Monday, January 15, 2007

Common Mistakes

When a reader gets a script from the spec pile, they usually don’t have a clue who the writer is, or where the writer comes from. The script is going to be representative of everything the reader’s going to assume about the writer’s personality, talents and abilities.

To this end, some common phrases, mistakes and typos appear to suggest the screenwriter is not quite up to the task of writing a good script. Some of these blemishes are not immediately suggestive of a hack wannabe, but are usually indicative of someone with a poor regard for the basic use of the English language. Here are a few examples:

“Your / You’re”: Your refers to what the person owns (Yours doesn’t have an apostrophe). You’re is a contraction of ‘You are’. Any confusion about the matter should have been cleared up in the Under 10s grammar school.

In a fit of writing momentum, even the best writers may type you’re when they mean your, but that’s why proof reading a script is important.

“They’re / There / Their”: Oh dear, where to begin? They’re=They are. There=adverb denoting that place or position. Their= possessive pronoun (belonging to them). Again, basic stuff, but why oh why do so many aspiring screenwriters get it wrong?

“Its / It’s / It is”: The only form of ‘Its’ that’s correctly used anymore seems to be ‘It is’. The regularity of Its and It’s being misplaced seems to suggest that it’s been universally accepted that its no big deal (sic). Its is a possessive pronoun (of itself), It’s is a contraction of ‘It is’.

Just because they look alike and sound the same doesn’t mean your intention is clearly understood when you disregard their true meaning. “The lion licked it’s paw” doesn’t make any sense because what you are really saying is “The lion licked it is paw”. This might seem pedantic (I know there are those who say ‘jeesh, forgetaboutit’) but you wouldn’t dare omitting the correct apostrophe for a person’s name - Michael’s, not Michaels; or a word where an apostrophe exclusion would just seem odd, and wrong (isnt, theyre, cant - isn’t, they’re, can’t).

“A rye smile”: As in, someone gives a wry smile. I have yet to read someone taking a bite out of a wholemeal sandwich and then giving a rye smile; that would be fine. But rye smiles pop up quite frequently. Maybe the characters have drunk too much whiskey.

“Clearly drunk / clearly smitten / clearly this guy mean’s business”. Oh yeah, why is it so clear? Show it to us, buster, don’t use lazy shortcuts.

Everyone uses ‘clearly’ in their scripts so why not be a bit more vivid and evocative in yours, and command the reader’s attention with a distinctive style?

I’ll have a think about other stock phrases and mistakes, but if other readers out there have their own pet-hates and observations, feel free to share.


James Moran said...

I use "clearly" all the time, it's one of my worst habits. I try to use it when it's something that would be obvious on screen but not on the page. But I still use it too much. No excuse for its/their though, very naughty.

And for those who say it shouldn't matter, well, it *does* matter. You don't hand in a series of Polaroids of people telling the story in semaphore, instead of a script, and say hey, what does it matter, as long as people understand...

Lucy said...

If I read the line, "This isn't a movie, this is real life!" in a script JUST ONE MORE TIME I will pluck out my eyes.

PS. Still not stalking you James.

Danny Stack said...

I forgot about 'a steaming cup of coffee'. This seems to be writers favourite way to describe their beloved cup of joe. 'A scalding cup of coffee' is better, but really, on screen, who cares about a cup of coffee, unless Keyser Soze is talking about it in D'Usual Suspects.

James Moran said...


DAVE, a tough, ex-marine, with 3 ex-wives and a mortgage he can't afford, sips from a steaming cup of coffee. Clearly, the heat from Daves cup doesnt bother him. Its because thi's is real life, not a movie.

Lucy said...

Other particular faves:

Weather (instead of "whether")
Effect (instead of "affect" or vice versa)
Egnore (this is actually "ignore", this one totally foxed me when I first saw it! Have unfortunately seen it LOTS now!)

Stephen Gallagher said...

I know some people resent having to get such detail right ("I'm bareing ((sic)) my soul here and you're looking at my grammar?") but the simple fact is, if you get it wrong, you look thick.

My favourite howler is the line, "What's that supposed to mean?"

And in publishing, I once received a marked-up copy of my own manuscript beginning with the copy-editor's words, "I read this, in places with baited breath"...

And her subsequent corrections of my text had to be seen to be believed.

Lucy said...

Which one! Which one!

Robin Kelly said...

'"My favourite howler is the line, "What's that supposed to mean?"'

I understand why that is a howler of course, but could you explain for other people who may not be as bright as me.

The Writer said...

My pet peeve?


Screenwriters always use them incorrectly. It's either... Or like...this? When it should be ... like that.

Space dot dot dot space. Always!

The Writer said...

Hmm, now you got me thinking ... I cannot stand when characters say (with no hint of irony):

Fucking A.

Jesus H. Christ.

Fuck me.

Those three bug the shite out of me.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Danny, my friend, but I gotta disagree with you on that one. 'A steaming cup of coffee' is something visual that an audience can see; 'a scalding cup of coffee' is something that we can only conjecture over. Would it scald if the character spilt it over their arm? Probably, but I'm not seeing it ...

Hope said...

Robin said:

"My favourite howler is the line, "What's that supposed to mean?"'

I understand why that is a howler of course, but could you explain for other people who may not be as bright as me.

Like me...
Can someone explain... please?

Tim Clague said...

Rye and wry - who would do that? Or is it 'whom would do that?'