English as she is written

One of the most common complaints received by newspapers and news websites is that their standards of English are slipping. Often these complaints come from other journalists.

It is true that newspapers and magazines — let alone humble bloggers — can no longer afford to hire vast armies of sub-editors and fact-checkers, and mistakes do slip through. But it’s also the case that some of the “errors” pointed out by readers are not technically errors at all.

The thing is that there is not just one version of English. The differences between British English and American English are well know, but just about every country where English is spoken and written has its own version. Indian English varies from Australian English — both of them incorporate unique words and usages — and the Canadians seem never to be sure whether they want to follow Oxford or Webster.

So, when we are trying to write for an international audience — as the web more or less dictates that we do — we need to be careful not to choose words, phrases and forms that might confuse some readers. I have a friend who is very fond of the word spruik. It, roughly, means to “talk up ” something or promote it vigorously. Sadly, though, it’s little known outside Australia, so it can’t be used in print in the country where my friend now lives. It works the other way around too, some words that are perfectly acceptable in America, for example, are considered quite rude in Australian English. I can think of two examples, but I won’t use them here.

The one constant in every place it is used, is that the English language is evolving. So what what is seen as a mistake by some readers may, in fact, be a reluctant concession by writers and editors that times are moving on. In the early 1980s, when I started in journalism, a colleague had trouble accepting that the word gay now meant homosexual to more people than it meant happy. He tried to resist the change — to the point of putting quotation marks around the word (possibly as a signal of disapproval) — but he had to finally concede the point.

Having said that, I am still holding out against some changes  in English usage. Call me a pedant — go on — but there are some things up with which I shall not put.*  Here are a few:

+ Unique. This is an absolute. Something cannot be a little bit unique, it either is or it isn’t. Why is that distinction important? Because if we don’t accept it, the language is diluted and we no longer have a useful single word to describe something that is one of a kind. Why use four words when you can use one?

+ Refute. To refute something is to prove it to be untrue. It does not mean the same as deny, although an alarmingly high number of writers think it does.

+ Collide. A collision involves impact between two moving objects. A car cannot collide with a tree, but it can hit it.

I know I can’t hold back the tide, but can we please cling on to these three, er, unique words?

One last thing: Muphry’s Law (yes, Muphry, not Murphy) states, more or less, that any article about correct English usage will inevitably include at least one error. I look forward to hearing from you when you discover mine.

* Actually, I’m cool with ending sentences with prepositions.

Where there’s a Will …

It has all the makings of a mystery novel. It involves death, deception and detective work over four centuries.

The mystery is: Who wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare?

The most obvious answer, and the one still most widely accepted, is that William Shakespeare, the actor who moved from Stratford-upon-Avon to London and strode the stage in the late Elizabethan age, wrote the plays still performed under his name.

By modern conventions, the man who wrote Hamlet, Richard III, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest and so many other great plays ought to have been a celebrity.

Yet we know very little of the so-called Bard of Avon, except tidbits from a few official documents (including a will that leaves his “second-best bed” to his wife) and the fact that the early printed collections of those great plays bear his name.

Over the years, scholars and sleuths have nominated other, better-known figures as the author of Shakespeare’s play, ranging from the renowned playwrights Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe (who was killed in a barroom brawl before many of the plays were written) to Sir Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere.

The Stratfordians – those who support Shakespeare himself (and thus the “Shakespeare industry” in Stratford) – say many of the arguments against their man are based on snobbery. Because Shakespeare was not of the Elizabethan elite, a noble or a court insider, and because he only had a grammar school education, they feel he couldn’t have written the plays. Perhaps, like many a modern writer who sprang from nowhere, he was simply a genius. (Besides, the Stratfordians say, grammar school education in those days was a lot more rigorous than now.)

The debate has become a little more intense in recent times with the emergence of a new candidate for authorship – Sir Henry Neville.

In their book, The Truth Will Out, academics Brenda James and William Rubinstein argue that Neville was everything Shakespeare was not – wealthy, well travelled, well connected and well proportioned (his friends apparently called him Falstaff).

James apparently came up with Neville’s by appplying code-breaking techniques to a Shakespeare dedication – but Rubenstein wisely advised her not to rely on that for her sole evidence. (Codes, like market research, can prove anything.)

Instead, they have compiled a series of facts about Neville’s life that fit the authorship claim – including favourable references to his forebears in the history plays and a document written by him that seems to be an outline for Henry VIII. They have even identified the reason for the change in tone in Shakespeare’s plays from 1601, which is when Neville spent time in prison.

Whatever the truth of the matter, one book will not settle the argument. For many, Shakespeare will always be Shakespeare.

Still, after all this time, does it really matter who wrote the plays? Royalties are not an issue; can’t the words just speak for themselves?


Richard Woods, Focus: Is this an imposter I see before me?, Sunday Times, October 9, 2005. (Site may require registration).

Team Uncovers the Real Shakespeare, The Australian, October 6, 2005. (Link may be expired).


(Originally published at debritz.com on October 9, 2005)

My non-sporting life

“You don’t really care much about sport, do you?”

The question, nay statement of fact, came from a friend this past weekend while we were discussing the start of the English Premier League 2015-16 season. Now I know a little about football — certainly enough to stop calling it “soccer”, except when I’m in Australia or the US — and I do often join my friends on licensed premises to watch the game. But I don’t care about it.

I also don’t care much about cricket — it’s hard to when my home team, Australia, is doing so badly. Or rugby, even though the Wallabies have just had a surprise win over the All Blacks in the Bledisloe Cup*. I have, however, been known to become a little aroused about rugby league, especially at State of Origin time, when Queensland takes on (and usually beats) New South Wales. And I have had occasion to yell at slow racehorses when I have money invested in their performance. But, again, I really don’t care.

I didn’t play a lot of sport when I was a child, which probably helps explains both my extra girth and nonchalance about televised events. I did help train a couple of greyhounds when I was a teenager, but I could never really say I was enamoured with that industry. As recent news reports about live baiting and euthanasia levels have underscored, it doesn’t exactly bring out the best in humankind.

What intrigues me about top-level sport, though, is the impact it has on the fans who really do care. The passion among the spectators at the field, and in front of the television, is extraordinary.  Whether it’s football or hockey or horse racing, there’s something magical about the moment when the crowd reacts as one to an achievement on the field of play. If only we could bottle it and put it to good use.

* A rugby enthisast tells me this is not strictly true. But I don’t care.

The Miles Method

I’ve been thinking for a while about relaunching my blog. My previous recent efforts, ManSomwhere and Showbritz, had specific themes — travel and entertainment. This time around, I wanted to give myself licence to write about anything that caught my fancy*. Practically, that means there will probably be a lot of travel (especially talk of cruise ships, which are my current obsession) and showbiz, but also a lot of other things. I’d tell you what they are, but I’m not sure yet — although there’s sure to be the occasional whinge about the way the world doesn’t work the way I want it to, and a little nostalgia, too.

The main thing is that I want to discipline myself to write frequently. I’ve been writing all my life, and I’m still not as good at it as I want to be. My understanding, or at least my hope, is that the more I write (and the more I read), the better a writer I will become.

In this endevour, I’ve taken inspiration from the late British humourist Miles Kington, who found himself without a regular writing job after many years working on the satirical magazine Punch. As The Telegraph’s obituary of Kington notes: “He wrote to Harold Evans, who had recently become editor of The Times, proposing a humorous column. When he received no response, Kington announced that he would send in a piece every day until he got an answer. After two weeks he was hired; his daily column was called Moreover, and kept up a remarkably high standard until he left the paper five years later.” In 1987, Kington joined The Independent, and filed a column every day until his death in 2008.

Now, there is no way I’m going to be as witty as Miles Kington, nor as industrious (I do, after all, have a full-time job and something of a “life” to attend to), but I do want to be diligent and I do want to engage my readers.

If you enjoy my musings, please let me know. If you don’t, let me know anyway, but please be kind.

* I will, however, studiously avoid two subjects: politics and religion.