English 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.
‘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 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 The current manual is a wonderful resource, produced by a group of professional editors, but is becoming outdated.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.
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.
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.
The National Centre for Vocational Education Research recently published a synthesis I did of research on the outcomes of training. Stephen Matchett commented in his Campus Morning Mail (5 May 2015), ‘This is much more than a snapshot of the state of research – it encapsulates perennial policy challenges for voced’. I hope, though, it also points the way to where the policy and research efforts should be focussed: on tackling those perennial issues rather than just re-defining them.
I’m the proud owner of a T-shirt with large white letters – AAAAA – emblazoned on a black background: Australian Association Against Acronym Abuse.
The T-shirt raises eyebrows and gets a few laughs. But it conveys a terrible truth. Acronym abuse is the scourge of modern communication. Not as dangerous or insidious perhaps as other forms of misbehaviour. But acronyms in the wrong hands eat away at all that makes us civilised. Take SOCRATES, a word that once conjured up images of Greek philosophers earnestly debating the meaning of life. It’s now been drafted by the US military to denote Special Operations Command Research, Analysis and Threat Evaluation System!
Even those conscious of the dangers of ‘acronymitis’ make excuses. A 2011 report on Australia’s aid to Indonesia noted:
‘Every attempt has been made to reduce the use of acronyms in this report. Unfortunately the development industry suffers from a surfeit of acronyms, mostly unnecessary. The author apologises for any gratuitous acronym usage that has unwittingly crept into the report.’
Sorry. If ‘every attempt’ had in fact been made there’d be no ‘gratuitous acronym usage’.
But it’s not all about despair and excuses. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra now runs an annual Acronym Free Day during which staff try to go for 24 hours without uttering a single acronym. Those who are caught out (probably most staff) pay a small fine to charity.
It’s a good start but much more can be done. Government departments are the refuge of chronic acronyms abusers. Why not make acronym reduction an element in the performance targets for all agencies? Bonuses should be based not only on making Australia and the world a better place but on acronym reduction. Annual Reports should list those acronyms which have been decommissioned.
It’s a mammoth task. It will need commitment and resources. Perhaps also a new government hotline to comfort those suffering acronym withdrawal syndrome, and to distribute free T-shirts.
‘The people of Australia elected me as Prime Minister’ Tony Abbott declared as the knives were sharpened after the LNP disaster in Queensland. Sorry Tony, the people didn’t. It’s the very same falsehood Kevin Rudd used. Like him, you’ll go on repeating it. But a lie repeated is just that.
Given the inability of our recent prime ministers to perform even simple mathematical tasks it’s no wonder the economy has problems.
In the 2013 general election 14,988,486 Australians voted. Tony Abbott received 54,388 of those votes. That’s a mere 0.36 per cent. How that can translate into some sort of national personal mandate beggars belief.
Abbott leads the party that won office, nothing more. That party can change leader as it wishes without damage to the nation or to the Australian Constitution. The latter, incidentally, makes no mention of the office of Prime Minister. No assassination would be involved, just as it wasn’t in the Rudd/Gillard era. The parroting of that deceit is a travesty.
Now gone from politics, Rudd fared even worse than Abbott in his ‘national’ appeal. In 2013 he received 34,878 first preference votes. So only 0.23 per cent of the much vaunted ‘Australian people’ actually chose him.
The next time Tony Abbott refers to his mystical bond with the people drop him a line. Clearly he needs reminding he’s nothing more than Mr 0.36 per cent.
I’ve just been visiting a parallel universe called the ‘Spirit of Cricket’. It’s Cricket Australia’s good conduct guide for players and it’s hilarious. According to the CA the spirit involves respect for—wait for it—your opponents. What a hoot!
It’s against the spirit to ‘direct abusive language against an opponent or umpire.’ I guess that means when Michael Clarke warned Jimmie Anderson to ‘get ready for a broken fucking arm’ it was medical advice, nothing more (though given the sentence structure I’m left wondering if Anderson fucks with his right or left arm). More recently, when David Warner suggested that Rohit Sharma ‘speak English’ it can only have been a timely reminder to the Indian cricketer of the universality of the language.
When rules, laws or ‘spirits’ are not enforced they become a farce. That’s what we have now.
The solution is simple, update the spirit. Celebrate sledging for what it truly is: cricket’s unique contribution to international relations and intellectual suppleness. Here’s an example from the 1982-83 Ashes series worth thinking about: Rodney Marsh to Ian Botham: ‘How’s your wife and my two kids?’ Botham to Marsh: ‘The wife’s fine but the kids are retarded.’
It’s high time we lauded such repartee. From now on umpires should award sledging style points. Let’s replace the boring old best player award with sledger-of-the match honours. Let’s adorn cricketing venues and equipment with the musings of past sledge artists: ‘This ball’s headed for yours’; ‘You’d bowl better underarm’; ‘Lend me your brain, I’m building an idiot.’
Do that and once more Australia will lead the way. Finally, the spirit and the practice of cricket will be in sync.
What is it about users of English? Haven’t we enough choices already when it comes to saying something is worrying, disturbing, disquieting, upsetting, troubling, irritating, disconcerting etc?
Apparently not, because poor old ‘concerning’ has had the word equivalent of gender reassignment. For years it’s happily chugged along as a preposition meaning ‘about’. Now, ‘common (mis)usage’ has deemed it an adjective as well. It’s been roped in to join the extensive list of fine words which has managed to convey unease for longer than anyone can remember.
So the next time the prime minister, or your boss, says ‘It’s deeply deeply concerning concerning the situation’ they don’t (necessarily) need to change their medication. They’re just showing what a limited vocabulary they have. Most of us are content to draw on 20,000 to 35,000 of the approximate 170,000 words available in English. But it seems that the more ‘modern’ we are the lazier we become.
We’ve just been to Indonesia. In Jakarta we conducted training for both native English and Indonesian speakers. In Bandung I went to a conference conducted in English, despite most of the 600 attendees being Indonesian vocational teachers. They need to speak and write in English, which will be the language of the ASEAN community when it comes into effect at the end of 2015.
As English becomes a lingua franca, it’s going to be worth taking the time in workplaces around the globe to consider how everyone uses the language. You might even want to check out this idea of conducting a tutorial on English as a lingua franca (yes, it’s got an acronym, ELF), developed a few years ago by a team attached to York St John University in England.
Diplomacy relies heavily on finding the right words. We advise our clients to be very careful with colloquialisms. You just can’t be sure your interlocutors will realise you want them to get to the point if you tell them ‘don’t come the raw prawn with me’. It looks like Pravda got the gist of what Tony Abbott meant by shirt-fronting the Russian President, referring to the PM’s former life as a pugilist. But what about Australians? Not being a football fan, I didn’t really know what the PM intended to do until I read this explanation of the variations in meaning between AFL and rugby. Thank goodness, Abbott’s code (rugby) is, in this instance, slightly more genteel. Overall, though, I hope he’s decided to eat his words.