Friday, 31 December 2010


My father used to threaten to clip me over the earhole, although I don't think he ever actually did. David Marr might like to carry out my father's threat and wallop the subs at the Sydney Morning Herald who managed to make him look silly twice as he waxed lyrical about paper clips:

" as celebrated like..."? "No matter now many..."?

A Bit Drastic

They are going to close some pubs in Sydney before midnight tonight. Police reckon it will make people move home, according to the Sydney Morning Herald:

It's a fairly radical reaction, I'd have thought - if it were me, I'd 'simply go home'.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

RIP Denis Dutton

The founder of was, among other things, a warrior against sloppy English. Here is Mark Colvin's excellent interview with him from 2007.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

How to Write the Great Australian Novel

That's what Caroline Overington decided she was equipped to teach us all to do in yesterday's Australian. Leaving aside the fact that I have nursed a grudge against her ever since I shelled out $19.95 for one of her novels and discovered that the story, characterisation and everything else evaporated after the first 15 pages, I think someone who refers to days generically - "It was hot day", ("it was rainy day", "it was sunny but partly cloudly day") - cannot claim to know how to write themselves:

Monday, 27 December 2010

I Know it Doesn't Matter

I should overlook tiny things, but they annoy me. This passage from this weekend's Australian Financial Review is basically all right, I suppose:

except that it should ideally read as follows: "Among them were: that the scheme be budget-neutral; capable of delivering emissions reductions in line with climate science; be simple fair and flexible; and take account of..."
or, as a second best:
'Among them were: that the scheme is budget-neutral; capable of delivering emissions reductions in line with climate science; is simple fair and flexible; and takes account of...'

Either the verbs depending on 'among them were' are all in one tense or in another - they should not be in different tenses. I suspect that in the first sentence they are in some kind of subjunctive or conditional and in the second they are in the present, which isn't really okay. I wish I'd been taught the terminology for all this stuff, rather than relying on instinct. Bring back grammar in primary school, I say, although it is a bit late, to put it mildly, for me.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Shame on You, Australian Financial Review

Call yourself a national newspaper:

It's not 'honing in', you lunatics, it's 'homing in'. And, while we're at it, you might want to check the spelling of Mr Oakeshott's name:

 Top marks for consistency, I suppose.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Comma Alert - Janet Albrechtsen, Australian, 22nd December, 2010

Attempts to regulate refugee flows with saccharine one-liners are never going to work. A comma before 'with' would help, although recasting the sentence to read, 'So the prima donnas who use saccharine one-liners about the immutable rights of man to damn parliamentary or executive attempts to regulate refugee flows are practising one heck of a deception' would be a better solution.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Small Words

Yesterday's Australian carried an article that devoted itself entirely to whether or not the small word 'all' had been included deliberately or by mistake in the MRRT agreement. Sadly, the small word 'of' was omitted, deliberately or by mistake, from the paragraph beginning, 'One of central platforms', by the subs:

Possibly the tiny word 'the' should have been inserted between 'created' and 'MRRT' as well.

That 'all' is going to cost the federal government millions or possibly billions of dollars. That little 'of' and that little 'the', if they are followed too regularly by other omissions, may cost the Australian a reader

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

A Sense of Duty

Chris Kenny wrote about the duty of journalists in the Weekend Australian on Saturday. Sadly, the sub-editors working on his article did not have an equal sense of duty when it came to making sure his sentences made sense (there should, I believe, be an 'of' between 'as one' and 'the vital checks':

They served Paul Kelly no better:
"...repeated charged ..."?

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

It's the Little Things that Count

In this passage from Tom Dusevic's article in the latest Weekend Australian, a well-placed comma plus a preposition would have avoided confusing the reader with the impression that the hungry hounds who follow Gillard are relentless but do garner some sympathy for her chosen path:

I think it would read better thus: "'s probably designed to discredit the hungry hounds who follow her relentlessly, and to garner some sympathy for her chosen path", although I suppose Dusevic may actually be saying that some sympathy is gained for Gillard by the fact that she is so relentlessly pursued. The problem is that he hasn't made himself completely clear.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Giles Coren

Giles Coren achieved notoriety with his tantrum in the form of a letter to the sub-editors at the Times. Despite his apparent belief in his superiority in matters of editing, I would argue, on the evidence of his latest column, republished in the Australian today, that he doesn't know his sequence of tenses. In the bracketed comment about Time magazine in this excerpt, surely 'as if it had been stepped on' should be 'as if it has been stepped on'. But perhaps it's not his fault - at least not directly; perhaps it's the revenge of the subs:

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Sydney Morning Herald, 15th December, 2010

This explains a lot:

but I don't think it's an excuse for not putting 'an' before '$11 million':

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Sydney Morning Herald, 14th December, 2010

I plodded my way through the Sydney Morning Herald again today. I am coming to the conclusion that a lot of people there think that commas are decorative items, rather than useful little things that help the reader follow the thread of the writer's thought as it unspools through a sentence.

For instance, I would have put a comma after 'average' in this passage, to avoid any initial confusion for the reader:

I also would have removed the comma after "Wallace" in this passage and replaced it with a dash:

As well, I would have recognised that bunging in a comma before "and that" was not going to help the sentence that begins "However" in this passage. What is needed is a "that" between "said" and "there":

But commas were not the only problem in today's paper (big surprise).To tell the truth, I am beginning to suspect there may be people among the Herald's sub-editors and copy-editors who are not actually native speakers of English.

Here is a passage that illustrates what I mean: 
I think most native English speakers would agree that either "support from elders" or "the support of elders" would have been better.

Similarly, an English-speaker would recognise that the tenses are pretty dodgy in the sentence beginning "Ross Adams also..." in this passage:
An English speaker would also see that an "as" outside the quotation marks - or better still an "as being" - is needed in the sentence beginning "US diplomats" in this next passage (so that it would read, still not very elegantly: 'US diplomats summarised the white paper as being "as much a ...):

They would also recognise that the sentence about Abdaly in this next passage is all over the place and would read better if recast in this way: "a picture of Abdaly as someone who enjoyed playing basketball and a good party but who had become ...":

And, as well as infelicities of grammar, a crucial piece of information went missing - shades of the Monthly - from the Herald's report on the elections in Kosovo:
Which ethnic group is alleged to have carried out the 'violent attacks'? Was it Albanians trying to disenfranchise Serbs by intimidating them or was it extremist Serbs trying to delegitimise the election by forcing less extreme Serbs to stay at home?

And, last but not least, a howling contradiction in terms was allowed to make its way into Gerard Henderson's article:

"Hippie-intelligentsia" - I would argue that no such thing exists.

Monday, 13 December 2010

For Crying Out Loud, Sydney Morning Herald

If you honestly don't know the difference between 'principle' and 'principal', use a dictionary. It's not much to ask, especially as some of us are actually paying to read this garbage:

Just Give Us the Facts

It is one thing to write an opinon column about the visit to Sydney of Oprah Winfrey, as Tim Dick did in the Sydney Morning Herald last weekend (and I agree with everything he said):

It's quite another to write a news report about the trip in which you make snide comments about the waistlines of her fans:

That man who claims to be running Qantas received an apology from the Australian because they mocked his accent. I think those "30- to 70-something women" deserve one too.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

How Not to Make Friends

Today's Sydney Morning Herald demonstrates how not to make friends with Tony Vincent snr:

(It would have been so easy to avoid the implication that Mr Vincent was a bit girly. All they needed to do was recast the sentence thus: " of the principals of the fraud, Tony Vincent snr, operator of a girly bar." [or "operator of a chain of girly bars", if he runs several]).

Similarly, telling Lara Bingle that you're going to write a story about how mean and unfair everyone is about her and then revealing to readers that one of her central ambitions is "shopping her girlfriends" is not going to send you automatically to the top of the Bingle Christmas list:

 Last and, I suppose I have to admit, least, you're not going to make friends with me, if:
a) you put commas in the wrong place:

("The President ...did not seem, or chose not, to get it" would make sense);

or b) you mystify me, by using a word that may well make sense in the context, but appears on an initial read to be peculiarly out of place:

Did Keith have a remunerative childhood in postwar Dartford? Unless you've read the book, you cannot know. If that is a cryptic reference to something in the text, the writer might do well to explain what he means. If he doesn't, the reader of the review just gets distracted, wondering what these 'remunerations' could possibly be or whether in fact the word is a typo.

Gender Issues

There is an article in today's Sydney Morning Herald about McIver Ladies Baths in Coogee. The baths were built in 1886 for the exclusive use of women, but last month a bare-chested man in board shorts demanded to be allowed to use them, on the grounds that he was having hormone therapy with the aim of becoming a woman.

The writer of the article has clearly decided to regard "baths" as singular and, as she's consistent about it, I can't criticise that (although internally I can grumble):

However, to prevent the reader's mind from boggling, punctuation needs to be accurately applied to the quoted sentence in this passage:

I also wonder if the locals aren't a bit eccentric, if they insist that dogs must only sunbathe with tops on:

and is the use of the word "mecca" in this next excerpt highly insensitive or totally culturally "appropriate"? I can't tell:

Despite these quibbles, it's still a great story.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Sub-titles Needed

On the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald today, this extract from a US government cable appears:

'A conversant'? Australia's official dictionary, (the Macquarie), defines conversant purely as an adjective:
We need a little note in square brackets, explaining this strange new Yankee usage and indicating that, at the paper, they're aware it's not the norm.

(Sydney) Magazine

If you're dealing with a publication that chooses to give itself a ludicrous name, I suppose you shouldn't be surprised if it also gives itself a ludicrous layout from time to time. All the same, I would have been disappointed to find my name on a list of people the magazine's editors appear to be greeting not with applause but a loud BOO:

The Monthly - December 2010 to January 2011

 I have never seen a typo in The Monthly. In that respect its record is as proud as The New Yorker's. However, I do sometimes think its copy editors should be more careful with their fact checking - or rather their checking that all facts are provided.

An example of this can be found in the article in the current issue which discusses the riots that broke out at Cronulla in the summer of 2005. I was living away from Australia at the time; I therefore read the article with interest, hoping it would explain to me what the sequence of events was that had led to such violence. Unfortunately, the absence of an eagle-eyed copy editor or line editor led to the omission of one vital piece of information. The writer probably assumed everyone reading the piece already knew it, thus breaking the rule that you should never assume your reader knows everything that you know. As a result, when I reached the end of the article, I was still unable to understand how such a thing came about:

It is this sentence - "On Sunday, 4 December, after fielding complaints about Middle Eastern boys insulting some girls on the beach, two volunteer surf lifesavers were assaulted" - that is the one causing me trouble. I do need to be told who assaulted the volunteer surf lifesavers and why they did so. Without this detail, it is impossible to make any kind of informed judgement about what happened next.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Malcolm Turnbull Needs a Proofreader

This excerpt from his latest blog post proves I'm right:

"So this material is very different from Peter Wright’s memoirs and in many respects is quite unique; the only comparable disclosure being Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers. Mr Assange is being denounced just about everywhere and has gone so far as to claim that Australia has abandoned them. That is not, and should not, be the case."

Leaving aside the desire I have to remove "quite" from before "unique", which is a change that might be debatable, there is really no question that J. Assange, although he has unleashed more chaos than hundreds of his fellow citizens put together, is still a single person and therefore cannot be referred to as "them".

I would also question the sequence of tenses in this sentence from the same text:

" ...if he is charged with a crime overseas then he would be entitled to consular assistance."

Similarly, further along in the post, "it" needs to be replaced with "doing so" and "anyway" should be two, separate words:

"...former intelligence officers can publish accounts of their work so long as it does not identify sources or affect in anyway current operations".

There are quite a few other minor oversights, such as "his" for "he has" in this bit:

"...whether his committed a crime or not, his moral culpability will be beyond question because it is open to him to ensure that nothing is published which puts any individual in harm’s way."

Mr Turnbull also needs to think more about commas.

(In a blog which is, I assume, supposed to raise the blogger's profile, such mistakes are counter-productive, and providing work for a member of the beleaguered profession of copy-editors would be more than worth Mr Turnbull's while.)

Monday, 6 December 2010

Paying Attention

The main duty of a copy editor is to ensure that the text he or she works on does not contain distractions that will divert a reader's attention from its meaning. When dealing with creative writing, it is important that the editor also be conscious of the writer's 'voice', as this can sometimes be stifled in the process of making things clearer. With newspaper reporting, this consideration is less important, as the essential aim of a journalist should always be to convey facts and argument. Journalists do not usually have to worry a great deal about creating other effects.

Clearly, the most obvious way to distract a reader is to leave a word out or make a spelling mistake. However, badly placed punctuation can also make it hard to follow an argument. Other factors, such as repetitive language, create barriers to understanding as well.

I was thinking about this yesterday, as I made my way through the Sydney Morning Herald's latest News Review. There were, as usual, the glaring failures, like this one from Tim Dick's column:

 I know it's only a small word that's missing - "according" has been printed, instead of "according to" - but it seems a pity to spoil a good article with such a silly mistake.

As well as these kinds of stupidities, there were other things in the paper that bothered me. I'm sure it would be easy to demonstrate that they didn't really matter. Many of them could be described as purely a matter of taste. All the same, I think my suggested changes could have made a difference to how quickly readers grasped what the SMH's writers were trying to say.

For example, in an interesting article about how doctors should treat people who are clearly dying, I thought there was a case to be made for a different use of commas. In this excerpt, for instance, I would have liked to place a comma after "routine":

I might also have added in a "that" between "demand" and "sick".

Later, in the boxed part of the article that is headed "Demographics", I would have added "that" plus a comma between "says" and "when" in the sentence beginning "Bishop" - or else I would have removed the comma after "ill":

I would have removed the comma after "surroundings" in the second sentence in the second paragraph in this next excerpt. That comma there is useless - all it does is separate the verb from its subject:

Further on in the News Review section, in Michael Wesley's essay about Wikileaks, in the sentence beginning "Anything" and ending "classification", I think "that" should replace "which" and, to my eyes, the pair of commas around "complicate things if it got out" only add a hurdle to the communication of meaning:

Later in that article, this passage occurs:

To start with, it seems to me that the commas around "a casual randomness" suggest that it is a phrase that duplicates the meaning of "massive scale". It is not. As a result, when I read that sentence I become confused. To resolve this, either the editor should remove the comma after "randomness" or insert "and" before "a casual randomness". Further on in the same paragraph, a comma should be added after "diplomats" and the comma after "correspondence" should be replaced by "and" - that comma could be redeployed successfully in that sentence by being placed after "government" and before "at a time".

Still in the same article, we have this passage:

Those sentences that begin "At a time" should not have been separated from the sentence that begins "This will happen at a time when our society ..." - the verb they depend on is stranded up there in that sentence, while they float about like little tatters torn off something else. In rejoining them to the mother ship, an "and" should be inserted before the second one.

Further on in the article, "anew" is misused - the diplomats are not usually returning to posts they've been in before; the norm of diplomatic life is that you do not go back - and there either needs to be a "with which" after "correspondence" or, at the very least, a "with" after "job":

In this next excerpt from the same piece, "churches and the media" might appear to the reader to be in some kind of new alliance:

Unless the writer intended to convey that impression, it would be better to write "from business to NGOs, from churches to the media".

Once again, I think the addition of a solitary comma would help in this paragraph:

I would place the comma in the sentence beginning "The stability and order" - I think it should go between "certain" and "as", in order to give the reader a place to get their bearings in what is quite a long sentence.

If we look at the passage that follows directly on from that last excerpt, I think I can see where we might take our comma from:

I would take it from between "seriously" and "and". In that position, it is doing nothing, except separating the verb from its subject.

Moving on from Michael Wesley to an article about the Victorian election, the new Premier of Victoria is quoted as follows:

If I had transcribed that, I would have put a comma before "rather than".

I also would have put a comma before "and hopefully" when transcribing Malcolm Fraser's comments on the win:

The sentence beginning "Although" in this next passage from the same article could, I think, be recast, in order to help readers grasp its meaning more easily:

I would have changed it to: "Although there were a range of factors at play - not least the distinction between federal and state issues - in the south-east the difference between the Liberal vote in the federal election and that in the state election invites investigation." It's still not a beautiful sentence, but the slight confusion created by the repetition of "in the", referring to two different things but very close together, is diffused a bit, I believe.

A bit of recasting might not have gone astray once or twice in John Garnaut's article about China either. In the first instance, the problem that arises is ambiguity:

To avoid any possibility that the reader might think that it was the X-ray that had a bullet in it, I would have written: "I saw an X-ray which showed a dispossessed peasant's skull with a bullet in it."

In the second instance, it's simply a case of something being extremely hard to follow:
I would rewrite the sentence beginning "One" so that it ran like this: "Until it was shut down two months ago, Andingyuan, a private security company, acting on behalf of local governments, employed 3000 people to kidnap petitioners in broad daylight in Beijing."

Gosh. I haven't even started the rest of the paper - and there's still the Weekend Australian to get through after that. But don't worry - I shall keep further observations to myself