E-mediate Notes 2002

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...to be continued

These are a series of thoughts and quotations intended to get you thinking about various aspects of modern life relating to media and cultural issues. Hence quotes about economics and English language as well as about advertising and film. Use and enjoy.

Designs on your time: advertising in the 1990s

The invisible purchaser

Since Roland Barthes we have become accustomed to looking at advertisements as embodying the myths of our society: instead of Zeus and Venus we have the powerful father, the busy but competent mother, the eager young woman, the mischievous child: all healed, all made better -- made happy -- by shopping and consumption. However, I do not remember Barthes remarking on the notable rarity of the most characteristic experience of modern consumers: paying out their money and budgeting. It is seen when advertisers want to emphasize savings but not much elsewhere.

High tech, low demands

The huge resources and talent poured into advertising are often considered shocking (to puritanical critics) rather than part of the way in which advertising communicates and "educates" its consumers into consumption. Michael Arlen devoted a book to the making of a 30-second commercial for a telephone company with the slogan "Reach out and touch someone". Misleading metaphors are a standard device of advertising agencies. Telephones today seem plagued by junk calls. They often represent an excuse not to see someone in so far as they are not taken for granted through their ability to contact someone without having to make an emotional choice. But that is not the major point, which is that the deployment of all these expensive resources has a function and purpose. If the technology is devoted to producing cutting-edge or rarely seen effects, the banality of the message is more acceptable. Readers of texts, in the semiological jargon, will more readily accept stereotyping and more obvious propaganda if the technological means used to put across this conventionality is appropriately heightened. Many viewers, and certainly journalists, were mesmerized by the films of "smart weapons" devoted to destroying cities in Iraq and Serbia. And John Fiske has made a useful investigation of the concept of redundancy related to popular culture. See: John Fiske (1990) Introduction to Communication Studies (2nd edition), Routledge ISBN 0 415 04672-6.


Hollywood is often a good guide to what is not true about the lives of its audiences. In Eddie Murphy's cop movies, his character Axel Foley orders white colleagues around, shows skepticism of the competence of other officers, and chases a hostage-taker across San Francisco. The action stunts are ludicrous in terms of realism, exciting for their over-the-top athletics (spectacle is a critically much neglected aspect of the appeal of Hollywood films), but the spectacular can also be seen as a way of making acceptable the lie about the lives of blacks and police in society. In real life, not many blacks can treat their white counterparts dismissively. Their professional views are routinely dismissed (when they insist on being treated as blacks rather than colleagues, as so many Hollywood films suggest in a strange reinforcement of stereotyping), while no police officer would be so determined a loner and stay long on the force as Dirty Harry and Axel Foley suggest.

Epiphanies in economics

Economics and nations

Nations is exactly not what Adam Smith's famous work is about. "Classical political economy, and notably Adam Smith's, had been formulated as a critique of the 'mercantile system', i.e. of precisely the system in which governments treated national economies as ensembles to be developed by state effort and policy. Free trade and the free market were directed precisely against this concept of national economic development, which Smith thought he had demonstrated to be counter-productive. Economic theory was thus elaborated uniquely on the basis of individual units of enterprise -- persons or firms -- rationally maximizing their gains and minimizing their losses in a market which had no specific spatial extension. At the limit it was, and could not but be, the world markets. While Smith was far from opposed to certain functions of government which were relevant to the economy, so far as the general theory of economic growth was concerned, it had no place for the nation, or any collectivity larger than the firm, which, incidentally, it did not bother to investigate much.

"Thus J.E. Cairnes, at the peak of the liberal era, even spent ten pages seriously considering the proposition that a theory of international trade was unnecessary, as distinct from any other trade between individuals. He concluded that, while international transactions were undoubtedly becoming steadily easier, there was still enough frictions left to justify sepearate consideration of the problem of trade between states.[...] Conversely, John Rae wrote his 1834 book specifically to demonstrate against Smith that individual and national interests were not identical, i.e. that the principles that guided the individual's pursuit of self-interest did not necessarily maximize the wealth of the nation. [...] Those who refused to take to Smith unconditionally were not to be neglected, but their economic theories could not compete with the classical school. The term 'national economy' only appears in Palgraves Dictionary of Political Economy in connection with German economic theory. The term 'nation' itself had disappeared from the equivalent French work of the 1890s." -- E. J. Hobsbawm (1990) Nations and Nationalism Since 1780, Canto 1991, ISBN 0-521-43961-2, p26-27.

Oddities of English

Are these phrases singular or plural? Row upon row, ship after ship, one or more, more than one (singular), here is/are (a university town, students and professors) -- all from Vallins (1955), p15. Likewise: "There is pansies, that's for thoughts" (Ophelia in Hamlet), "there are 10 minutes to go" (formal), "there's 10 minutes left" (colloquial) -- Vallins (1955), p15-16.

"A quarter of it is", "a quarter of them are"-- Vallins (1955), p16-17.

"'Each proclaims his' observes the letter of the law; 'each proclaim their' is condoned if not entirely accepted, by modern usage" -- Vallins (1955), p17.

"Mr Roger Livesey and Miss Ursula Jeans are neither of them ideally cast" -- "The subject is double and the verb (are cast) correctly plural. -- Vallins (1955), p17.

How about this?: "It is in moments like this that Mr Spender, rather than his victims, seems to be the Golden Ass" -- Vallins (1955), p19.

This one always catches me: "Fanny Burney [] is one of the most entertaining writers-down of dialogue who has ever lived." (Vallins, 1995, p20)

David Crystal (1984) points out:

"several nouns have a singular and no plural.

several more have a plural and no singular.

there are others that look singular but are really plural.

and others still that look plural but are really singular." (p.69 -- the lack of capitals is his usage)

His examples:

of singulars with no regular plurals: gold, silver, music, dirt: he does note "I got two golds", but points out that names of people and places do not appear in the plural (p.69).

Plurals not often met in the singular include: amends, banns, binoculars, glasses, greens (as in "eat your greens"), Hebrides, jeans, oats, outskirts, pants, pliers, premises, pyjamas, remains, scissors, thanks (p.70,71).

Nouns that look singular but are plural include: cattle, gentry, police, vermin (p.71). Many more look plural but are almost exclusively singular: athletics, billiards, gymnastics, news (p.72).

Other nouns can be both: acoustics, dominoes, ethics, mathematics, people, politics, statistics, youth (p.71-2). But what, Crystal asks, about measles? Do we say measles is a cruel disease but measles are horrid? (p.73). It's a puzzle only if you think the same word must be always singular or plural if it means the same thing.

Crystal also notes that "Look at those lovely ducks" would be used by someone in quite different circumstances from "Look at those lovely duck" (a professional, hunter or naturalist). But that won't help you with fish. Will oil harm the fish and will oil harm the fishes are both OK, and it would require quite of bit of head-scratching to find a difference in meaning or association between them. Certainly not enough to make it worth worrying about (p.74).

More seriously, government causes similar problems. Crystal approves: "The government is behind the times" and "the government are sticking together on this issue" but the reverse sounds just as acceptable. His (logical) view is that whether you use one or the other depends on whether the emphasis is on the government as a united force or as a collection of individuals. His argument seems to make more sense with regard to orchestra: "The orchestra is good tonight" and "the orchestra have all gone home" does seem (in the second usage) to more rational (p.76).

The worst problem is with data. If you say data is, people will think you are ignorant. If you say data are, you can sound pedantic. Crystal (p.77) advises: "What sort of linguistic image of yourself do you want to convey?" [if you are not sure] avoid the issue, and use a different term" (p.79). It's advice that's good for many English problems.

Difficult to do though with "media". I can only give you a collection of prescriptions, starting with the one I favour: "In the later 20c, the usage has been increasingly perceived independently of the singular medium, and is often construed with a singular verb, like data." -- McArthur (1992:647). Microsoft tells its writers: "Follow conservative practice and use medium, not media, as a singular subject" (Microsoft 1995:136). Roy H. Copperud, in the most useful book on American usage, declares: "Medias is incorrect, and so is media used as a singular [...] this is the view of four critics and American Heritage. Evans, however, finds medias acceptable. Flesch and Webster recognize media as a singular but Random House does not; none recognizes medias. Medias is a standard alternative plural form though usually applied in connection with spiritualism" [Nice one, Roy] -- Copperud (1980:240). So my only comment has to be: who says so? Fowler and Gowers record that chickenpox and smallpox were originally plural (1965:456) . They also record "sons-in-law" but "knock-outs" through their rule is to attach the plural -s to the noun in a compound or the significant noun (1965:456). Likewise, they distinguish between "two gin-and-tonics" and "two gins-and-French" (ibid), but note several problems with deciding on plurals that have "General" in their compound forms such as "Attorney General", "Major General", "Governor General" and "Postmaster General". Try to guess which is write. And they find it hard to lay down the law about "court martials" and "poet laureates" compared to the more correct "courts martial" and "poets laureate" (my suggestion would be to hyphenate the first form if you feel you need to make a choice).


Roy H. Copperud (1980) American Usage and Style: the consensus, Van Nostrand ISBN 0-442-21630-0.

David Crystal (1984) Who Cares About English Usage?, Penguin ISBN 0-14-008315-4.

H.W.Fowler and Sir Ernest Gowers (1965) Fowler's Modern English Usage/A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-281389-7.

Tom McArthur (1992) The Oxford Companion to the English Language, Oxford ISBN 0-19-214183-X.

Microsoft (1995) The Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications, Microsoft Press ISBN 1-55615-939-0.

Modern Humanities Research Association (1971,1991) MHRA Style Book (fourth edition) ISBN 0 947623 39 6.

G.H. Vallins (1951) Good English, Pan (162).

G.H. Vallins (1955) Better English, Pan 1961(G166).

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