“Is Australian English even a thing?”

YES. It is. Trust me. 

Dr. Lynne Murphy recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of her (wonderful, intelligent and impressively well-researched) blog Separated by a Common Language by sharing a list of her most-visited posts from 2010 to present. And what really struck me,  as often does when reading her blog, is that Australian English is so different yet again — we might use the US English word for one thing and the UK English word for another, or we might have a completely different word for it altogether.

The following isn’t an exhaustive demonstration by any means, but based on Lynne’s blogiversary list:

  • Bed sizes. As Lynne points out, the Australian system differs from both the US and UK alternatives. (I have never heard the term small double, and the Australian dimensions for single, double, queen and king are all different from the US/UK ones anyway.)
  • “Do you have…?” vs. “Have you got…?”. In Australia I’m quite sure nobody would notice if you said one or the other.
  • Valet and filet. In Australia we pronounce valet as “val-AY” like Americans, not “val-let” like the Brits. But fillet is pronounced and spelled the British way: we use a FIL-leting knife to FIL-let a fish, with two Ls and a hard T. Aussies only use the US/French “fil-LAY” pronunciation for Francophone/meat-related specificities like filet mignon. (In the same post, Lynne discusses schedule with a “sk–” (US) versus a “sh–” (UK). This one can go either way in Australia, although at some point in your life someone will probably tell you that your way is wrong and theirs is right.)
  • Australians grew up hitting pound — # — on a phone (US English), as opposed to hash (UK).* Hash is mostly reserved for hashtag.
  • And I grew up throwing slumber parties (US) not pyjama parties (UK)**
  • … but the Macquarie Dictionary, the standard reference for Australian English, has woah (UK) not whoa (US), and we definitely say maths (UK) not math (US).

Lynne’s big list of vegetables is probably the best proof that Australian English isn’t the same as UK English or US English. We eat eggplant, zucchini, endive and snow peas (US) – not aubergine, courgette, chicory and mange tout (UK) … but we also have rocket, beetroot, spring onion and cos (UK) – not arugula, beet, scallion and romaine (US). Not to mention that what US and UK English both call a pepper is a capsicum in Australia — where pepper is the thing that goes with salt — and pretty much all gourds count as pumpkins — squash refers only to pattypan (US) or summer (UK) squash.

From the untranslatables list — words that exist in either UK or US English but not both — Australian English does actually have some translations.

  • Lie-in (n., UK English only) = sleep-in — as in “I had a great sleep-in on the weekend”.
  • For kitty-corner (US only), we just say “diagonally across from”.
  • Builder’s tea (UK) sounds like Australian camp tea, bush tea or billy tea.
  • AU English does have the US poster child (UK does not), but like UK English does not have the US crunchy (as in hippie-ish).
  • Like US English we do not have a word for the UK overegging (overdoing) or the US tailgating (partying in the parking lot at a sporting event) but do have the US word antsy (anxious and jumpy) and the UK locum (a temporary replacement doctor).

So the next time someone says “Isn’t Australian English just the same as British English?” or “What exactly do you do for a living?”, maybe I’ll direct them to this blog post (hello, reader). I might even invite them to read Speaking Our Language — a fantastic book on how Australian English came to be, which does much to dispel the prejudice against Australian English as a bastardised version of the original “pure” English.

What I won’t do is provide an exhaustive itemised list of the differences between the three, or a statistical breakdown, in percentages, of how much AU English is like or unlike UK and US English. That is an impossibility, even for me.


*See this TRULY DELIGHTFUL explanation of the hash/pound/octothorpe, including some zombie-related typographical art.

**But we do spell pyjama the British way (as opposed to the US pajama).


Rules vs guidelines. Perfection vs style.

Most copy editors conceive of themselves as something between traffic cops and U.N. peacekeepers, and adverbs are not illegal. They are not war crimes. Which is just as well, because I don’t think immersion in either rules or theory can do much for style, and the question of adverbs is, in the end, a question of style… Whether you venerate or violate prescriptions, it’s diction that really matters, diction and word order. We are first of all slaves to our eyes and our ears, not to that wondrous document The Chicago Manual of Style.

– Christian Lorentzen, Can We Just Lose the Adverb (Already)?

As I’ve said before over on the Editor Group blog, I feel the same way about proofreading (and editing and writing) as I do about baking. (Or maybe it’s the other way around. Whatever.)

Yes, there are rules, and it’s important to learn the rules — mostly so that you know which ones are unimpeachable, and which ones are more like guidelines.

A piece of writing riddled with errors is one kind of horrible.

Even worse*: writing that’s technically perfect but completely devoid of any spirit — any echo of the human mind that created it.

Now that’s a nightmare.


*Okay, maybe it’s not worse, but it’s definitely more disappointing than you’d think.

It’s NOT all just English to me


As someone whose business it is to know (and recognise, and apply) the differences between US, UK and Australian English, I loved the  ‘Shop Talk’ Q&A on the Chicago Manual of Style Online.

Most people know that UK (and Australian) English use –our and –ise endings rather than the –ize and –or of US English*, but seldom appreciate (in both senses of the word**) the vague and nebulous differences that are so subtle and instinctive they’re almost impossible to list or categorise. 

This particular excerpt is very close to my heart:

…the word cookie is more and more common in the UK, but it would never refer to the hard, sweet biscuits that the British dunk in their tea (and Americans would call cookies). Cookie is used in the UK just for the kinds of cookies that have come over from America—the big, soft kind that are sold individually in shopping centers and coffee shops.

For almost infinitely more on the topic from Lynne Murphy, read her blog, Separated By a Common Language.

Bill Bryson’s book The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way is also heavenly. I suddenly have an urge to reread it. Again.

Not to mention colorize/colourise.


Appreciate - Google

{Thanks, Google}

@: The fulcrum of our digital identities

The Unlikely Evolution of  @ (@ Fast Company) 

Once a bookkeeper’s shorthand, @ has become the fulcrum of our digital identities. How did that happen?

“In Danish, the symbol is known as an “elephant’s trunk a”; the French call it an escargot. It’s a streudel in German, a monkey’s tail in Dutch, and a rose in Istanbul. In Italian, it’s named after a huge amphora of wine…

In 1971, a keyboard with a vestigial @ symbol inherited from its typewriter ancestors found itself hooked up to an ARPANET terminal manned by Ray Tomlinson…

“It’s difficult to imagine anyone in Tomlinson’s situation choosing anything other than the ‘@’ symbol, but his decision to do so at the time was inspired,” explains Houston on his blog. “Firstly, it was extremely unlikely to occur in any computer or user names; secondly, it had no other significant meaning for the operating system on which it would run, and lastly, it read intuitively–user ‘at’ host.”

READ THIS POST because it’s wonderful. I especially love the identification of @ as the fulcrum of an email address. Because it IS one!

And then if you can resist pre-ordering Keith Houston’s upcoming book you’re a stronger person than I. (Come on. It’s called Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation. How could I/you resist?) 

In defence of proofreading

I am a proofreader.

I would be even if it wasn’t on my business card. (It is.)

I wake up a proofreader. I go to sleep a proofreader. It’s possible my dreams are pedantic.

I adore abstract art, and messy hair, and long-form improvised jazz, and unplanned weekends. But the methodical neural sequences are always running — as subtle, pervasive and persistent as those that maintain subconscious respiration and the miraculous auto-focus of my blessedly functional human eyes. I don’t switch this part of me on and off as I approach and depart the office each day.

As a proofreader, that’s the way things work, and it’s the way I work (even when I’m not at work). Just as an artist sees the world through creative eyes even in the non-painting, non-sculpting, non-drawing moments. Just as the curiosity that drives a scientist, deep-sea explorer or astronomer isn’t silenced the moment they step away from the microscope, periscope or telescope.

{image via PowerScore}

People are afraid of the red pen.

They fear seeing their writing covered in proofreading glyphs, and they resent the person who made it so.

Some editors use green or purple ink because red is ‘too aggressive’.

But red is also the colour of love, and of passion.

I do not proofread in anger. I proofread with passion. When I scrawl all over the page, I am sharing the writer’s devotion to the words they have coaxed forth. It is with love that I — as gently as possible — nurture and nudge those words just a little bit more, hoping to make them as perfect as we both desire them to be.

So writers? Don’t hate the red pen. Your proofreader actually loves your writing.

Proofreaders, don’t be ashamed to be called a persnickety, pedantic perfectionist. Wear that badge with pride (especially if you couldn’t take it off if you wanted to).

And everyone: go to as many Sydney Writers’ Festival events as you can between now and Sunday (26 May 2013). Let your brain be caressed and your thoughts provoked.

Unsavoury weather?

When the weather contradicts what the season should dictate — for example, by delivering Summer-like warmth on an April day (unexpected in either hemisphere) — we say the weather is “unseasonably warm”.

When savoury food isn’t salt-and-peppery enough, we say it’s unseasoned (and probably unsavoury).

So why “unseasonably warm”?

Hint: it’s not because we can’t improve the weather with salt and pepper.


The OED lists season (n.) as “any one of the periods, longer or shorter, into which the year is naturally divided by the earth’s changing position in regard to the sun” (and so on). That’s all based on an early version of the verb to sow (thus “sowing time” , from Latin and Vulgar Latin via Old French and Middle English, with variations in Modern French, Catalan, Portuguese, Italian). Humans have been talking about seasons since about 1340.

The concept of seasoning (v.) — “to render more palatable by the addition of some savoury ingredient” — turned up in around 1400, and is based on the same Old French concept: we leave fruit to ripen fully with the seasons, becoming as delicious as possible before we devour it or bake it into a pie.*

So unseasonal weather makes sense to me. But why unseasonable and unseasonably? Unable to be seasoned?


The construction is literally just season + the able suffix.

Season+able (adj.) means “occuring at the right time or season”.*

Season+ably (adv.) means “in a fitting time; at the right moment; in due season”.

But if you ask me, the real answer comes back to a noun: seasonableness.

Screen Shot 2013-04-14 at 8.19.30 PM

So if something is unseasonable it’s unsuitable or unreasonable.

When I comfortably wear a sundress in April — or am forced to wear a woollen scarf in December** — I do so because of weather that is unreasonably warm or cold (within the context of the season). I am unable to provide a reason for such inexplicable weather …Except to say that we should consume less, recycle more, and look for alternative sources of low-impact, renewable, sustainable energy.

And all this still has very little to do with salt and pepper, other than the fact that a cold day in Summer is generally thought to be unsavoury.


As opposed to seasonal (adj.), which means “depending on or happening with the seasons”. In Japan, cherry blossoms appear seasonally; if they flowered all through the year they would be unseasonal — unrelated to or unaffected by the prevailing season. Which means you could talk about an “unseasonally warm day” and still technically be correct, but you lose the element of unreasonableness and incongruity.

** That one is hemisphere-specific.


#$*&^! = Grawlix

>> A word for that: Grawlix

Until its OED entry is solemnized, we’ll have to settle for this definition on Wiktionary: “grawlixn. A string of typographical symbols used (especially in comic strips) to represent an obscenity or swear word.” I don’t think I’ll ever look at a character set quite the same way again.

%^&*@ing glorious!

Read the whole thing at Hoefler & Frere-Jones (via @GrammarMonkeys and @mental_floss)