I’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].
Aristotle 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.
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 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.
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.
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.