Saturday, May 31

Another fortnight . . . sorry!

Too many things happening at once, and too many distractions. Suddenly, despite my best intentions, it's a fortnight since I last posted to this blog. And I have posted twice in the meantime – but to another blog, Writer's Cafe.

On May 8, under We didn't do the Kama Sutra, Grumpy Old Journo foreshadowed the first of those two Cafe posts – a review of Slips of Speech, a US manual on English usage published in 1895. Despite its antiquity and its US view of definitions and spellings, I found Slips useful. Its general advice was sound, and it was written in clear language which did not assume the reader was already versed in the terminology of grammar and rhetoric.

Slips wouldn't be your primary reference, of course – it's an electronic book, but you can download it to your computer, free of cost and free of hassles, and it's worth a browse. Its index is not functional because the page references were lost when it was scanned to a digital format.

I also compared Slips with a number of other manuals on English usage, and provided this link to The Economist magazine's excellent style guide, which can easily be accessed online whenever one seeks rulings on punctuation, spelling, English usage and the like, as well as for much general fact-checking.

My second post came after Alex, another Writer's Cafe member, strongly praised two ebooks on pioneering ideas in labour management – Walter Dill Scott's Increasing Efficiency in Business and F.W. Taylor's Scientific Management.

It was of interest, I thought, that the trigger for Australia's most bitter industrial dispute, the rail and tramways strike of 1917, was the introduction of Frederick Taylor's card system for recording every detail of the men's work, and that's what I wrote about in the post.

I may follow up soon in Grumpy Old Journo with a lament for the passing of some of the values of the old working classes, but I'd like to give it a little more thought.

Friday, May 16

LOL, Pop, UR so slo 2 C txt msg is gr8

I am, my young friends assure me, a bit of an old fogey. Still, I've been trying hard to meet the expectations of a more with-it generation and I've finally learned the rudiments of texting. Look at the heading above to see how far I've come. Won't be long, and I'll have mastered the vigour, the impact and the subtlety of SMS texting.

With just a few characters, scattered across the almost unreadable screen of my Nokia 2610 mobile phone, I've been able to say: "Laughing out loud, Pop, you are so slow to see text messaging is great."

In the past, I've refused to accept that texting represents a great leap forward in communication, a charge by humankind into the 21st century. But I'm losing the battle. The experts see "an expansive new linguistic renaissance" as they watch the kids pushing the buttons on their mobiles, according to this report by New Scientist, quoting the online academic journal American Speech.

Perhaps it's time to brush up our SMS literacy with this Webopedia dictionary of texting abbreviations and smileys. Learn to read what your grandchildren are saying about you!

Friday, May 9

Thanks love, but I'd better head home

With Mother's Day looming, I head out to buy the appropriate flowers. And then, with two splendid bunches of chrysanthemums in my arms, surely it would be safe to detour into the Bayview. A couple of beers wouldn't hurt, and when I get home I could always push the flowers in through the door first to appease the missus.

One of those charming young ladies who dispense the beer in the Bayview asks: "Would you like me to stamp your card?"

What's this? The barmaid points to posters around the pub. Drink six schooners of Victoria Bitter on Friday night while you watch the football on satellite TV, and you can collect a free T-shirt.

Well, yes, just what I need – to stagger up the street, or worse, to drive home, with more than eight standard alcoholic drinks under the belt. And wearing a green T-shirt with a VB logo just to show how I got that way.

[If you don't live in New South Wales, you may not know that our schooner glass holds about 370ml of beer. With VB at 4.8 per cent alcohol, that's about 1.4 standard drinks per schooner.]

Let's not be hypocritical about this. As my caricature on the top post suggests, your grumpy old blogger has at times enjoyed the embrace of Vino and her friend John Barleycorn.

Still, I find something disturbing about a brewery promotion which rewards the drinker for downing over eight standard drinks in a couple of hours.

Last night's worry about the demon drink was all the worse for my reading the previous day's Sydney Morning Herald, which reported a Cancer Institute of NSW study showing an alarming increase in some cancers for people who sipped only one or two drinks a day.

Naturally, I prefer to remain sceptical about these findings. But then, I was sceptical about greenhouse gases and global warming – until I assessed the number and calibre of those scientists issuing the warnings, against those denying them. Let's see how the alcohol/cancer warnings stack up in disinterested analysis.

Thursday, May 8

We didn't do the Kama Sutra, and now I'm left with Slips of Speech

The Kama Sutra, she suggested. Oh dear, thought I. Would I find it awkward, discussing, err, um, you know what, with a young woman just half my age. What would I know, anyway? I'm married. Have been for the past 46 years. To the same woman.

We exchanged a few more emails, and she chose again. Slips of Speech.

Perhaps I'd better explain. A few months ago, a friend, Suzanne Fleming, invited me to join a book discussion group linked to the ebook publisher Globusz. Suzanne owns GlobuszOz, the Australian arm of the international group.

After chatting with the other members, we decided to download and read different books from the Globusz catalogue and post our assessments separately to our book club blog, Writer's Cafe 101 (which you're welcome to read). To my mind, that gives each of us a reviewer's responsibilities – to discuss and evaluate the book without giving away the plot.

So far I've read two books from the Globusz catalogue. I've enjoyed, with reservations, Sand Against the Wind, an action romance set in Rome during World War II, and more wholeheartedly, The Isle of Enniskerry, in which a lottery winner buys a Scottish island long abandoned by its laird and crofters, and repopulates it with an interesting mix of characters.

A few weeks ago, Suzanne asked me to partner a new member. The idea was we'd go through a book, swap ideas and put up a post together. I'd also help the new member brush up her English – she'd spent the last twenty years living in a Mediterranean country.

Now in her mid-30s, she'd returned to New Zealand and enrolled in a university course.

We exchanged a few emails, and I could see the last thing my new partner needed was an old codger teaching her how to write proper – some 70-year-old retired hack saying split infinitives are something up with which we will not put.

In truth, this young woman (mid-30s is impossibly young to me!) had a splendid grasp of what counts in writing English – a vivid turn of phrase. I loved her description of a Greek funeral ("keening, renting of clothes, leaping into graves . . . "), and also her account of celebrating Anzac Day in New Zealand with the old veterans.

As I emailed to her, "Lively people write lively prose, boring people write boring prose, pompous people write pompous prose, etc."

Let's not be modest. I was the right person as a mentor. For most of my working life, I've been a sub-editor (copy editor, for Americans) on daily newspapers, a few times in Perth but mainly in Sydney.

One of the worst things a sub can do is take a lively story, and drain its colour by rewriting it into staid English (the worst is to take a story in which the facts are correct, and rewrite it with errors). I felt I could let my new friend's prose fly high, with only the occasional tweak from me.

Alas, she has just discovered how demanding university is for the mature-age student coming back after a long break. She's decided to drop out of our book group so she can concentrate on her uni work.

She's made the right decision, and I'm glad she has, but I hope we'll be able to swap some ideas again in holiday breaks.

But after briefly considering a manual of exotic sexual couplings, we had come back to Slips of Speech, another book one can download for free from Globusz. By John Hendricks Bechtel, it's "a helpful book for everyone who aspires to correct the everyday errors of speaking and writing."

Just the thing to help my new friend polish up her English. It is, however, a little naughty of the Globusz people not to disclose it was published in the US in 1895.

I had suggested a "he said, she said" dialogue as the way to post a lively discussion of Slips of Speech, based on an old guy mentoring a lively young writer. Alas that's not to be.

Now I have to go it alone. But all is not lost. I'm trying to find out more about John Hendricks Bechtel, and what he may have contributed to the vigour of English as it is used in the New World.

How would it compare with Dr Fowler's Modern English Usage, first published in 1926, but still a book one can enjoy by slipping into the mindset of an Oxford don of the period? Or with Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, dating back to 1918 but updated with a lively narrative.

I hope to post more thoughts soon to Writer's Cafe, so check back there in a few days.

Many of my friends cannot believe I'd enjoy reading books on my computer screen, but I do. I know this sounds like a plug, but I do find I can download a book from Globusz, then read it easily on my desktop. Globusz, and some other ebook publishers, now offer their books free. I haven't tested the others, but I expect they too would have worthwhile catalogues and often free downloads.

Obviously, one could also download to a laptop and read the book on the bus to work.

One day, many of us will use special ebook readers. They're expensive, but the price will come down. To see one that's now on offer, look at the iLiad:

Leading Australian book chain Dymocks is already pushing hard into retailing ebooks:

At the same time, Macmillan Australia has become the first conventional, mainstream Australian publisher to push into ebooks, with 400 offerings from its backlist already available for downloading. From next year, Macmillan plans to offer new books in simultaneous print and digital editions: