It is true that “language is a changing thing”, an observation beloved of some who write about it but don’t mind what people say and write. Readers of this journal over the last twenty years will know that I do mind: about people paid to use words as writers, broadcasters or commentators, but who don’t think or care about sloppy usage, the loss of shades of meaning, the wrong sound, and the increase of clichés as the range of vocabulary declines. Some of them may declaim feelingly about their fellow humans’ irresponsible failure to replace coal-fired power with widely variable and costly “renewables”, but the uniquely Australian replacement of the country and the bush by geographically incorrect regional areas is as unnoticed as it is ignorant.
What I’m quite sure about, but lack the resources to prove, is that change now is far quicker than at any time in the last thirty years. For example, in the last two or three years, conversation has almost completely ousted discussion, even about serious national issues: let’s just have a chat. In the same short time multiple mistakes, iterations or wounds are only rarely leavened by several, many or lots, and the noun impact has been verbed to such an extent that affected has not been seen or heard once in several months. Everyday criticism of almost anything has been supplanted by critiques, though I’ve yet to see the conversion of literary criticism, which is where it belongs.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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In the minefield of prepositions in has frequently become into, around incorrectly replaces about, and even serious writers take things off someone instead of from them. Of course, Americanisms continue to be endlessly adopted, no better exemplified than by the capable Michelle Grattan, reporting since the early 1970s, wondering at the end of October whether the Prime Minister might graciously claw back his lost support.
From long observation, my judgment is that nearly all the change is unconscious. People burble away, but give little or any thought to what they’re saying, or, more precisely, how they’re saying it. Really no different from (not to) children, who just copy what they hear. However, someone must say or write it first, so deliberation is implied.
Why? An English teacher friend with more awareness of language than most believes that the original motivation for substituting one word or phrase for another is generally social: related to sexual difference, or the attempt at a wider sense of inclusion or less sense of exclusion, or perhaps less confronting. I’m unable to identify such sources, and only become aware of substituted words when I’ve seen or heard them often, by which time they may have been in circulation for months or years.
Among many books on words, speaking and writing, When Words Fail by Frank and Patricia Horner caught my attention for having a similar approach to mine. Over four years the authors read and listened to professional speakers and writers on radio, television and in newspapers and recorded what they thought were failures in conveying meaning, rather than grammatical errors. I began doing these articles at about the time they published and so we share many of those recorded, such as Phillip Adams, Richard Ackland, the ABC News and various parliamentarians.
Warping the language
The changes that offend me most are those made deliberately for reasons of political correctness or to redress inequality of some kind while ignoring the precision of language. As chairman (still) of a few organisations, I refuse to be an item of furniture to be sat on, nor to have the office I hold named in the constitution as Chair.
I’m aware of the form of speech (synecdoche) where a part represents the whole (there’s a sail on the horizon), but refuse to equate a chair with a person. If a woman holds the office she is welcome to be called the Chairwoman, though some are happy to regard Chairman as traditional and non-discriminatory, as in Channel Two’s recent report of “the Chairman, Catherine Brenner”.
Possibly before chairpeople became furniture the word media was deliberately used as a singular embracing all forms. They were then print, radio and television. Now, with digital technology and proliferating social media sites, they are legion, which makes the observation that “the media is” even less accurate than ever.
People have always had trouble with English grammar and the many exceptions that prove its rules, but there now seems to be a deliberate stream, based on political correctness, which is prepared to warp basic grammar to make a social statement or avoid offending sensitive souls. This involves competent writers as well as others.
In his regular Weekend Australian column in August, Peter van Onselen (Professor of Politics at the University of Western Australia) began: “There’s nothing wrong with a politician changing their mind.” A is singular, their is plural, the cases don’t match. Basic grammar, so the warping is obvious. Of course, the writer avoids using his mind as all-embracing as some hers will be involved, and he declines the rather clunky his or her usage by changing the grammar. My preference is to write his or her till the cows come home rather than undermine basic grammar.
A worse example of this in the Sydney Morning Herald concerned a man who had run the City-to-Surf race, thanks to the transplanted lungs of a person who had died. The grateful recipient “doesn’t know their name, their age, or their sex, and he doesn’t know how they died. But every gulp of breath … lungs that once belonged to them. Their organ donation saved his life.” This ridiculous change from first to third person may be a consequence of the struggling SMH becoming a shadow of its former self, employing untested reporters and few sub-editors, but in any event it’s appalling English.
Noun-verb disagreement is a distinctive feature of Australian sports headlines, which has been around for a long time, shows no sign of correction and even extends to other fields. “Australia try new approach for Pakistan spin” is a recent example, the singular Australia given a plural verb, as though team Australia has been divided into individual players. The accompanying text will likely employ matching verbs, with Australia tries, bats or fields.
Confusion of subject and object has a history as long as language itself, but never so prevalent among professionals. Thus, within a month or two, a fluent young woman on the Gruen television program managed “like Russell and I”, veteran broadcaster Ellen Fanning said, jokingly, “A control order could be placed on you and I”, and the presenter of Grand Designs thought something might happen “to you and I”. It should.
Who used to apply to people and which to things, but that differential is fast disappearing among those forming the supposedly literate sector.
The generic singular noun, common in English and Australian expression, is quite quickly being overtaken by plurals, which are used almost exclusively in America. SMH columnist Jessica Irvine thus writes about the “incredible mastery of details” and of “changing directions”, while a reporter on American affairs would “let the Middle East stew in its own juices”.
If one practice is outpacing others it is surely the verbing of nouns. Quite the biggest impact has been made by impacted, which always jars with me because I associate it with physical action rather than metaphorical: one car running into another makes an impact, while a good speech has an effect or influence. But these are not exclusive, even in dictionaries, so it’s probably the current frequency of impacted for all purposes that draws attention.
Being tasked to do something has become common: “He is now tasked with delivering” and “He has tasked himself”. One newspaper reporter sees “the monarchy now helmed and mastered by the Queen”, who should rightly be offended, while an able public servant “also helmed NSW’s Treasury”. It can’t be long before the Great Helmsman leads us from linguistic paradise to perdition.
While verbing nouns has become a linguistic pastime, truncating others is a less frequent variant. Disconnection has become too long for some, so quite a stream of writers has been reducing it, as in “a disconnect between policy and action”. More recently, the verb reveal has been turned into a noun, as an awkward substitute (one assumes) for the longer revelation. Examples are American Bob Woodward’s “big reveals” about Trump, and “that’s the report’s big reveal” by SMH contributor Ross Gittins.
These provide a very fertile field, which has predictably extended since my comprehensive coverage a frightening number of years ago (“Americanising Australian English”, Quadrant, December 2006). Michelle Grattan is not alone in dynamically clawing back goods or ideas. In April the SMH reported “payments to be scrapped or clawed back”, while in June the Weekend Australian headlined “CBA claws back $60m exec pay after scandals”.
Report cards leapt the school fence many years ago, but now hardly anyone simply makes a report; always the card, and they are everywhere.
Our nationally iconic (!) bushfires are steadily disappearing in the face of American wildfires, boosted particularly by substantial media coverage of some bad fire seasons in California. This is a big change.
The truncation of sporting terms, notably participial adjectives, possibly began with the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, but swim coach, start lines, dive platforms, sail boats and race cars are now ingrained in Australian sporting commentary, while wait lists have been established for rural medical services.
Cricket batters, who have been batsmen for more than a century, have now been added to the sporting lexicon, even by batsmen themselves; whether lifted straight from baseball or de-sexed to include the increasingly boosted women’s cricket, is anyone’s guess. However, the provenance of “BT throws a curve ball” and “step up to the plate” are not in doubt, clearly taken from American baseball, the latter by the New South Wales Transport Minister in threatening the Spanish contractors on Sydney’s disruptive inner-suburban light-rail project as a state election looms. And for many years our sportsmen and women being on the team rather than in it is straight American terminology.
Talking with people instead of to them (speak to me, baby, say something!) infiltrated from the States at least forty years ago, and I still envisage two or more people talking at once. Meeting with is more recent, quite redundant and effectively universal. You just need to meet someone. This practice seems to be extending by adding redundant subsidiaries to verbs that don’t need them, like the ABC’s weatherman returning back (a useful word which fills nearly two pages of the NSOD).
A raft of policies or problems is now common parlance and has a more visual aspect of togetherness than the traditional group. As I type, veteran ABC broadcaster Fran Kelly talks to an American about lines forming in their mid-term elections. For a century or so, they have been the more specific queues. People queued, especially for rationed goods in wartime; hence “Q for tobacco” in the so-called Cockney alphabet, starting with “A for horses, B for mutton” (not Australian lamb).
Other American terms heard less frequently, but on the way up, include hiring people rather than employing them, which lumps people with cars, tools and party props and is thus a touch belittling; and grades instead of marks for schoolwork, although they have long been imbedded in sport.
The SMH’s Good Weekend magazine recently introduced readers to “Tuscany in Fall”, so we may be in the autumn of our English-origin seasons. Channel 2 News reported some crooks “planning a second heist”, though one might argue that enough English has already been stolen to leave traditionalists decidedly uncomfortable. During Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministerial travels, a young female reported that Blackall was on his rout, thereby making a route of French origin sound like a disorderly retreat.
I tend to think of overused, hackneyed words and phrases as jargon, but they are not; they’re clichés, while jargon is variously defined as in-words, belonging to a particular group, like medical practitioners; meaningless language; gibberish.
Early in this summary I referred to the excessive use of conversation, impacted and multiple, and as I write, ABC Radio National News shows just what paucity of language these words display: “this has affected conditions in multiple states—New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania”. The alternatives were “three states”, “several states” or no “states” at all. The saving grace is the reporter’s use of affected rather than impacted.
Other recent examples are “A white van has struck multiple people in Toronto” (RN News), “Trump’s multiple calls” and “X was nominated for the Nobel Prize multiple times”.
A phrase peppering news commentary, especially the political, is on the table. One might think that if a policy has not been on someone’s desk or table it’s barely worth considering. However, it can be a challenging place to put billions of litres of water, as Tony Burke MP proposed in May, while retired diplomat Richard Bronowski sought to balance the political weight by taking ICBs off the table.
I would argue that spiralling has become a cliché, used in far too many situations for a stunning variety of movements. A fighter or bomber shot down and spiralling to earth was visually real and psychologically uplifting for those under attack, notably the British during the Second World War. Since those perilous days the verb has become all-purpose, used not just for movement in any direction, but as measurement.
Thus, an ABC reporter in Paris in July spoke of police using “tear gas to quell spiralling disturbances”, extending the earlier applications to costs, rates of imprisonment, house prices, power bills. Mostly up, but also a graph labelled “Downward Spiral” for insurance company shares. The term reaches even further to intangibles such as spiralling teacher morale, which was probably going down, but could have been improving with an enlightened Education Minister.
Long-winded signed off on is pure American, now used here to all but the complete exclusion of words signifying authorisation, approval or ratification; for example, RN’s “The business case has to be signed off on”.
Prepositions and other link words
There is no aspect of language where more confusion reigns than the field of prepositions. They are less important for meaning than subject nouns and “doing” verbs, and tend to have well-tried associations with those key words. The falling away of grammar teaching and less emphasis on the rights and wrongs of language generally have seen an obvious decline in the knowledge of link words at large.
The most frequent misuse is the substitution of into for in, including formal situations. Numerous government reports lately carry a title such as “Report (or review) into the meaning of life”, and even as practised a journalist as Geraldine Doogue says “there would be a review into”. I contend that a researcher or investigator looks into the chosen subject and makes a report on (the substance) of it. “Some sort of road map into the future” (Doogue again) doesn’t sound too bad, but to is better, leaving it to John Wayne to ride into the sunset.
The difference between in and into is more apparent when the context is physical, for example SMH’s business heading: “ASIC to embed senior staff into banks”. That means they will be buried in the fabric of the banks, not just part of their business structure. Likewise, veteran journalist Pamela Williams (author of Killing Fairfax) told Phillip Adams (on Late Night Live) that Channel Nine has “invested into it”. Not so—you invest in an enterprise.
Similarly, if the Defence Minister had flown into Tonga, as reported by RN News, he or she would be the worse for wear. Years ago, travel agents began talking about flights into places rather than to them, but more literate people are now following suit. SMH Business provides a more acceptable context in reporting increased competition “as Aldi expands further into the eastern States”. However, the NAB spokesman who confided, “That’s what we’re facing into” is guilty of verbiage surplus to requirements. On the other hand, if he were facing up to his responsibilities, the Royal Commissioner would be happier.
Sports reports have in just the last few years managed to confuse the prepositions most connected to results. Not long ago your team would sometimes lose to the budding premiers or be defeated by them, but now defeat to is commonly written. I heard it spoken for the first time in June, when “Australia’s defeat to France” was reported by RN News.
In less specialised areas, the distinction between to and from is failing badly. Similar to and different from implied movement, respectively, towards a like object and away from unlike. Not any more. In July our Trade Minister found a particular deal separate to another, and RN reported that “Denmark poses a different threat to France”, meaning a different threat from the one that France poses.
Toward(s) became an undeserving favourite of commentators twenty or more years ago, most noticeably in “violence towards women”. Since it means “in the direction of” or “on the way to”, the violence won’t get to them, as it would with against. Whether the ABC’s sports journalist who “booked on a train towards Siberia” for some soccer matches was being cautious in notorious territory is not known, but what psychological or other motivation drives the speaker to substitute a longer, less precise word for a short, direct one, remains for me a mystery.
Regrettably, the now venerable misuse of “between … to” (first noticed in and not suitably regretted by the British Sunday Times editor in the 1960s) survives: news reader Juanita Phillips spoke of “between twelve to twenty people” in August, but of course it’s between one number and another or from one to another. Can you imagine your loved one confiding: “Just between you to me, darling …”? I can.
Around and about have much in common as adverbs and prepositions, with much room for confusion, but generally we have used around in the sense of nearness or encirclement (stick around, she’ll be around soon), while about has mostly meant to be concerned with something (it’s all about work). Lately the two have been used interchangeably, with around dominant, the most confused example being the phrase centred around, although it is obvious that the centre cannot be around anything: everything is around it.
Abbreviations, acronyms and pronunciation
Loosely, an acronym can simply be an abbreviation. Strictly, it makes a word. So when longtime Science Show presenter Robyn Williams says “CCS brings us to the acronyms”, he is among the great majority who don’t recognise the difference. Yes Minister once performed a very funny speech composed entirely of abbreviations, and radio reports occasionally sound as though a sequel is being attempted, without the humour.
For someone as well spoken as Bob Carr, former Premier and Foreign Minister, one might expect him to take the trouble to say Eye-see-ay-see for ICAC rather than the lazy Eye-cack, which not only sounds childishly awful but gives no hint as to what the letters stand for: Independent Commission Against Corruption. Radio reports can be so laced with ACTs, A-triple-Cs, ASICs, NABs, NBNs and their companion capitals as to require translation.
Much of this is lazy. News bulletins are rarely so chock-full of important information that time cannot be spared to say National Australia Bank instead of NAB. The practice is compounded by poor pronunciation, with for example, the great majority of speakers on and off the air calling ASIC Assick. By analogy with abbreviations ABC, ACT and the acronym ASIO, I’d call it Ay-sick, which sounds decidedly upmarket of our trademark nasal accent.
More widely, camaraderie is leading contender for mispronounced word of the decade, helped by its being French. The common assumption, albeit involuntary, is that it has something to do with comradeship, so comrardrie seems to be the most popular rendering, as by John Howard delivering his eulogy of longtime political organiser and later minister Sir John Carrick. Still with French, an ABC reporter’s accurate pronunciation of the northern city of Liège was not taken up by newsreader Juanita Phillips, who could only manage Leedj. This is admittedly a minefield, with well-known places like Paris, Brussels and Rome anglicised; but it would be heartening (to return to an old theme) to have people who are paid to use words show some professional interest in them.
Pronunciation is of course most influenced by American practice, and no wonder with the disproportionate coverage of its news and current affairs (down to the last shooting incident) by our resident reporters, compounded by home-grown commentary brought here. So, Eric Campbell in nearby Puerto Rico speaks to SBS of hurricain after hurricain. That supposedly multicultural network then headlines and repeats the discovery of a cashay of weapons, leaving listeners wondering whether they knew the difference between a hiding place for dubious goods (cache) and a mark of distinction (cachet), or whether they just couldn’t pronounce cache.
An unusual acquisition has been the American lootenant for lieutenant, which for once Americans pronounce closer to the French than our inherited English leftenant. A lot of sexual harassment unearthed and publicised has made a field day for American harassment, with three speakers in one program all following their second-syllable emphasis.
Well-established syllable separation continues and grows with regulatory demands and statutory obligations, while levverage has been widely adopted, though we still have levers, just like leavers. Generally, our reporters stationed in the USA have not succumbed to American pronunciation any more than people here, though the occasional deefence, retaliatory and sighmultaneous have been heard.
Words or phrases which interrupt fluency, perhaps to gain time for thought, are more associated with speech than writing, and are by no means a recent phenomenon. The most unnecessary of these is not necessarily, an enigmatic filler because the word is much harder to say than “umm” or “err” or “you know”. Of course it’s also a qualifier, saving the speaker from going the whole hog, committing to an outright opinion. More often than not, the speaker should be saying “it is not always so”. Among the many users are people who generally speak well. So ABC reporter Peter Martin in April said someone’s “hands are not necessarily clean” and in July Peter van Onselen also said something was not necessarily the case.
To be honest has been heard more frequently in the last few years, mostly said by less educated people, but it does nothing for the speaker’s reliability by introducing the thought that there are times when he or she is somewhat less than honest.
The wrong word or poor choice
Increasing lack of precision based on less concern for getting it right, the proliferation of communication forms and their monitoring, the significant decline in print readership and, ultimately, ignorance, combine to ensure that the wrong word becomes more common. Long-established figures of speech and stock phrases are notable victims of this malaise.
For some, the vicious circle has become a vicious cycle, which doesn’t sound too bad, but on closer inspection misses the point of the closed circle. “With regards to” is far too common among halfway literate speakers and writers who should know the difference between a compliment at the end of a message and a verb meaning to look at or take notice.
Perhaps because it seems weightier than or maybe just different from an ordinary centre, epicentre is used now and then when no association with earthquakes or geology in general is involved. So, veteran journalist Michael Brissenden tells his Four Corners audience about the epicentre of drought in Australia’s interior, while Deirdre Macken in her Weekend Australian Review column tells of her daughter looking for a house at some distance from the epicentre of that market. Both wrong.
Speakers and even writers have a surprising amount of trouble with under- and over-estimation, which has much to do with how they cast the sentence. The promo for Prince Harry’s Invictus Games got it right with “never under-estimate the power of sports” (except that plural sports is American and we have traditionally used the generic singular). However, we’re just as likely to hear advice like “the benefit of regular training cannot be under-estimated”, which should of course be over-estimated.
For centuries until the other day, weather happened; in some variable form it was always with us. Now the weather and elements of it, particularly rain, are being described as events, as though deliberately staged: “If one area of Queensland gets a rain event …” This may appeal to those who hold humans responsible for warming the globe to an unlivable future, but my money is on terrestrial forces and we shouldn’t be charging admission.
Deliberately misused words are in vogue, usually for political or social ends. Thus the prime reason for our Border Force and border protection is turning back unwanted refugees, not guarding the country against military attack as the terms imply. Children who have been the victims of sexual abuse are called survivors (those who live when others die), which applies to very few, but loads the cause with emotion.
Acts or judgments are quite often called definitive (defining the field) when the user simply means definite (sure). For example, the doctor examining a body tells the detective she won’t be able to give him a definitive answer until the forensic tests come back. This misuse has been noticed in programs made by the Engish, no longer the blameless custodians of their language.
Several examples have been sighted of Fred Knottworthy or Dot Loveless being wrongly described as anonymous, when the hapless writer meant unknown or undistinguished. At least they were spared the Victorian Premier unguardedly initiating a fulsome debate about it.
Doing something on behalf of someone means that you represent them, so “on behalf of myself” is at best awkward terminology. This did not prevent the female presenter of SBS’s World Cup football program saying goodnight “on behalf of myself and others”—night after night, no producer interested in better wording, which goes for broadcasting generally.
Increasingly we find people mixing up the words for numbers and volumes. Time is pretty obviously counted, so “a large amount of time” is an even poorer variant of the now almost universal and circumlocutory “long period of time”. As for time-telling, the long-used o’clock is almost extinct, making a rare appearance as “seven o’clock in the morning” in the British television program Shetland. Its newer version predictably included the duplication “seven a.m. tomorrow morning”.
Exploding myths have a long history, but recently exploding numbers are a more extreme development and a lazy substitute for rapid or large increase. However, some users get carried away in claiming exponential mathematical growth when they just mean large. Hearing that President Trump would deal with North Korea “in a short time”, our reporter Zoe Daniel in Washington decided to save a bit by saying soon. And we suspect that Hamish McDonald walking a fine tightrope had hoisted the fine line metaphor into the air.
In reporting on the aftermath of the fatal Indonesian plane crash at the end of October, Radio National News revealed that individual people could not be identified because “some of the bodies have similar characteristics”. They really need to get better writers. There has been a big increase lately in prefacing a variety of reported events with the qualifier allegedly, which we suspect is more a matter of legal caution than a poor choice of word. If someone is pictured lying dead on the ground, as an observable fact (as happens so often in the USA), allegedly belongs not to the act but to the suspected perpetrator.
In mid-2018 SBS relayed a report that “Fire Brigade advice to stay in their apartments failed” the residents of London’s Grenfell Tower, which was consumed by fire a year earlier. The advice most certainly failed for the seventy or so people who lost their lives, but it would have been better described as criminally negligent.
Ordinary Australians, those who used to be “the man in the street” or the law’s “innocent bystander”, appear to have become too ordinary for some, so everyday Australians are now the popular alternative, every day. But that’s far too demanding, so I’d prefer to remain ordinary.
The use of decade is growing apace, expanding well beyond its traditional use as a convenient interval to measure statistical or societal change. PM Rudd and a few others speaking of “half a decade” made even less sense, but the Australian’s Chief Literary Critic opening a pre-Christmas review with “for half a decade during the 1990s” deserved the booby prize. The next step may be putting your age at five and a half decades, leading in a few years to six decades and one-hundredth of a century.
The piddling word pick has driven out full-bodied choice. Big and small numbers or the chance of rain have largely become high and low.
We believe that metrics are a poor substitute for measures, that how it looks is much preferable to the optics, and that pet animals should still be put down rather than euphemistically euthanased.
It seems that if you double down, as in card playing, you are lying, and that dog-whistling is using coded political messaging, both American-style. Back to back and off (or on) the back of both mean in succession or following. If you need to know more, drill down or unpick the knots, and put yourself in a good space rather than a confining silo.
If you’re talking, a catchy phrase can be memorable, like the Middle East expert who spoke to SBS of “the ISIS crisis”. You can keep married couples on their toes by following Felicity Ogilvie’s lead in reporting a man (not Errol Flynn) “returning to Hobart with his present wife”.
Tragedy can be conveyed without reflexive tear-jerking or ignoring the odds like Ellen Fanning on 7.30 observing, “Forty-nine people are dead. I’m told some of those may be children.” Channel Two reported Nicaragua’s earthquake in like fashion: “Whole villages have been buried and children are among the dead.”
The pre-Christmas news that Sydney’s fish market is to be rebuilt will be well-received by crushed customers “packed in like sardines”, but clearly distinguishable from them.
Above all, be clear and uncomplicated, like the Irish woman interviewed in May after her country’s referendum on abortion: “There are ways around abortion, like keeping your baby.”
And if by any chance you want to do this writer a favour, don’t follow SBS and almost everyone else in talking about “regional parts of the country” or “regional Australia” or “rural and regional Australia” (noticed years ago by practical economics editor Ross Gittins and christened RARA-land) when you mean everywhere but the city: that is, the country or the bush.
Dr Solomon has edited Federal Gallery, the journal of the Association of Former Members of the Parliament of Australia, since 1997. He has written on language for Quadrant since 1995, most recently in January-February 2015.