Due to very poor health at the moment I have decided to take a break to try and recover to a reasonable extent before continuing with the Blogs. The timeframe is a little up in the air, as it is difficult to know how long the process will take – I am hoping it will be no longer than a couple of weeks, though one week is what I am hoping for.
I am also going to take this opportunity to update my technology, as I finally have an opportunity to upgrade my current laptop – which is a massive improvement on what I have been using over the last year.
Writing an article like this is just asking for trouble. Already, I can hear one reader asking “Why do you need just?” Another suggesting that like should be replaced by such as. And yet another saying “fancy using a cliché like asking for trouble!”
Another will mutter: “Where’s your evidence?”
My evidence lies in the vehement protestations that I face when going through solutions to an editing test or grammar quiz with on-campus students in my writing courses at The University of Queensland, and no, that’s not deferential capitalisation. It is capital ‘T’.
Confirming evidence lies in the querulous discussion-board posts from dozens of students when they see the answers to quizzes on the English Grammar and Style massive open online course that I designed.
Further evidence lies in the fervour with which people comment about articles such as the one that you are currently reading. For instance, a 2013 article 10 grammar rules you can forget: How to stop worrying and write proper by the style editor of The Guardian, David Marsh, prompted 956 comments. Marsh loves breaking “real” rules. The title of his recent book is For Who the Bell Tolls. I’d prefer properly to proper and whom to who, but not everybody else would.
Marsh’s 10 forgettable rules are ones that my favourite grammarian, Professor Geoffrey Pullum, co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls zombie rules: “though dead, they shamble mindlessly on”. A list of zombie rules invariably includes never beginning a sentence with “and”, “but”, or “because”, as well as the strictures that are a hangover from Latin: never split an infinitive and never end a sentence with a preposition. It (should it be they?) couldn’t be done in Latin, but it (they?) can be done in English. Just covering my bases here.
So, what’s my stance on adhering to Standard English? I’m certainly not a grammar Nazi, nor even a grammando, a portmanteau term that first appeared in The New York Times in 2012 that’s hardly any softer. Am I a vigilante, a pedant, a per(s)nickety person? Am I a snoot? Snoot is the acronym that the late David Foster Wallace and his mother — both English teachers — coined from Sprachgefühl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance or, for those with neither German nor a cache of obsolete words in their vocabulary, Syntax Nudniks of Our Time.
Foster Wallace reserves snoot for a “really extreme usage fanatic”, the sort of person whose idea of Sunday fun would have been to find mistakes in the late William Safire’s On Language column in the New York Times magazine. Safire was a style maven who wrote articles with intriguing opening lines such as this: “A sinister force for solecism exists on Madison Avenue. It is the work of the copywrongers”.
Growing up with a mother who would stage a “pretend” coughing fit when her children made a grammar error clearly contributed to Foster Wallace’s SNOOTitude. His 50-page essay “Authority and American Usage”, published in 2005, constitutes a brilliant, if somewhat eccentric, coverage of English grammar.
I need to be a bit of a snoot because part of my brief as a writing educator is to prepare graduates for their utilitarian need to function as writing workers in a writing-reliant workplace where professional standards are crucial and errors erode credibility. (I see the other part of my brief as fostering a love of language that will provide them with lifelong recreational pleasure.)
How do I teach students to avoid grammar errors, ambiguous syntax, and infelicities and gaucheries in style? In the closing chapter of my new book on effective writing, I list around 80 potential problems in grammar, punctuation, style, and syntax.
My hateful eight
My brief for this article is to highlight eight of these problems. Should I identify ones that peeve me the most or ones that cause most dissonance for readers? What’s the peevishness threshold of readers of The Conversation? Let’s go with mine, for now; they may also be yours. They are in no particular order and they depend on the writing context in which they are set: academic, corporate, creative, or journalistic.
Archaic language: amongst, whilst. Replace them with among and while.
Resistance to the singular “they” Here’s an unbearably tedious example from a book published in 2016 in London: “The four victims each found a small book like this in his or her home, or among his or her possessions, several weeks before the murder occurred in each case”. Replace his or her with their.
In January this year, The American Dialect Society announced the singular “they” as their Word of the Year for 2015, decades after Australia welcomed and widely adopted it.
Placement of modifiers. Modifiers need to have a clear, direct relationship with the word/s that they modify. The title of Rob Lowe’s autobiography should be Stories I Tell Only My Friends, not Stories I Only Tell My Friends. However, I’ll leave Brian Wilson alone with “God only knows what I’d be without you”, though I know that he meant “Only God knows what I’d be without you”.
And how amusing is this commentary, which appeared in The Times on 18 April 2015? “A longboat full of Vikings, promoting the new British Museum exhibition, was seen sailing past the Palace of Westminster yesterday. Famously uncivilised, destructive and rapacious, with an almost insatiable appetite for rough sex and heavy drinking, the MPs nevertheless looked up for a bit to admire the vessel”.
Incorrect pronouns. The irritating genteelism of “They asked Agatha and myself to dinner” and the grammatically incorrect “They asked Agatha and I to dinner”, when in both instances it should be me .
Ambiguity/obfuscation “Few Bordeaux give as much pleasure at this price”. How ethical is that on a bottle of red wine of unidentified origin?
The wrong preposition The rich are very different to you and me. (Change “to” to “from” to make sense.) Not to be mistaken with. (Change “with” to “for”). No qualms with. (Change “with” to “about”.)
The wrong word. There are dozens of “confusable” words that a spell checker won’t necessarily help with: “Yes, it is likely that working off campus may effect what you are trying to do”. Ironically, this could be correct, but I know that that wasn’t the writer’s intended message. And how about practice/practise, principal/principle, lead/led, and many more.
Worryingly equivocal language. After the Easter strike some time ago, the CEO of QANTAS, Alan Joyce, sent out an apologetic letter that included the sentence: “Despite some sensational coverage recently, safety was never an issue … We always respond conservatively to any mechanical or performance issue”. I hoped at the time that that’s not what he meant because I felt far from reassured by the message.
Alert readers will have noticed that I haven’t railed against poorly punctuated sentences. I’ll do that next time. A poorly punctuated sentence cannot be grammatically correct.
Why is it that despite how much and how often we use toponyms (place names) linguists, geographers, cartographers, and historians know so little about how they actually work?
Why is it that place names are less prone to change than other aspects of language like accents and pronunciations? And how is it that regardless of how well furnished a map or smartphone may be with place names and directions, we still bloody well get lost? And why are so many Australian places named after knobs?
Many of Evans’s humorous stories go a way to responding to some of the scientific inadequacies and toponymic foibles so common in place naming studies. And after I’ve spent almost a decade inundated with often sterile and uninspirational place name theory and how it may fit within more general research in onomastics, the study of proper names, Evans’s tongue-in-cheek take is more than welcome.
The book begins with a reasonable and justified dis of Lucky Starr and his 1962 claim “I’ve been everywhere.” Evans doubts this claim—fair enough, Lucky lists at least 94 places – and estimates this large country of ours has around four million place names. Visiting all of these sites would take yonks, around half a lifetime tells Evans, and would involve using lots of petrol, shoes, and time travelling beyond the Black Stump and back o’ Bourke. He claims the observations and offbeat remarks in this companion save us from doing all this legwork and allows us to sit back and enjoy the often-bumpy yet comical toponymic ride.
I grew up in Adelaide, surrounded by road and place names honouring rich and powerful, dead white men (plus a minuscule number of women). I mean, how many William Streets, Edward Streets, Victoria Everythings, and Queen Elizabeth Otherthings does Australia need?
Naming is power, which Evans obviously understands. Furthermore, he takes the piss. And he bloody well should. Our eponymous (of a person) place name landscape is largely boring as bat turd and as stodgy and starchy as badly cooked porridge.
In telling us about the histories and etymologies (origins) of places, the colonial makeup of our pre-European toponymically terra-annuled joint is made real. Take Lake Alexandrina in South Australia:
named after Her Royal Highness Princess Alexandrina of Kent, the then heir to the British throne. A nice gesture, but perhaps a wasted one, as the princess much preferred her middle name. We now call her Queen Victoria.
We get quirky introductions to each of the nine chapters – one for Australia and one each for every state and territory – plus more toponymic toilet humour than one could poke a dirty toilet brush at in an outback dunny. The knob gets quite a mention, which we are told is a prominent rounded hill, mountain, or elevation on a ridge, with Chinamans Knob, Governors Knob, Iron Knob, Nimbin’s Blue Knob, Spanker Knob, and Yorkeys Knob. I think you get the picture.
We’re told about Mount Little Dick in Victoria, which Evans hopes is named after a small man named Richard who used to live there and nothing else, Lake Fanny near Mossy Nipple Bend in Tasmania, and a few perky hills also in Tasmania called The Nipples.
This feminal place name reminds me of a topographical name on Kangaroo Island I documented back in 2009. The Tits is a place with undulating landscape similar to a woman’s corporeal scenery on the left side of Hog Bay Road near Pelican Lagoon. Between the Tits is a fishing ground off Kangaroo Head, which uses the space between The Tits in lining up the ground.
Apart from the colonial propensity for double entendres, some of these places are simply the victim of time: Cockburn (pronounced “ko-burn”) was named after the prominent sailor Sir George Cockburn. Intercourse Island, 1,500 kilometres north of Perth, was the site of a productive conversation between Captain Philip Parker King and some local Indigenous people.
The listing of the town Verdun in South Australia gives excellent information about the cleansing-cum-sanitisation of German place names in South Australia during the Great War. Friedrichstadt became Tangari, Neudorf became Mamburdi, and Hahndorf became Ambleside to become Hahndorf again in 1935. “About the only German place name that wasn’t changed,” Evans tells us, “was Adelaide – a city named after a German princess”.
Let’s not forget those place names which are mistakes. For example, Bundle Bundle was bungled to become Bungle Bungle; Mount Kokeby, named after Baron Rokeby, was misspelled as “Kokeby” after a spelling error in one of the town’s first train timetables. Place names are filled with specimens of our laziness and folly.
One can always quibble about what was not given. Regarding the contemporary issue of dual naming, something which could be taken from both a humorous and serious perspective, it was a shame not to have seen a little more beyond the Uluru-Ayers Rock example. For example, Nobbys Head in Newcastle is officially known as Whibayganba. What was formerly known as Grampians National Park in Victoria is now officially called Grampians / Gariwerd. The area contains the dual name Halls Gap / Budja Budja.
Dual place naming is a weighty and contentious affair in modern Australian politics and the social cartography of this once unnamed land is dependent on best representing all levels of place naming: Indigenous, British, German, and others. Perhaps this is something for the second edition of Evans’s book, if he’s not too buggered.
The story of Adaminaby, a mining town in New South Wales Evans says was supposedly named in honour of the line, “Ada’s mine it be,” makes one wonder about the credibility of some bush toponymic lore. But Evans happily acknowledges the hazier areas of his research, and ultimately, who cares?
Place names are fun and their study should be the same. What Evans offers is an amusing take on a potentially very dry topic. It’s not a weighty book and is minus a conclusion to pull it all together, but it would make a grouse Chrissie present.
If wit and quips can be used to good effect to get people thinking about important matters like place naming from a humorous and lively perspective, then Evans’s account is a noble achievement.
Mount Buggery to Nowhere Else, by Eamon Evans, is published by Hachette Australia and will go on sale on October 25.
Traditionally, comic books have been aimed primarily at children – to such a degree that they are often identified with them. Regardless of the recent evolution of the genre, particularly given the growing popularity of more adult graphic novels, to me the link between comics and childhood continues to be very profound.
There are certain regressive aspects to our love of comics and “bandes dessinées” (or BD) – as they are known in French, my native language. For example, collectors often pay incredible prices for figurines and old editions. They also have a remarkable desire to keep alive mythical characters after the death of their creator: from Batman and Astroboy to Spirou and Blake and Mortimer, characters continue to be resuscitated, with varying degrees of success. It’s as if the readers who were comforted in their childhood by these heroes can’t bear to see them disappear.
This seems to be something particular to the medium of the comic book. Of course, we remember the novels that we loved during our childhood, but we don’t read and return to them as often as our favourite comics.
A thirst for innocence
It’s also possible to admire great works of literature, philosophy and art without the need to return to them compulsively or to spend thousands on first editions. But there is a kind of archaic drive behind our relationship with comics, an inconsolable nostalgia mixed with an irresistible desire to not completely grow up. We dismiss this phenomenon by talking about childishness. But it’s more about a thirst for innocence or permanence that we keep carrying around inside us, and which comics allow us to satisfy easily.
But of course, this direct link with childhood is only one aspect of graphic fiction. Comics have also been evolving.
In many modern comics since the 1970s, for example, the heroes are no longer invincible – they are affected by age or their own fragility. Comic book characters increasingly are caught in linear time, which affects and transforms them, just like it does every one of us. Links with others are made and remade, injuries cause real suffering, people, including the heroes themselves, die. They have abandoned the mythic to enter the romantic.
This new relationship with time is at the heart of many celebrated graphic novels, particularly the two volumes of the Pulitzer prize-winning Maus, which reimagines the Holocaust, casting mice as the Jews and cats as the Nazis. But Art Spiegelman’s masterpiece doesn’t just deal with the Holocaust and its survivors. It is concerned with a lot of other issues: the relationship between father and son, the difficulties of communication and of forgiveness. With the death of Vladek, the narrator’s father, in the middle of the story, memory changes function and gives a new sense to the work: mourning and history are inseparable.
In another way, Japanese manga such as My Father’s Journal or A Distant Neighborhood by Jirô Taniguchi pose similar questions. So too do the extraordinary biographical works accomplished by Emmanuel Guibert in The Photographer and Alan’s War. Mixing personal and universal elements, those stories are subtle and complex as the best novels.
A particularly striking example is proposed by Lint, one of the recent books produced by Chris Ware which describes the life of an ordinary man, from his birth to his last breath in 70 pages. The graphic and narrative style is codified to the extreme, far removed from any apparent realism. Ware’s designs are on the edge of a diagrammatic style. And yet, when we read this book – in which each of the years of Lint’s life is reduced to a single page – we are plunged into a story that deeply moves us.
This book moves us, not just because we identify with a character, as we might when watching a film, but because we identify with the medium itself. The pages of Chris Ware’s book evoke a mixture of emotions, primitive and childlike and sophisticated and adult at the same time, that appeal to a whole spectrum of experiences.
This highly sophisticated graphic novel can help us to understand how comic book art is connected with childhood, even in its most subtle and modern evolutions.
The simplicity of comic books is another key feature. Around 1840, Rodolphe Töpffer, inventor and first theorist of the comic book, had already started questioning the manner in which a child recognises a donkey illustrated in a linear drawing. When a donkey is represented in a picture in the middle of the countryside accompanied by a play of light and shadow, a young child can’t always immediately identify it. But if the donkey is suggested only by a few lines, the child doesn’t hesitate to recognise it. Even if a tree trunk is placed in front of the donkey in this simple linear drawing, so that only a few fragments of it are left, the child still sees it for what it is.
This tells us something about the specific way we perceive caricatures, such as those in comic books. When it’s a light touch design, a caricature fixes an image in our minds which cannot be erased, as if it has unveiled somebody’s true character. Through this we can see another essential quality of the comic book: its ability to stick in our memory.
In the midst of the flux of images and art surrounding us, comic books have a special and unforgettable place. They have a remarkable capacity to prolong the life of images well beyond the time of reading. The most remarkable sequences of images continue to live with us, accompanying us for years.
In this regard, the nearest thing to the comic book is perhaps the song. I don’t think there is any song that we fall in love with immediately: we have to listen to it again and again – sometimes obsessively – until it has infiltrated us and accompanies us in our daily life. To me, comics are similar to this: they live where we dream to live. There is something unique and profound here, comic books are a privileged way of renewing the buried emotions of our childhood.
It’s Asterix versus Tintin in a Clash of the Toon Titans for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival’s opening night (Friday, October 14). The Festival team have joined forces with Lancaster University to stage a battle of comic superstars. Putting the case for Tintin is Lancaster University’s new professor in Graphic Fiction and Comic Art, Benoît Peeters. Asterix is being championed by Peter Kessler, BAFTA award-winning producer and author of The Complete Guide to Asterix.