Another one of those "What's the word for X" comments
November 3, 2008 8:26 PM   Subscribe

Is there a word for when an actor emphasizes a sentence incorrectly?

For instance the other day I was watching something and someone was trying to give encouragement to someone else. The line was.

"It's not what you say. It's what you do."

It seemed obvious to me that the emphasis should have been on "say" and "do", but the actor chose to emphasis "what" and "do" which didn't make sense. For some reason I always seem to notice this and it always makes me annoyed at the director (who should catch those things)

I was thinking there should be a word for it.

So if there isn't a word already, I'm going to make one up.
posted by Bonzai to Media & Arts (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
"Bad choice?" "bad line reading?"

Strictly speaking, the actor IS the character while he's playing him, so however he says it is how the character would say it, and thus can't really be "wrong." If the director starts giving the actor line readings ("no, say it like THIS") rather than actual direction, then the actor can't do anything but robotically repeat what the director told him, and all the work he (hopefully) did becoming the character is lost. Which is why good directors don't do that unless the reading is really egregious.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:00 PM on November 3, 2008

"Christopher Walken"?
posted by misterbrandt at 9:02 PM on November 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

"Parrot" comes close. Speaking without understanding can result in misplaced emphasis.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:09 PM on November 3, 2008

I always associate this phenomenon with a friend who knew an actress who, despite substantial and repeated coaching, could not stop saying the seemingly common phrase "Still waters run deep" as "Still, waters run deep." It's not the most egregious example (in fact, it makes some amount of sense), but it never fails to give me a chuckle. I do like "Walkenism" though--Brandt's hit it on the head. Misdelivery would fit in a pinch, though.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:20 PM on November 3, 2008

Ken Jennings doesn't know if there's a word for it. There's some speculation on his message boards but no one seems to have a definitive answer there.
posted by scission at 9:20 PM on November 3, 2008

I like "injuly" for this. "In July" emphasized like injury, not unduly, from Orson Welles. "My, that was a gruesome injuly."
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:25 PM on November 3, 2008

It's not incorrect per se because it is actually a kind of mixed metaphor. They are emphasizing, "It's not what you say," as if they were going to continue, "it's how you say it." Then they turn a corner and use a different "It's not what you say" aphorism. C'est la vie.
posted by rhizome at 9:34 PM on November 3, 2008

In a previous thread, grumblebee called them "bad operatives", and I think a couple other people further down offered names, too.
posted by equalpants at 9:36 PM on November 3, 2008

Grumblebee made a rather significant askme post about this very question.
posted by 517 at 9:36 PM on November 3, 2008

There is a subcategory of Sociolinguistics called Poetics, which focuses on looking at narrative structure, patterning, intonation, etc. and how that correlates with meaning, intent and other aspects of communication. In doing poetic analyses, this apparent correlation mismatch between emphasis and semantic/syntactic content would be something to look at. For example, in the speech you mentioned above, "say" and "do" are contrastive, they have the same lexical function in the sentence, and they are located at the same place in their respective makes sense that the intonational patterning for these two clauses would match, and reinforce each other. This organization gives us all sorts of subtle cues as to how to parse the sentence and what's important. When people say things with unexpected or seemingly unorganized structure (be it through emphasis, whatever) we either think it interesting and beautiful, jarring and incoherent, or somewhere in between.

I'm sure there's a word for the actual feature of this misaligned intonation pattern, but I don't know what it is. Sorry.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:44 PM on November 3, 2008

Best answer: Yeah, in drama school they talk about "operative words," and when I'm directing trained actors, I can say, "I think you should choose a different operative" and they'll know what I mean. But I'm not sure why we need that term. "Emphasis" works just as well and more people understand what it.

I'm obsessed with bad operatives/bad emphasis -- not because I want to be. I can't NOT notice them. I hear them all the time on TV and in movies. My wife gets tired of me pointing them out, but to me they're like a singer singing off key. They grate. They sounds so deeply wrong, it amazes me that more people don't notice them. (I think people -- audiences and actors -- don't notice them because, unlike in the past, most people don't study logic and rhetoric in school. I so wish they did.)

Usually, bad operatives are a sign that the actor doesn't understand (or hasn't paid attention to) the logic of what he's saying. He probably understands the individual phrases he's saying, but he doesn't understand how phrase A relates to phrase B.

Most often, I hear this with Thesis/Antithesis passages. Thesis/Antithesis (or TA as I write in my script notes) is an extremely common rhetorical device in which the speaker compares opposites: a thesis and its anti-thesis. The most famous example is To be (thesis) or not to be (antithesis).

Almost always, in a TA, you should emphasize the opposites. By "you should," I mean that's what you would almost definitely do (without consciously thinking about it) if you were speaking your own words instead of speaking scripted lines. People don't make bad operative choices when they're speaking casually. Bad operatives are bad because -- in addition to making the logic of the passage confusing -- they are psychologically false.

Example: No one makes pie like George. He chooses the best-quality fruit and lovingly kneads the dough. While the pie is baking, he doesn't start doing something else. No! He constantly monitors the process, continually opening the oven and checking to see if the pie is overdone or underdone. On the other hand, Charlie makes terrible pies.

If I gave this speech to ten actors, a third of them would emphasize "pies" in the last sentence: On the other hand, Charlie makes terrible pies. That's a really weird choice (but they'd make it because there's this odd myth floating around that you should emphasize the last word in the sentence), because if you emphasize "pies," it sounds as if "pies" is new information, as if they'd never come up before. That would be true if the speech ran as follows:

No one makes cakes like George.... On the other hand, he makes terrible pies.

But that's not the speech. In the actual speech, pies are established in the first sentence. The TA logic of the actual speech is that George makes great pies while Charlie makes terrible ones.

There isn't always one right way to place emphasis. But there are usually better and worse choices. Often there's a best choice. And there are definitely wrong choices.

(That last paragraph should read: There isn't always one right way to place emphasis. But there are usually better and worse choices. Many wrongheaded actors would emphasize "choices" in the last sentence, as if they'd been previously talking about something besides choices, as in "There are seldom bad people, but there are always bad choices." Incidentally, in that example, I think "seldom" and "always" would also work as operatives.)

Strictly speaking, the actor IS the character while he's playing him, so however he says it is how the character would say it, and thus can't really be "wrong." If the director starts giving the actor line readings ("no, say it like THIS") rather than actual direction, then the actor can't do anything but robotically repeat what the director told him, and all the work he (hopefully) did becoming the character is lost. Which is why good directors don't do that unless the reading is really egregious.

I sympathize with that sentiment, but I disagree. Emphasis can be wrong, because -- as I said -- it can be psychologically false. When character psychology is false, it has the same effect as when a bit of stage combat is false. If a slap looks fake, it reminds the audience that they're watching artifice instead of reality, and they're taken out of the story ("That looked fake.") They're also taken out of the story if emphasis is wrong ("That doesn't sound right.")

Unless the goal of the production is some sort of Brechtian alienation, its best if audiences are engulfed in the story, not aloof from it thinking about whether or not an actor made a bad choice.

That's why it bothers me so much when I'm watching TV and I hear a bad operative. I'm all wrapped up in the story, desperately worried about Frodo, and then all of the sudden I start thinking about how Elijah Wood said something in a stupid way. I don't want to think about the actor and how its all make believe. I want to believe it's real. (Even if a Brechtian production, the goal should be controlled alienation, not haphazard distancing via dumb choices.)

Good directors can guide actors towards correct emphasis without giving them line readings. I agree that lines will most-likely be psychologically true if they come organically from the actor (as opposed to when the actor parrots something he's been shown). But all sorts of actions start out clunky. That's why you rehearse. A big part of what rehearsal is about is actors gradually taking ownership of their actions.

Good directors rarely give line readings. Instead, when there's an emphasis problem, they discuss the conversational logic with the actor until the actor sees the point of the passage and how the individual sentences and phrases relate to each other.
posted by grumblebee at 4:16 AM on November 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I think it's just called bad acting.
posted by gjc at 4:57 AM on November 4, 2008

We call it putting the emPHAsis on the wrong sylLABle .
posted by MrMoonPie at 5:55 AM on November 4, 2008

I realize you're making a joke, MrMoonPie, but in my experience, problems rarely occur on the syllable level. The problem is usually on the word level.

Careless actors would say...

I realize you're making a joke, MrMoonPie, but in my experience, problems rarely occur on the syllable level. The problem is usually on the word level.

Of course, it should be...

I realize you're making a joke, MrMoonPie, but in my experience, problems rarely occur on the syllable level. The problem is usually on the word level.
posted by grumblebee at 6:16 AM on November 4, 2008

Seconding MrMoonPie. emPHAsis on the wrong syLABle.
posted by desuetude at 6:18 AM on November 4, 2008

posted by gjc at 6:59 AM on November 4, 2008

Yeah, I think it's just called bad acting.

Well, maybe it's a moment of bad acting, but lots of really good actors have such moments. I've heard Sam Waterston and Glenn Close use bad emphasis. Actors speak a lot of lines and it's easy to miss the logic now and then. It's a blunder, but it's an understandable one. It's (obviously) a major issue for me, so when I work with actors, I'm a stickler about it. But other directors -- some of whom are better directors than I am -- may not care as deeply about this issue as I do (maybe they're more focused on visuals), so in their productions there will likely be more lapses.

Also, when it comes to film, sometimes an editor is aware of blunders, but he can only work with the footage he's given. He may have to choose between the take with Sam Waterston blundering the operative and the one where the boom mic enters the shot.

I just closed a production of Shakespeare's "Cymbeline," and one of the actresses -- a really good, smart actress I've worked with for over ten years -- got a bad operative stuck in her head. I explained the logic. She agreed with me. But every time she played the speech, she played it with the same bad emphasis. I wasn't a good enough director to figure out a way to help her. So the blunder grated on me every night.

In case you're interested, here's the problem area: the actress was playing a jailer talking to a prisoner on death row. Below, I've pasted the dialogue and bolded the operatives I would have liked her to use.

JAILER. Come, sir, are you ready for death?

PRISONER. Overroasted rather; ready long ago.

JAILER. Hanging is the word, sir. If you be ready for that, you are well cook'd.

PRISONER. So if I prove a good repast to the spectators, the dish pays the shot.

... [ cut ] ...

[ Enter a Messenger. ]

MESSENGER. Knock off his manacles, bring your prisoner to the King.

PRISONER. Thou bring'st good news, I am call'd to be made free.

JAILER. I'll be hang'd then.

The point here is that he's supposed to be hanged, but when the messenger comes, saying that he's been pardoned, the jailer thinks that she will be hanged instead. Note (if you agree with my operatives) how many lines are in-between the thesis and the antithesis (and I cut about half a page of dialogue to make this post shorter!). That's often the tricky part. The logic/rhetoric in "to be or not to be" is simple, because the thesis and antithesis are so close together. Often, that's not the case.

What the actress said was, "I'll be hanged then." As if someone had said, "Guess what, they're not going to shoot you." Oh, they're not going to shoot me? Well, I'll be hanged then.

But the TA wasn't about which way someone was going to be killed. It was about who would be killed. But even after I and the actress agreed about this, she couldn't stop herself from saying making the bad operative choice.
posted by grumblebee at 7:03 AM on November 4, 2008

The kind of mis-emphasis we're discussing is used intentionally by hypno-therapists, who progressively obscure the meaning of what they are saying, while still speaking load and clear, and this creates a lull in attention that can be used to insert suggestions.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:08 AM on November 4, 2008

It's not always bad acting, it can just be non-naturalist. Grumblebee's right that such things never occur in real life. But then again, neither does Bullet-Time and some films use that to good effect. It's another tool in the box for plays and films. Some actors use off-kilter line readings as part of their schtick or appeal. Walken is a great example. For a gentler example, Owen Wilson can add personality to an otherwise fairly rote line with his slightly peculiar emphasis.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 9:07 AM on November 4, 2008

I think this is a common misunderstanding about Walken. I've never heard him use a misplaced operator. I HAVE heard him use plenty of stranger emphasis. There's a difference. He seems to be smart enough to use strange emphasis ONLY when it doesn't violate the rhetoric and logic of what he's saying. That's a really special, unique skill (though my guess is that most of it is unconscious -- he's just gifted.)

I also worry a bit about "it can just be non-naturalistic." In a very literal way, I agree with you. ANYTHING can be a useful tool. But one has to be very careful about not letting shoddy work be an excused as "experimental" or "non-traditional." If you go that route, anything can be excused that way? Why did the actor forget his lines? No! He was being non-traditional.

If an actor told me he was using a bad operative to do something non-traditional or original or creative, I'd be upset and try to steer him towards a more traditional result. IF, on the other hand, he made a clear argument, explaining to me how his odd choice furthered the goal of our specific production, I would listen closely and consider whether or not he was right.

It's always sad to me that so many amateurs are attracted to non-traditional modes. I think such modes -- if you do them well (meaning not just saying anything goes) -- are MUCH harder than working inside some kind of traditional framework. I've been directing for 20 years, and I don't think I'm ready to work "non-traditionally."
posted by grumblebee at 9:45 AM on November 4, 2008

One of the most egregious examples of this I've seen was when I heard Bob Vila endorsing a heat pump, and he kept saying "air conditioning" as "air CONDITIONING" rather than "AIR conditioning." It was particularly grating because, you know, it's home improvement guru Bob Vila, you'd think he'd know how to emphasize "air conditioning."
posted by kindall at 11:47 AM on November 4, 2008

I don't know what it's actually called, but I call it 'those apples': A drama teacher I had in junior high was telling me about auditions he'd held for a play where the actors had to say the line "How do you like those apples," and they all messed up the emphasis. They all said, "How do you like those apples?"
posted by 8dot3 at 12:03 PM on November 4, 2008

kindall, who says it should be said "AIR conditioning?"
posted by MonsieurBon at 3:35 PM on November 4, 2008

It's simple.

1) Think of all the times you have heard someone say "air conditioning."
2) Note which word they accented.

posted by kindall at 3:40 PM on November 4, 2008

Benny Hill (therefore, all is read in a broad british accent):

Busty Actress: "What is this thing called, love?"

Director: "No, no. It's 'What is this thing called love?"

Seconding the bad acting vote.
posted by theroadahead at 12:38 AM on November 5, 2008

WWE wrestling on The Score in Canada is often preceded by the announced warning "The following may be inappropriate for some VIEWERS" rather than "The following may be inappropriate for SOME viewers." It makes no sense. Everyone watching is a viewer, but only some of them might find the show inappropriate.

(But then, if one is overly bothered by logical inconsistencies, one probably shouldn't be watching professional wrestling.)
posted by heffalump at 8:56 AM on November 5, 2008

Response by poster: My questioned never showed up in my Recent Activity tab so I thought the server ate it. Luckily I checked my MeMail today.

Thanks for the great responses, if Ken Jennings wants to coin the word then I'll defer to him. I'm just glad to find out I'm not the only one who hates these mistakes.

I still hate Kim Katrall for an insane line reading she made in that Star Trek movie where she played a Vulcan. I can't even remember the line just the hate.
posted by Bonzai at 8:47 AM on November 8, 2008

From the generally wonderful Canadian series "Slings and Arrows," season one, episode one:

Oliver: You're obsessing about the details.
Ellen: When did you stop caring about the DETAILS, Oliver?

Her emphasis implied that Oliver had never said the word "details," which is wrong*. It's the last word in his sentence.

Her emphasis would have worked if the dialogue had run like this:

Oliver: I just can't bring myself to care about the placement of a chair or the choice of music.
Helen: When did you stop caring about the DETAILS, Oliver?

In that case, Ellen's emphasis would add new information. She would be pointing out that the things Oliver so blithely dismissed were the all-important DETAILS. As it actually goes, Oliver clearly already knows he's talking about the details. So the emphasis should go like this...

Oliver: You're obsessing about the details.
Ellen: When did YOU stop caring about the details, Oliver?

It also would have worked if she'd emphasized "stop." ("Caring" would be wrong, because he said "obsessing," which is basically the same thing. "When" would be an odd choice, because he's talking about her. If she had emphasized "when," she would have switched the subject to him without acknowledging that she was doing so. This is one of the reasons why I think "you" is such a strong choice. It not only bolsters the Thesis/Antithesis structure; it also signals that she's changing the subject. "Did" is wrong for the same reason "when" is wrong. "About" and "the" are wrong for the same reason "details" is wrong: Oliver has already said "about the details." She could also emphasize "Oliver," as people sometimes do when they're angry and sarcastic.)

Notice that her mistaken emphasis (if you agree with me that she made a mistake) is almost the last word of the sentence. I usually find than when actors screw up emphasis, they mistakenly emphasize the last word (or one of the last words) of the sentence, rather than some earlier word they should emphasize. I suspect this is because they are taught that writers often move key words to end positions.

If you just take Ellen's sentence by itself, extracting it from the dialogue...

When did you stop caring about the details, Oliver?

... there's no correct emphasis choice, but "details" is a strong one. So actors miss the right emphasis because (a) they are mindlessly following a bit of dogma about world placement; and (b) because they are looking at their line in isolation, rather than seeing it as part of a conversation with a role to play in conversation-spanning logic.

There is a natural rhythm to the sentence when you say it in isolation, and that rhythm favors "details," which is another reason she might have emphasized that word. To make the conversational logic correct, you actually have to force some less natural-sounding emphasis. This may be a sign of bad writing. Maybe the dialogue should have gone something like this...

Oliver: You're obsessing about the details.
Ellen: Yes, I am. As I was taught to do by you!

But unless the actress wants to rewrite the line, she needs to make what's in the script work psychologically and logically.

The MAIN role emphasis should have is to help clarify conversational logic. And actor is only free to move emphasis anywhere when emphasis is not needed to support a logical/rhetorical structure. In those rare cases, I would agree that endings are often strong positions.

I would strongly disagree that the actress who plays Ellen is a bad actress. She's a wonderful actress who had a tiny lapse in one of her many scenes. The fact that I think she's good does not alter the fact that I find her lapse extremely irritating. I was watching the show for the first time ever the other night, and I was totally wrapped up in it. When she suddenly screwed up the emphasis, it burst the bubble for me.

* There is a way should could have made "details" work as an operative. She could have put it in verbal quotation marks, e.g. air quotes. She didn't do this. She just emphasized the word in a normal way. But if you're playing a scene and you really want to emphasize a word that goes against the grain of logic, air quotes is one trick you can try:

Oliver: You're obsessing about the details.
Ellen: When did you stop caring about the "details", Oliver?

This works because one of the things air quotes does (aside from turning an innocent sentence into a sarcastic one) is to point to the fact that the quoted word or phrase was just used by the other person. It implies "as you just said."

posted by grumblebee at 12:18 PM on November 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

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