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The public sector venue for writing and communication issues



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New Words Die Faster than Your Hamster

Geoffrey Nunberg is a linguist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley. He has written a staunch and vigorous piece on dictionaries. In it, he runs interference for lexicographers. He gains considerable yardage on those particular pedants who are set with the NewYork Times' conceit that 'conservatism' is defined as 'correct'.

But, his point is more subtle than that.

I like him. What you think?

In Defence of Dictionaries

Rappers to Learn Good Writing Style?

The Wall Street Journal reports on a new, writing style guide for musicians. Apparently, the loose, creative spelling, punctuation and capitalisation styles of rappers and rock and rollers make the music difficult to find on the Internet.

This is really about precision with metadata. That's important and I have been talking about style guides including metadata guidelines for a long time. Good move, don't you think?

Rappers' Writing Style

Microsoft Makes Office Available on iPhones

Pretty soon, you will be able to create spreadsheets, text files and presentation slides on your iPhone. It's just another indication of the increasing market for CIT that is flexible, personal and mobile.

What will happen to the keyboard? Will writing usually be spoken and become text through voice recognition? Will this change the way we work? Will it change where we work from? What do you think?

Office on iPhone

US Navy Dumps All Caps in its Comms

The US Navy has decided to allow its communication to be provided in upper and lower case rather than in all capitals. Aside from the dubious and old-school notion that the messages may be taken to be yelling, the more important matter is that text written in all caps is difficult to read. A GOOD STEP FORWARD.

All Caps All Gone

Internet to Transform English Spelling

One of my heroes, David Crystal, says that spelling will radically change over the next 50 years. He thinks all the 'irritating' silent letters will vanish. What do you think?

Spelling Transformation

APS Commissioner talks about social media and staff

Stephen Sedgwick has told a Parliamentary Committee that APS social media use was an evolving area and each agency head had to judge and shape behaviours.

APS Social Media Use

Will Planification Precise the Telematics Issues?

The European Court of Auditors has issued a list of words that make sense only within the European Union. Here's a snippet from the Introduction.

'Over the years, the European institutions have developed a vocabulary that differs from that of any recognised form of English. It includes words that do not exist or are relatively unknown to native English speakers outside the EU institutions and often even to standard
spellcheckers/grammar checkers ("planification", "to precise" or "telematics", for example) and words that are used with a meaning, often derived from other languages, that is not usually found in English dictionaries ("coherent" being a case in point).'

And, I though we were bad!

A Brief List of Misused English Terms in EU Publications

Sick of the Grammar Police?

Clairey Hewitt puts her view on the line.

"Some people have other talents other than writing. Some people have not received the education standards you did. There are some people who have this thing called a learning disability, they struggle their entire lives to get the words correct and go to great lengths to hide their disability from people like you."

Ouch! I promise I will be careful.

Read her whole blog but promise to be more sensitive in the future!

Grammar Police!

Dictionaries: what are they for?

Another fascinating piece in the New York Times. This is by David Skinner and is really worth the read. Also, you won't need a dictionary to understand it.

The Role of a Dictionary

Nominalisation: the 'seduce' of the noun

The professional culture that promotes nouns over verbs is a worry. Is it an attempt to look impressive while producing very little (as their anti-verb stance suggests)? Read this interesting piece by Henry Hitchings of the New York Times.

The Dark Side of Verbs-as-Nouns

See change coming? Better get ready.

IBM has surveyed 1700 CEOs around the world and found that they are expecting the use of social networks for customer and staff interaction will dominate in the near future.

Some 81 of those surveyed were Australians.

The implications of this insight are pretty obvious. CEOs do what middle managers must copy. And, government organisations will not be immune from this type of communication. In fact, the government sector may experience more pressure to operate through social networks than the private sector.

It is no good communicating predominantly with correspondence, e-mails and faxes, when many of your clients, stakeholders and customers are on social networks. A culture of denial leads to a clumsy culture of catch-up.

IBM Survey on CEO's Social Network Expectations

'Yeah, mate. We've had a period of environmental stress due to rainfall deficit.'

The important issue of what to call a drought has arisen in England, according to the BBC.

In Australia, we all know how devastating a drought can be. I remember one that lasted years in southeastern Australia. It was like a slow strangulation of the land and all that lives on it.

But, more pitiful and painful is the slow strangulation of language. There was a time when The Canberra Times reported that an APS department was avoiding the term 'drought' and substituting words like 'a period of dryness'.

But, I love the word 'drought'. The wonderful, Old English and Old German term has a croaking quality that epitomises the dust-choking desolation of nature turned nasty.

'A period of environmental stess due to rainfall deficit' sounds like something out of a psychiatrist's diagnostic manual. Maybe, that's the pertinent link.

Redefining the Concept of Drought

More Organisations Giving Up on E-mails

It seems it's not just large corporates, like Volkswagen and Atos, that are suppressing e-mails at work. Microblogging is faster and simpler. It may be taking over. Could such a change in workplace communication shift the pace of an office? It may encourage staff to deal with fewer messages of less detail. Maybe that's a good thing. What do you think?

CEO Bans E-mails

Microblogging at Work

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words (or fewer)

A graduate student at New York University has created a camera that describes, in words, the photographs it takes.

It seems to take a bit of time to create the words (involving uploading the image to the web) but we may be on the verge of a breakthrough for visually impaired web users.

I can't wait for someone to create a method of choosing the writing style to describe the scene. Imagine choosing the language of Ernest Hemmingway or Mark Twain. If you can work creatively with photographs (sepia tone, twist, bend, exaggerate), why not with the text that describes the scene?

Photographs in Words

The Wonderful Flavour of 'Casual Language'

Does texting presage the imminent death of language or does it resonate with a deeply human voice?

John McWhorter says of texting,
'This speech on paper is vibrant, creative and “real” in exactly the way that we celebrate in popular forms of music, art, dance and dress style'.

Read this distinquished linguist's view on writing and talking with our fingers.

Talking With Your Fingers

It's On! Comma Nuts at Twenty Paces

The New Yorker has hit back at the New York Times' article on commas. There is none so angry as a commarian scolded.
(Actually, I think this is great fun.)

Commas are Hot

Government Becomes
a Social Network

Read my latest article featured in The Canberra Times.
Public Sector Informant: Editor: Markus Mannheim; April 2012

About 550 years ago, Johannes Gutenberg released the screw press on his wooden, printing machine and peeled off the first ink-wet sheet of paper from the forme. He could not have realised the significance of what he held in his hands. He had pressed much more than alloyed letters against paper. He had squeezed language against technology and made a lasting impression on European society and the world.

More ...

Is this the End of Microsoft Word
As We Know It?

Tom Scocca writes an interesting piece on Word for The Sydney Morning Herald. He is fed up, clearly, and has some thoughts on where text production may be heading: i.e. in a post-Word world.

See what you think and e-mail me your thoughts. Please don't send any text as a Word attachment. The irony would be overwhelming. ;-)

Maybe he'll have a go at Outlook next. Interesting, that a couple of multinational organisations have banned or severely limited e-mails, arguing that most are a waste of time.

End of MS Word?

Not Everyone Agrees About the Comma ...
but, you have to have to start somewhere with punctuation.

Discussion about the comma and punctuation usually generates fierce reactions and quickly creates political factions.

I am in the 'put it all in' camp. But, I am almost alone. I realise that.

Read this fascinating, although not utterly sound, article in The New York Times about commas. But, disregard the author's comments on commas after words like 'but' at the start of sentence. And, e-mail me if you are as silly as I am about punctuation. (We could organise some group counselling.)

Commas are Go!

Accessibility Means First That People Can Read It

When it comes to websites and other electronically provided information, government spends inordinate amounts of time, money and effort to ensure that everyone with a disability can access information. Fair enough, too.

However, I always strikes me that the first point of call for accessibility is whether the reader can read the information, understand it and act on it.

My concerns were raised again when I read an article on the BBC website relating to medical information: www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-17381926.

The lead was 'One in three adults aged over 65 in England have difficulty understanding basic health-related information'.

So what? Well, there seemed to be a disturbing correlation between literacy and deaths among the less than literate. The article continued ...

'Using a short test containing four questions, based on instructions similar to those found on a packet of aspirin, the researchers assessed the participants' ability to read and understand the information.

'They found that 67.5% had high health literacy (achieved the maximum score), 20% were classed as medium (made one error) and 12.5% had low health literacy (got two, one or no questions correct).'

This type of information is surely making it perfectly plain that information must be intelligible to the reader. No amount of effort in relation to high-tech accessibility for disabled people has much impact when substantial numbers of clients can't understand, even if the information is in a community language or is provided in Braille or in audio form.

Accessibility must mean, first and above all, that the information is understandable ... not just translatable.

Gov 2.0: Revolution Brewing

The push for open government has, to my mind, as many negatives as positives. I pride myself in being open minded about such initiatives but I remain concerned about security, privacy and confidential commercial information. A great deal of good thinking and planning has already been completed in these areas, but it is going to be a difficult balancing act. Add to that the different mindset that about 165 000 APS staff will have to accept and act upon, let alone the thousands working in state, territory and local government organisations.

No matter whether you think government 2.0 and the concept of open government are good or bad, it is important to be engaged with the process. The more involvement, the better the outcome. No surprise that the excellent report of the Gov 2.0 Taskforce has that title: Engage.

Check out the Australian and international websites that focus on this important issue on our new page dedicated to government 2.0 resources. Add your own links, too.

Gov 2.0 Resources

Save the 'postrophe!

Read Imre Salusinszky's wonderful article on a precious piece of punctuation.  http://bit.ly/q3L2eF

Job Description

Read the fascinating job description that someone, who was leaving Google, received from Facebook.

'Come hang out with us for a while and we'll see what happens

Question Time Brief Becomes World-Wide Hit

Watch my favourite Question Time Brief being delivered by Minister Hans-Rudolph Merz of Switzerland's Bundesrat. The QTB's author is unknown.


Punctuation is Usually Seen But Not Heard

Watch the classic Victor Borge routine that puts punctuation into everyday conversation.


Jane Austen’s Punctuation Problem

There is a remarkable fact about authors that their parents and editors know very well. Many successful writers do not understand punctuation. Part of the manuscript of Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion is on display in the British Library in London. She used dashes for subordinate clauses. Occasionally, she dropped in a comma but, apparently, in odd places. Austen didn’t ‘get’ paragraphs, at all. In this manuscript, she used none.

There are stories around that Henry Lawson struggled with punctuation. Of course, he had the ‘voice of the bush’ down pat. More interestingly, Charles Dickens used decisive and eccentric punctuation to intensify his prose. His text benefited from this brilliant enhancement.


The ‘E’ and the Hyphen at the Start of e-Words

Should we use a hyphen in words that begin with ‘e’ (for electronic)? How do we deal with upper case letters?

I’ve struck this issue many times and I must admit that I am often uncertain about the best approach. The Commonwealth Style Manual recommends hyphens: ‘e-book’, ‘e-business’ and ‘e-learning’. I do not always follow that recommendation. For example, I use ‘email’ and ‘ebook’. However, I would not use ‘elearning’ or ‘ewriting’. So, I am far from consistent. I am worried that my decisions are simply based on how the word looks with an ‘e’ in front of it.

There is another problem. Should I use an upper case ‘e’ or should the letter following the ‘e’ become a capital? I would prefer not follow the Style Manual’s recommendation to begin sentences with an upper case ‘e’. It looks odd to write ‘Ebook’, ‘Ebusiness’, ‘Elearning’ and ‘Ewriting’ (when I don’t use the hyphen). So, that leaves me with ‘e-Book’, ‘e-Business’, ‘e-Learning’ and ‘e-Writing’.

It’s time for a decision. Suddenly, the use of the hyphen looks appropriate. Maybe, I should go back to the Style Manual’s approach: ‘e-book’, ‘e-business’, ‘e-learning’ and ‘e-writing’.

Same Difference

I have been thinking about ornamentation in writing: the rhymes, rhythms and resonances that enliven text.

I love repeated patterns like parallelism, cadence and consonance. Alliteration works well, as does assonance. It’s a joy to read similar sounds soaring to a climax that ends in an ominous onomatopoeia.

Someone recently pointed out (a little insensitively) that I am conflicted in writing. I love the rules of grammar and punctuation, that’s true. But, I fly to the poetic oddity and the occasional inelegant lurch of language.

For me, repeated patterns are fun, but so are contrasts (in a different way). I like occurrences that are contradictory.

I laugh when an oxymoron runs slowly to mind and enjoy the bump of unexpected stress points. I pause over odd-used words gleaming with calculated ambiguity and thrill to the single exclamation after a page of sprawling sentences. I want to hear my heart sing. To see pigs fly. To touch the sky.

But, sameness and difference in ornamentation have worried away at me for longer than they ought. There seems to be a more profound role for these two concepts in writing (and in communication more generally).

Sameness has a deeper significance. Think of subject–verb agreement. Think of consistency in spelling. Think of repeated sentences using active voice. Think of full stops at the end of every sentence.

Sameness is at the core of grammar, punctuation, spelling and style.

Then, there is difference. It lies within the heart of ‘however’, ‘yet’, ‘but’ and ‘despite’. These transitions tilt different facts against each other, set the mind to measuring and create structure in the process. Different voices set the antagonist against the protagonist to create the drama of a scene. Irony layers a different story for those who care to notice.

So, writing is shot through with sameness and difference that works for and against each other all at once.

In fact, human communication seems to be saturated with sameness and difference, as well as the delicious harmonies and discords of their interaction.

I think that writing (and human communication) is utterly simple. It’s repetition and dissonance. It’s repetition and splatter.

My guide to writing, simply put, is ‘Repeat. Repeat. Then, shatter the pattern’.

AP Stylebook Breaks New Ground

Associated Press has released its 2010 Stylebook. It’s important because many writers, not just journalists, use the AP Stylebook for guidance in relation to modern style.

The biggest reaction by readers was to the change in the word (note the singular) ‘website’. It was previously ‘web site’.

The Stylebook also has a new section, ‘Social Media Guidelines’, on how to deal with Twitter and Facebook. The authors have included explanations of neologisms such as ‘app, blogs, click-throughs, friend, unfriend, metadata, RSS, search engine optimization, smart phone, trending, widget and wiki’.

They have decided to stay with ‘e-mail’, ‘e-book’ and ‘e-reader’. That worries me because ‘email’, for example, has become internationally standardised. But, ‘ereader’, of course, may take a little longer to settle in.


US State Department Engages Directly Via Twitter

I was reading through my 'government' twitter list when I saw the following:

StateDept Tweet your ?'s about #SecClinton's travel to #China to @StateDept. Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell will answer soon.

I immediately noticed the interesting use of the question mark and the apostrophe to signify the word 'questions' and the embedded hashtags for Secretary Clinton and China.

What drew my attention even more was the direct and powerful relationship being established between the State Department and those using Twitter to learn more about US foreign affairs.

Such engagement and openness should be applauded.

Isn't it time Australian government leaders and officials began engaging more openly with citizens through Twitter?

Grammatical Rules Become Tyrannical

For a long time, I have thought that prescriptivism is more about social control than about correct grammar. Of course, if you use correct grammar, you are more likely to be understood. However, I have seen too many people using their knowledge as a social weapon. Endlessly trying to correct other people's language can be irritating or worse.

In government, we should try to use language that is easily understood and socially appropriate. To follow labyrinthine rules (some of which may be of dubious provenance) is almost always a waste of time.

It is refreshing to read about grammar without the prescriptivists constantly demanding corrections.


Federal Government Responds to Engage:
Gov. 2.0 Report
Overall, the Federal Government has responded positively to the Engage report, which covers everything from public servants' use of online social networks to security and IP issues. The report challenges 'old style' public service attitudes and calls for 'a more consultative, participatory and transparent government'.

There are big challenges in Gov. 2.0 and big gains to be made.


Archivist of the US on Twitter Archive Acquisition

Archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero, has written about the acquisition of Twitter's digital archive. He examines, with a wonderful archival mind, the donation from the perspective of an archival institution. The research opportunities should be fascinating.

Plain Language Supported by the US Government
As the powerful surge for open government rises, public sector workers must keep their writing simple and readable. Of course, that is not as easy as it sounds. There is a counteracting demand to be precise. See the US government site on Plain Language.

Open Government Meets Intellectual Property

Open Government is now a world-wide phenomenon. From Moscow to Ottawa, people are exploring and, to some extent, acting on the principles of Gov 2.0. Ideas about open data, open sources and open communication are driving change in the way government understands its role.

However, there are going to be interesting clashes of culture and character. One that we should all be considering is 'Open Government versus Commercial Intellectual Property'. In simplistic terms, why should a business offer its intellectual property to the world gratis because it is stipulated by a single contract with a government entity? In the area of IP, I think Open Government will crumble. Commercial imperatives will dominate.

What's your perspective on this conflict?

Email your thoughts.

Online Gives Time for Reflection

Read these thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of online communication. There are some interesting thoughts here, particularly about who may find themselves comfortable with online talk. What is particularly interesting is how flexible time can be in online communication. In some circumstances, communication can be almost instant. In others, there are long-term archival characteristics that enable reflective and considered responses. Fascinating.


Managing Multiple Blogs and Millions of Tweets

Kikolani.com provides a good overview on managing Twitter, if you are a blogger. Read simple, comprehensive insights into controlling the mind-boggling complexity of multiple blogs and millions of tweets. It's refreshing to see a professional's direct experience clearly explained.


Ten-point Checklist for Government Websites

It's easy to forget the basics when you are trying to hold a government website together. There are so many issues to keep in mind. Here's a list to keep those basics at the forefront. Remember, process must not overcome outcome.


AGIMO Developing Guidelines for Blogging

The Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) is sorting out the appropriate practices and protocols that Department of Finance and Deregulation staff should follow when they blog. Check out this and other important work being done by AGIMO.


The Future of the APS Laid Out in PM&C Report

Terry Moran, Sec. of PM&C, has released Ahead of the Game: blueprint for the reform of Australian government administration. It provides significant strategic signals to the APS about where it's going and how it's going to get there.


Twitter the Future of Government Communication?

Evan Williams, a co-founder of Twitter spoke with the BBC recently and had some thoughts that, if they prove true, will have a profound impact on the way we deal with communication in the public sector.

See the interview at ...


Government 2.0 Report

The Government 2.0 Taskforce's report has been released and offers great insights, good principles and a great guide to the future of public sector communication.

Download a copy at ...


British Government Provides Strategic Guidance on Micro-blogging

The British Government has created a document that sets out some parameters and principles related to public sector workers' use of Twitter. Micro-blogging may form a significant part of a public servant's work in the future.


Grammar Guide Glitch?

Read the fascinating article on an 'error-strewn' grammar guide that has been distributed to Queensland English teachers.

Find it at ...


Slang is Bad, Innit?

Read the article from the BBC in which the enduring worry about the behaviour of teenagers is conflated with concerns about the imminent collapse of English. Or, maybe it is not the collapse of English that is the threat. It may be that some English teenagers have not learned to change their communication style to suit different social contexts.

'Slang is sabotaging language, with some teenagers unable to speak in any other way, say critics. So should it be banned in schools?'

Read more at ...


National Punctuation Day

“A celebration of the lowly comma, correctly used quotes, and other proper uses of periods, semicolons, and the ever-mysterious ellipsis.”

The sixth National Punctuation Day in the US was held on 24 September. I would say that we need an Australian Punctuation Day.

The NPD runs activities, games and contests in businesses and schools. This year the NPD is focusing on a baking contest.

Visit the website at <http://www.nationalpunctuationday.com/>.

Texting Doesn’t Harm Children’s Spelling Skills

The Canadian Press has reported the findings of research that suggests that using SMS abbreviations and short forms (like ‘lol’ and ‘cul8r’) does not influence children’s ability to spell correctly.

The study, conducted by staff at the University of Alberta, involved monitoring instant messages of children up to 17 years old. Later, the participants completed a spelling test. The good spellers did well. The bad spellers did not.

Read more by visiting the website: <www.google.com/hostednews/canadianpress/article/ALeqM5gu9l--c5DoBRLhsn-ixpp_AXZKgg>.

Spelling in New Zealand

The New Zealand Herald has reported that the spelling of the name ‘Wanganui’ is causing concern, particularly in street names. Apparently, the word should be spelt ‘Whanganui’. Now, there are moves afoot to correct the problem in various communities.

Read about the ‘h’ by going to <www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10599427>.

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