Here’s an article from The Spectator about the plural of ‘referendum’ being ‘referendums’. I agree.

We didn’t adopt Latin grammar ‘holus bolus’ (that’s an archaic term from North America), so shouldn’t be imposing rules that apply to Latin but sound silly in English. The split infinitive is a case in point. The rule works for Latin verbs but is not necessary for English. If ‘to boldly go’ sounds better than ‘to go boldly’, split that infinitive (‘to go’). Here’s what the Oxford Dictionary people have to say on the matter.

Back to referendums: in this case, Dot Wordsworth in The Specator argues that even according to Latin rules there can be no referenda.

The Oxford Comma

oxford comma

In my classes, I am quite often asked about the Oxford comma. When the question comes, others ask what on earth is that? The Oxford comma, because it was traditionally used at Oxford University Press, is also known as the serial comma and comes before the penultimate item in a list:

The wombat eats shoots, roots, and leaves.

I don’t think you need this comma. It might even cause some confusion, suggesting that the word ‘leaves’ is a verb rather than another item the wombat eats.

In Australia, most of us were taught NEVER use a comma before ‘and’; in other words, don’t use the Oxford comma. But what if the wombat eats shoots and roots, and also eats a different category of foods like bananas and mangoes? Then a comma might help:

In captivity, the wombat eats shoots and roots, and bananas and mangoes.

In the United States the Oxford comma is alive and well. Nearly every list I saw on a six-week trip across the continent contained a comma before the ‘and’ at the end of a list. This prevalence surprised me, for in so many other ways – take spelling and pronunciation – the Americans do not emulate Oxford English. A poll conducted in 2014 asked 1,129 Americans which sentence they thought was grammatically correct:

It’s important for a person to be honest, kind and loyal.


It’s important for a person to be honest, kind, and loyal.

Fifty-seven per cent were for the Oxford comma. As the authors of the poll reported the split in the result probably originates at school where grammar was taught as a set of incontrovertible rules: don’t start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’; never use a comma before ‘and’, etc..

For me there’s only one rule: use punctuation to aid clarity. So when the Oxford comma helps, go ahead and use it, and when it doesn’t, save yourself a keystroke.



Multilingualism matters

Welcome_multilingual_Guernsey_tourismOn 27 April 2016 I attended a public hearing of the House of Representative’s Standing Committee on Education and Employment. It was part of the committee’s inquiry into innovation and creativity: workforce for the new economy . When I introduced myself as, inter alia, a former diplomat, I was greeted with a German ‘sehr gut’ and Russian ‘здравствуйте’! That was heartening though unfortunately we didn’t get to talking about languages, which I argue are part of the skills our workforce needs. Without them, monolingual Australians will be less competitive in the global market place.

As the Economist noted in 2014: ‘Oil economies aside, the top 10 [richest economies] includes countries where trilingualism is typical, like Luxembourg, Switzerland and Singapore, and small countries like the Scandinavian ones, where English knowledge is excellent.’  The article quotes a  Cardiff Business School study, which estimated the lack of foreign-language proficiency in Britain costs the economy £48 billion  or 3.5% of GDP each year.

In a more recent column in the same publication Johnson (a must-read for anyone interested in language) shows that those who negotiate in a foreign language gain added advantages because they think in a more utilitarian, less emotional way. They can also confer privately in their own language. Moreover, using another language is reminder that we don’t all see the world the same way, no bad thing when you are wanting to close a deal.

Cultural diversity and understanding  are becoming valued as an important part of any organisational structure, not just in businesses working in the international arena. In Australia, 16.7 per cent of Australian workers identify as Asian. Yet, according to the Diversity Council of Australia, only 17 per cent of people with Asian backgrounds strongly agree that their organisation uses their Asia capabilities very well.

So an easy step toward  increasing our ability to engage with Asia is to take much more advantage of the talent we have among those with Asian heritage. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for native English speakers to rest on their laurels. Yet, when it comes to Chinese language that certainly seems to be what’s happening. Dr Jane Orton writes that the current number of proficient adult speakers of Chinese in Australia of non-Chinese background is estimated to be 130 at most; and half of those are already over 55 years of age. In 2015 there were just 400 year 12 students of Chinese as a second language. (See also Orton’s  Building Chinese Language Capacity in Australia just published by the Australia-China Relations Institute.)

Goodness knows how we are going to greet the two million visitors the government hopes will come to Australia during the 2017 Australia-China Year of Tourism!

Oh, and if the economics of this don’t matter so much to you, remember: learning a language is good for brain function too.

Terrorism and words: a reality-check on Isis


injuries-from-furniture-tip-over-accidentsIf truth is the first casualty of war, common sense is the first victim of terrorism.

There are no better examples than the hyper-ventilated assertions which followed the recent bombings in Brussels. France’s President Hollande declared that ‘all of Europe has been hit’. UK Prime Minister David Cameron warned that his country faced ‘a very real threat’. Here, Malcolm Turnbull ticked off the Europeans for their sloppy security. Prominent journalist Greg Sheridan, channelling Donald Trump’s absurdity that ‘Belgium and France are literally disintegrating’, wrote that the attacks represented a ‘damn [sic] burst’ which left the ‘structures of the world … trembling’.

If we didn’t know better we might easily mistake messrs Hollande, Cameron, Turnbull and Sheridan and regrettably many others as Isis recruiting agents. Their comments are a dream for the organisation’s propagandists. Worse, they paint a picture of the threat from Isis that is not borne out by the reality.

Isis terror threatens individual safety. Does it really threaten the security of European or Western states more broadly? There is a vital difference between the two ‘s’ words. Isis is a truly appalling outfit which commits heinous deeds. It has around 30,000 fighters and controls large tracts in Iraq and Syria. But without a navy, without an air force, how exactly does that translate into threat potent enough to make ‘the world’ tremble?

Fortunately, there is still wise counsel to be had. President Obama’s 2016 State-of-the-Union address should be required reading for all those prone to excitability:

… over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands. Masses of fighters on the back of pickup trucks and twisted souls plotting in apartments or garages pose an enormous danger to civilians and must be stopped. But they do not threaten our national existence. That’s the story ISIL wants to tell; that’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit.

Some of the best commentary on Brussels came from The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins. The political and media over-reaction, he wrote, ‘converted a squalid psychopathological act into a warrior-evoking, population-terrifying, policy-changing event’. It also illuminated an appalling double-standard given that the ‘atrocities in Brussels happen almost daily on the streets of Baghdad, Aleppo and Damascus’.

For Americans, and quite possibly many others in the ‘trembling’ West, household furniture poses at least as great a danger as terrorism. Micah Zenko  from the reputable Council on Foreign Relations has written that in the decade after 9/11 an average of 29 Americans were killed each year in terrorist attacks. Figures compiled by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission showed that about the same number were crushed to death each year by unstable television sets and furniture.

Unwelcome news for the hyper-ventilators; important perspective for everyone else.

Gobbled-up articles

A-an-the-definite-indefinite-article-testI’m just back from Islamabad, where I trained several enthusiastic groups of Pakistani professionals. Their English was good–one introduced herself as a fan of ‘Orwellian’ English, meaning plain-speaking language not the Big Brother type. The participants’ thinking and their expertise was impressive. Perhaps their brains respond well to all the articles they ‘gobble up’, as another participant put it. I tried to help these Urdu native speakers work out when to use ‘the’ or ‘a/an’, articles that their own language doesn’t have, but which in English do matter. Proper use of the definite and indefinite article can add important information to a sentence, such as whether you want to go to the movie that wins the Oscar or any movie that’s showing right now.

One way — not infallible, because English is so complicated — to decide which article to use is to ask:

is this noun one of one or one of many?

The movie that wins the Oscar is one of one; the movie showing right now is one of many. The first movie needs a ‘the’; the second an ‘a’.

For what it’s worth, my choice for the best film is one about the power of the printed word [these two ‘the’s‘ refer to all power and all words, something that is most certainly definite] called Spotlight [no article because you can’t quantify light].



A plea for a gutted-free New Year

GuttedWith 2016 soon upon us I challenge all sportsmen, sportswomen and especially sportswriters to promise that they won’t use the term ‘gutted’ for a whole year.

Australian families have enough stress to deal with already; the threat of terrorism and falling behind in the mortgage and having to use public transport all their life. They’re stuck with that. Why inflict the linguistic and anatomical laziness of gutted upon them?

The way we’re headed, four-year-olds will soon be arriving home from pre-school to announce they came second in the colouring in competition and ‘feel gutted’. If only they could just use a word like devastated, downcast, done-in, perhaps even defeated? But even at that tender age they’ve heard far too much sports commentary and their parents, also victims, don’t know better. Otherwise they’d reach for the castor oil.

And pity the medical profession. When Wallabies star David Pocock was injured in 2013 a breathless Canberra Times reported: ‘A gutted Pocock ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament … and needs a knee reconstruction.’ The surgeon wouldn’t know where to start.

Or take the case of English cricketer, Joe Root. He hurt his hand, couldn’t play in an international Twenty-20 competition and declared that he too was gutted. He was lucky he wasn’t taken to hospital for a finger stall and end up with a new liver. Come to think of it, though, that might have encouraged him to choose his words more carefully.


Evidence versus emotion

Aristotle_Altemps_DetailAristotle identified three elements in the art of rhetoric: ethos (authority or evidence); pathos (the emotional hook, one might say); and logos (a logical argument). His point was that to win over an audience required more than the facts. How these are marshalled and how they resonate matters, as Nobel Laureate, Peter Doherty, explains in his latest book The Knowledge Wars, which I reviewed in The Weekend Australian. The art is to make sure that pathos (and, in this day and age, the pithy media statement or resort to celebrity rather than expertise) does not undermine the ethos and the logos.

‘i’ before ‘e’…

i before eEnglish spelling is hard. The language has over 1,100 different ways to spell its 44 separate sounds, with many having no relationship to pronunciation. You can blame history for this mess. English has always adopted words from other languages* — Norse, German, Latin, French to name few — but without  standard protocols on how to spell them.  There are some rules like ‘i before e except after c’ and plenty of exceptions to those rules.

In German, it’s easy: if you pronounce the combination of letters ‘e’, you spell it ‘ie’. If it sounds like ‘i’, it’s ‘ei’. So the European veal dish, named after the Austrian capital Vienna, is Wiener Schnitzel. Except in this week’s Sydney Morning Herald crossword, which I just couldn’t solve because Wiener had become Weiner, meaning the solution to the clue ‘shrivelled’ was ’emaciated’ but only if you spelled Wiener wrong.

Perhaps the lesson here is for crossword compilers to avoid foreign words though that’s hard when it comes to English. Instead, what about we all learn  another language so we can better appreciate the intricacies of  human communication…and exercise our brains without having to do the crossword.

*If you are interested, there’s a Ted-Ed talk on the Origins of English.

Editing necessities

editing‘A good editor won’t introduce errors’, declares an American editor selling her wares. It’s a good benchmark and one you’d expect an international journal to adhere to. So imagine my shock when the proofs of an article I wrote (eons ago … academic publishing works at a languorous pace) arrived with the following:

The citation for ‘Pyne (2014)’ has been changed to ‘Pyne and Hon (2014)’ to match the entry in the references list:  Pyne, C., & Hon, M. P. (2014). Embracing the new freedom: Classical values and new frontiers for Australia’s universities. Address to the Universities Australia conference, Canberra, 26 February. Retrieved October 23, 2014, from

The publishing house is located in the United Kingdom, home to our Westminster system. Their editors should be familiar with the honorifics we give our parliamentarians, in this case the Hon. Christopher Pyne, MP. But no, instead his ghost writer emerged as MP Hon.  If my editor were based in Australia, they could have referred to the Style Manual (6th edition, 2002) to find out about the use of ‘The Honourable’.

Mention of the Style Manual leads me to add my voice to those of other editors calling on the government to fund a seventh edition of the Style Manual. The current manual is a wonderful resource, produced by a group of professional editors, but is becoming outdated. According to the Institute of Professional Editors, the Department of Finance has yet to convince the government to provide funding for the new edition. Another reason for the delay is that having considered engaging an external team, the department ‘rejected this because the government would lose control over the content’.

This does not bode well for a manual that could promote plain English and consistent style across government agencies, and in turn save the public service much time and money.



Does bad English matter?

Education Minister Christopher Pyne has announced a pilot for a literacy and numeracy test for teachers in Australia to be introduced in 2016. This won’t be the solution to problems of poor grammar and spelling that abound among school and university graduates but it will perhaps help to change the mind set that bad language doesn’t matter.

Dont’ get me started on ‘organic’ food!

I have just spent a month conducting training for public servants. The day-long course includes a session on apostrophes. Yes, I am in the camp that believes in apostrophes because they add meaning and clarity and, really, are not hard to learn. I fear I have chosen the losing side. More and more people are arguing the apostrophe is not necessary .  On the Kill the Apostrophe website, the author asserts that apostrophes ‘are wasteful. Tremendous amounts of money are spent every year by businesses on proof readers, part of whose job is to put apostrophes in the “correct” place’. That really worries me, especially when I hear similar views from participants in my course. One person, who has two degrees, dismissed checking spelling and grammar as a waste of time.

English has many, many irregularities. That’s part of its richness, as is its extraordinary vocabulary. The problem seems to be that teachers of English to native speakers have lost the art of making learning our own language interesting. Let’s hope that if they have to pay more attention to their own English skills, they’ll start to think about how to inspire their students.