Using Words Wisely blog

  • October issue of Australian Garden History
    Editorial pointing to how gardeners can take action on climate change and pointing to the role of Indigenous knowledge in managing the landscape.
  • Don’t forget the plight of Afghans in Australia
    Further to Stuart Rees’ eloquent exposure in Pearls and Irritations of the Prime Minister’s cruelty toward those Afghans already in Australia on temporary visas, below is my letter to the Prime Minister arguing for a more humane and pragmatic asylum seeker policy. Pragmatic because times have changed – the boats are no longer coming – and… Read More »Don’t forget the plight of Afghans in Australia
  • July issue of Australian Garden History
    In this issue of Australian Garden History, the array of images expands many fold the word limits necessarily imposed on contributors. Photographs of NSW’s sweeping high country and its tell-tale flora reinforce the point made by Warren Foster, a proud Yuin man, that evidence Aboriginal gardens have been around for millennia is right before our eyes.
  • Australian Garden History April issue
    The April issue of Australian Garden History features the exquisite paintings of the Australian bush by Marion Mahony, the wife of Walter Burley Griffin. Mahony deserves to be better known in her own right, as award-winning journalist Glenda Korporaal demonstrates. The cover shows the remarkable rainforest built on the side of Black Mountain in Canberra,… Read More »Australian Garden History April issue
  • Bundanoon History Group bushfire archive project
    Amid the restrictions of COVID-19, the Bundanoon History Group managed to complete phase one of its bushfire project in time for what turned out to be a cool and wet summer. Its messages have been distilled in a poster hanging on the History Shed in the main street and in a short video made for… Read More »Bundanoon History Group bushfire archive project
  • Will we ever be satisfied with less?
    I can’t imagine the old normal returning unaltered after COVID-19 but worry that the rush towards a new normal will entail too much focus on growth and profits and not enough on caring for the vulnerable and the environment. If that happens, we will have squandered an opportunity to reset how we value health, work… Read More »Will we ever be satisfied with less?
  • Cicada time
    Studying the lifecycle of the cicada
  • Higher education reform: use and abuse of Menzies
    by Francesca Beddie Announcing his plans for university reform on 19 June, the minister for education, Dan Tehan, did as many of his predecessors have done. He invoked Robert Menzies. Here is an extract from Tehan’s speech at the National Press Club: 
  • Australia Day: occasion for collective mourning
    In early January, the leader of the Opposition, Anthony Albanese, suggested the first sitting day of Federal Parliament for 2020 be devoted to marking the unprecedented bushfire crisis. That got me thinking about Australia Day.
  • Bushfire haiku
    Red sun smoky skiesSurely not the new normalThough it’s been weeks now Stop checking the appBlue diamonds are not that closeCan’t just hope for rain
  • The Golden Country: review
    I follow migration matters closely, so Tim Watt’s survey of the White Australia Policy and subsequent immigration policy was familiar territory. For those who don’t, there is much to recommend in the story he tells and his demonstration of the economic benefits of skilled migration. But his analysis has flaws.
  • Towards cosmopolitaness
    In April 2019, the American Society for Editing decided to drop hyphens in expressions denoting dual heritage, like ‘Asian-American’, ‘African-American’ and so on. ‘American Indians’ refers to those hailing from India; the first people of the American continent are called ‘Native Americans’. While a hyphen is a small thing, its use can be a sensitive… Read More »Towards cosmopolitaness
  • Capturing Antarctica
    Some people say a visit to Antarctica changed their life. I don’t but months after my trip the other-worldly beauty of the seventh continent is still with me and I am still grappling with how to put the experience into words. Someone who managed to capture the spirit of the place, long before the I-phone… Read More »Capturing Antarctica
  • Word play
    People in Buenos Aires, especially the locals (porteños or people of the port) don’t get much sleep. Many commute for several hours to get to and from work during the week, so they are used to eating late and rising early. On weekends, they might get to sleep in, but those who like to party… Read More »Word play
  • The full stop
    If you want to write well, learn to love the full stop. See it as the goal towards which the words in your sentence adamantly move. So advises Joe Moran, Professor of English at Liverpool John Moores University, in an article that sings the praises of that dot at the end of a sentence, a… Read More »The full stop
  • Literary speed dating
    ‘I like Putin’, a tonged-straight-haired platinum blonde declared. We were standing in a long queue to make a pitch to a publisher. Mine was about Russia and history and houses. The blonde had a card. On one side was the cover of her book — the back of a naked woman with a horse tattoo,… Read More »Literary speed dating
  • What’s in a word?
    ‘Community’ is one of those words that sounds positive. For some, it might convey a bit too much touchy-feeliness but like mother’s milk it is hard to dismiss as essentially a good thing. I live in Bundanoon, a small town which prides itself on its sense of community. I’ve had glimpses of it in the… Read More »What’s in a word?
  • Cross cultural non-communication
    ‘We will always choose perfection over politeness.’ That, a German friend explained, is why a stranger sitting at the next table outside on a glorious spring afternoon got up, came over to me, took my cutlery and started to demonstrate how to deal with a Weißwurst. The skin must not be eaten. It must be… Read More »Cross cultural non-communication
  • Wanted: politicians who inspire and creative public policy
    I watched Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake again recently. Again, I cried. A sick bloke with talent and decency ends up dead before he can argue his case to be treated not as a client, customer, service user or national insurance number but as a citizen, no more no less. Surely our citizens can expect more… Read More »Wanted: politicians who inspire and creative public policy
  • Why we have diplomatic language
    For many years I have introduced new entrants to the diplomatic service to the archaic language of third person notes or notes verbales. Some are enchanted by the trappings of their new profession; others scornful of the use of phrases like: ‘avails itself of this opportunity to renew the assurances of its highest consideration’.
  • Stories from the front: art reveals more than news about the ravages of war
    Australia’s handling of the global refugee crisis confounds me. I cannot fathom how a nation of immigrants can be so manipulated by our politicians. They stir up artificial fears, pathetic fears when compared to the terror that compels people to flee their homes. Facts and more facts about the horrors in Syria, the plight of… Read More »Stories from the front: art reveals more than news about the ravages of war
  • What do we mean by Australia Day?
    All the talk about Australia Day – what it symbolises, for whom and when we should celebrate – prompted me to delve into the history of the date, which has long been contentious. The Conversation website has run a series.  And Honest History has published various articles.  My post for the Professional Historians Association of NSW and ACT argues… Read More »What do we mean by Australia Day?
  • Metaphors: find the right word to stimulate the brain
    A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase ordinarily used to describe one thing is applied to another: Fill your paper with the breathing of your heart. William Wordsworth It’s not just poets who use metaphors. We all do. Some have become so deeply entrenched we hardly recognise them, for example… Read More »Metaphors: find the right word to stimulate the brain
  • Season’s Greetings!
    Do you say merry or happy Christmas or both? Are you comfortable with Xmas or do you prefer ‘holiday’? As we approach the festive season, here are some explanations for these differences, some of which are, I’m afraid, political. First to merry or happy: you’ll note that both are used on this Christmas card, the… Read More »Season’s Greetings!
  • Teaching + research = tertiary education
    In the new world of work, which heralds machines doing routine tasks and people solving problems, learning the how without the why is not enough. In other words, inquiry and evaluation must be integral to all tertiary teaching and learning. This is precisely the time not to break the teaching-research nexus. Good teachers are scholars.… Read More »Teaching + research = tertiary education
  • Evolution
    Are the cicadas deafening you this spring? Where we live they are out in force, causing people to talk. Some mention ‘si-KAH-da’, other say ‘si-KAY-da’. Why the difference, I wondered. And here, in an extract from the Boston Globe, is the explanation. It’s all about evolution, not of the species but of the English language.… Read More »Evolution
  • Tone matters
    Last month (May 2017) the World Bank’s chief economist, Paul Romer, was stripped of his management duties (he remains the bank’s chief economist) after researchers rebelled against his efforts to make them communicate more clearly. Romer wanted his staff to write succinct, direct emails, presentations and reports, using the active voice and avoiding too many ‘and’s’.… Read More »Tone matters
  • Fact check: turn to the dictionary
    Merriam-Webster, the oldest dictionary publisher in America, has had no qualms about entering cyberspace. Its Twitter feed now responds to the weird use of language in political debate. After Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway coined the term ‘alternative facts’ to explain the dispute about crowd numbers at the presidential inauguration, Webster tweeted: A fact is a piece of information presented as having… Read More »Fact check: turn to the dictionary
  • Latin-isms
    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… Read More »Latin-isms
  • The Oxford Comma: usage in Australia
    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,… Read More »The Oxford Comma: usage in Australia
  • Multilingualism matters
    On 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… Read More »Multilingualism matters
  • Gobbled-up articles
    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… Read More »Gobbled-up articles
  • Evidence versus emotion
    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… Read More »Evidence versus emotion
  • ‘i’ before ‘e’…
    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… Read More »‘i’ before ‘e’…
  • Editing necessities
    ‘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… Read More »Editing necessities
  • 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… Read More »Does bad English matter?
  • What’s the research telling us?
    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… Read More »What’s the research telling us?
  • English as a lingua franca
    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… Read More »English as a lingua franca
  • Shirt fronting
    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… Read More »Shirt fronting

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