know ‘frumpy’ but knows ‘onomatopoeia’.”
“Enemies Foreign and Domestic”, Episode 18, Season 3

CJ Cregg: “‘Regulatory duopoly, democracy by favouristic fiat, a bureaucratic junta’…”
Bruno Gianelli: “Yes.”
CJ Cregg: “…‘that is clearly prohibited under federal law.’”
Toby Ziegler: “There’s no way ‘favouristic’ is a word.”
Sam Seaborn: “We all agree with you, Toby, we just don’t think it’s grounds for appeal.”
“College Kids”, Episode 3, Season 4

Toby Ziegler: “When you mention that we want five debates, say what they are. One on the economy, one on foreign policy, with another on global threats and national security, one on the environment and one on strengthening family life, which would include healthcare, education and retirement. I also think there should be one on parts of speech and sentence structure and one on fractions.”
CJ Cregg: “Is there any chance I’m going to get an opportunity to speak in this conversation or are you just writing out loud?”
“The Red Mass”, Episode 4, Season 4

Toby Ziegler: “So you want a job on the speechwriting staff.”
Will Bailey: “I’m sorry?”
Toby Ziegler: “You want a job on the speechwriting staff.”
Will Bailey: “No.”
Toby Ziegler: “I’m sorry?”
Will Bailey: “I don’t want a job on the speechwriting staff.”
Toby Ziegler: “You’re Will Bailey?”
Will Bailey: “Yes.”
Toby Ziegler: “Sam told me you wanted a job on the speechwriting staff.”
Will Bailey: “Well, Sam told me you wanted help with the inauguration.”
Toby Ziegler: “He did?”
Will Bailey: “Yeah.”
Toby Ziegler: “Sam’s doing a little matchmaking. I’m fine doing this by myself.”
Will Bailey: “That’s it?”
Toby Ziegler: “Yeah.”
Will Bailey: “Okay. Your garbage can is on fire.”
Toby Ziegler: “Yeah. It’s not personal. A speech like this, obviously it’s… it takes a certain amount of experience and ah… a certain something.”
Will Bailey: “Just out of curiosity, how do you know I don’t have the something?”
Toby Ziegler: “’Cause you don’t have the experience.”
Will Bailey: “Okay. Well, it was nice meeting you.”
Toby Ziegler: “You, too.”
Will Bailey: “For the record, I was President of Cambridge Union on a Marshall scholarship and I’ve written for three congressional races and a governor.”
Toby Ziegler: “I read the Stanford Club speech. I thought it was good. Not as good as other people thought it was.”
Will Bailey: “Yeah?”
Toby Ziegler: “Call and response isn’t going to work in front of a joint session. You’re alliteration happy – ‘guardians of gridlock, protectors of privilege’ – I needed an avalanche of Advil. And when you use pop culture references, your speech has a shelf life of twelve minutes. You don’t mind constructive criticism, do you?”
Will Bailey: “No, sir.”
Toby Ziegler: “Anyway, thanks for coming in. I told Sam I can do this by myself.”
Will Bailey: “Well, maybe he thought that your speeches were obscurantist policy tracts lost in a cul de sac of their own internal self-righteousness and groaning from the weight of statistics. I’m just speculating, I can’t say for sure.”
“Arctic Radar”, Episode 10, Season 4

Charlie Young: “‘Baldwin, long a fixture in DC and Manhattan society, whether for her work on charity boards or her position on the arm of some of Wall Street, Washington and Hollywood’s most eligible men, as well as hosting some of the Beltway’s favourite—’ What the hell kind of sentence is this?”
“Life on Mars”, Episode 21, Season 4

President Josiah Bartlet: “This draft of the Rose Garden thing, it needs more altitude.”
Will Bailey: “Altitude?”
President Josiah Bartlet: “Loftier. If I don’t sound enthused, how do we expect the country to get excited about this guy?”
Will Bailey: “Yes, sir.”
President Josiah Bartlet: “You’re not very excited about him.”
Will Bailey: “Oh, no. I mean sure. I mean I’m not not excited about him.”
President Josiah Bartlet: “What you sounded like just then is how this reads. Let’s take the equivocation out of it.”
Will Bailey: “Yes, sir.”
President Josiah Bartlet: “Okay.”
Will Bailey: “Thank you, Mr President.”

Toby Ziegler: “VP intro needs to go on the prompter by two. How you doing?”
Will Bailey: “I have altitude sickness.”
Toby Ziegler: “I’m sorry?”
Will Bailey: “The President wants more altitude. I’m having conscience issues.”
Toby Ziegler: “I’m sure you’ve had to say things you haven’t meant before. You’ve read friends’ poetry, you’ve had girlfriends.”
Will Bailey: “I could use help.”
Toby Ziegler: “Just hold your nose and hype him.”
Will Bailey: “The President hated this. My self-confidence is down around my ankles.”
Toby Ziegler: “Well, hitch it up and start typing. Come on. Clackety clack.”
Will Bailey: “You’re really not going to help me?”
Toby Ziegler: “I have things to do.”
“Han”, Episode 4, Season 5

Toby Ziegler: “How long has it been?”
Will Bailey: “Half an hour.”
Toby Ziegler: “This is like something out of Beckett.”
Will Bailey: “You mean Sartre.”
Toby Ziegler: “If I meant Sartre, I would have said Sartre.”
Will Bailey: “‘Hell is other people’?”
Toby Ziegler: “Okay, Sartre.”
“No Exit”, Episode 20, Season 5

Kate Harper: “Leo, you wanted to see me?”
Leo McGarry: “Yeah. Listen, with Nancy McNally out of the country, you’re gonna have to be our go-to… Geez, I was gonna say ‘guy’. The problem with English. ‘Guy’ is wrong, ‘gal’ is patronising and ‘person’ sounds arch.”
Kate Harper: “‘Go-to guy’ is fine.”
Leo McGarry: “Good, because you’re it. Which is a lot to throw at you weeks into the job. I want you to know you have my and the president’s full support.”
Kate Harper: “I appreciate your confidence.”
Leo McGarry: “We’ll need you to coordinate all the intelligence agencies. Especially CIA and FBI. You may have heard. They have trouble playing nicely together.”
Kate Harper: “Well, boys will be boys.”
Leo McGarry: “Don’t be afraid to knock heads together. We don’t want petty turf wars slowing down the intel.”
Kate Harper: “I’ll keep on them.”
Leo McGarry: “You run into resistance, you let me know.”
Kate Harper: “I hope that won’t be necessary.”
Leo McGarry: “Another thing. The president’s not crazy about the DCI. It’s chemical, just rubs him the wrong way.”
Kate Harper: “Okay.”
Leo McGarry: “This isn’t gossip. It’s guidance. If the CIA’s got something, the director’s not always the most effective vessel for communicating it.”
Kate Harper: “I’ll make sure to underline anything I think is significant.”
Leo McGarry: “We just need you to be all over this. State. Defence. You’re the White House point… person.”
Kate Harper: “I won’t let you down. Oh, and on that whole language score, I was in the military. I manned battleships, was one of the boys, occasionally was exhorted to drop my… you know, and grab my socks. I’ve made my peace with the colloquial.”
Leo McGarry: “Okay.”
Kate Harper: “Just between us girls.”
“Gaza”, Episode 21, Season 5

Sheila Brooks: “Do we have that new direct mail piece?”
Bob Mayer: “Yeah, I took out about seventeen exclamation points.”
“King Corn”, Episode 13, Season 6

How You Can Tell The West Wing Was Written by Writers’ Writers – Part One


I am firmly of the belief (and have said many, many times before) that watching The West Wing is like taking a masterclass in writing. The stories, the dialogue, the characters, the construction, it’s all about as close to perfect as writing can get.

Hiding in plain sight amongst the politics and policy and drama are numerous references to the English language – writing, editing and reading. To the casual observer, they may simply be perceived as evidence of the “liberal elitist” natures of the main characters. To the more devoted observers, such as myself, they are “in” jokes that only other writers will truly appreciate. Continue reading

Noah Webster and His Hainous Korus of Grotesk Syllables: How British English Became American English and the Main Differences


Noah Webster has a lot to answer for. A prolific American writer and editor, he was also dedicated to the reformation of English spelling. He compiled several dictionaries over his lifetime, including spellings that more closely matched how the words were pronounced instead of the traditional compositions. In most cases, he didn’t originate these revised spellings but he was responsible for popularising them and many of the “reformed” spellings gradually became standard throughout the United States, the reason we now have significant differences between British English and American English.

Without any academic study to back it up, I have often thought that Americans frequently do things simply to be different from the British and in reading up about Webster, I discovered this to be true in relation to his spelling changes. Yet again, we discover the US is the source of a bloody annoying and unnecessary set of circumstances.

Some of his revised spellings didn’t catch on. If they had, I beleev wimmin (and men) would be spewing forth a steddy and hainous korus of grotesk syllables from their tungs, creating a nightmar for the masheen I’m now typing on. (The Spell Checker is going to have a field day with that sentence.)

As much as I would clearly like to, we’re not going to be able to wind back the changes that did catch on. But what we writers and editors should do is make sure that when we edit, we pick one variation of English and stick to it. This will largely be guided by the location of the primary audience.

There are lots of differences between British English and American English, far too many to go into here. But here are a few highlights to help begin the process and ensure consistency. Continue reading

You Know What I Mean: When It Sounds Sort of Close but Isn’t Quite Right


The first three years I was in high school, we spent six months of the year being taught French and then the other six months of the year being taught Indonesian. Then, in Year 10, we would decide whether to continue with one or the other or to give away foreign language studies altogether. I continued on with French and achieved the best French marks in the entire school the year I was in Year 12 (nothing really to brag about – my marks were just okay and the “honour” just made me wonder how badly everyone else had done). Twenty years later when I finally visited France though, I still knew enough to be able to listen to locals conversing in their native tongue about tourists when they didn’t think anyone on the tour group could understand them. (Australians aren’t big tippers apparently but they thought the Germans were. “Donnez, donnez, donnez,” they said, which means, “Give, give, give.”)

Conversely, I can’t remember a single word of Indonesian. I didn’t enjoy learning it the way I enjoyed learning French, which had a lot to do with how similar it was to English (which, of course, I loved then and still do now). But I remember the Indonesian teacher. I didn’t think so at the time but we were lucky to have an actual Indonesian person teaching us the language. Her English wasn’t great but then I don’t suppose it needed to be. It explains, however, when she was scolding us for not paying attention or for not trying hard enough, why she would say, “Pull your socks together.” (She was trying for either “Pull your socks up” or “Pull yourselves together” and instead ended up somewhere in between.) Continue reading

Rules versus Styles versus Preferences When Editing


The English language is one of the hardest in the world to master and only seems to be getting harder thanks to its constant evolution. The fact that there are so many different opinions about what’s “right” and what’s “wrong” doesn’t make it any easier, especially for those wanting to edit their writing and looking for definitive answers. After all, as writers, we generally don’t want to get involved in the battle. We just want to know who won.

Unfortunately, I don’t have good news on that front. Because while there are some definitive rules, there are also styles that change depending on which country or publication you write in and there are even preferences that individuals make up their own mind in relation to. Continue reading

The Evolution Of The English Language Since The Elements Of Style


In preparation for an upcoming blog, I was leafing through my copy of The Elements of Style, which is generally considered a writer’s bible. It was originally written as a textbook for a Cornell University English course by Professor William Strunk Jnr in 1919. In 1957, the author EB White (who coincidentally took that course) was commissioned to revise it for general publication. Yes, that EB White. The one who wrote Charlotte’s Web.

As I leafed, I was struck by how much of the advice is now irrelevant or ignored. Plenty of it is still important and even now I recommend it to anyone who is serious about writing well. But nearly one hundred years has passed since its advice was first committed to paper and all languages evolve. Not just new words coming into usage and old ones falling by the wayside but the meaning of words changing and rules being completely subverted.
So I thought it would be interesting to explore the advice in The Elements of Style that is no longer as definitive as it once was. Continue reading

The Apostrophe Hall of Shame


For over a year now, I’ve had the words “The Apostrophe Hall of Shame” on my blog post ideas board. So why haven’t I written the post until now? Not for a lack of incorrect uses of apostrophes, that’s for sure.

Actually, it’s the opposite. An abundance of not only apostrophe abuse but also poor spelling and terrible grammar consistently inflicted on the content consuming public. I’ve been so overwhelmed by bad examples that I haven’t known where to even start.

The media are particularly bad examples. Journalism was once the bastion of making sure content was written and spoken correctly. At least if the journalists weren’t getting it right, there were editors to correct their mistakes before the content went public.

Not anymore. And as Fairfax Media announces another 120 jobs to be axed in Sydney and Melbourne and their staff go on strike, I’d be concerned for the editors that remained, if I actually thought there were any. Continue reading