Australian English Style Guide
[ Issue 4 ]

'The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide', by Pam Peters, keeps Emily Bronto occupied for hours

Permit Bikwil to reveal the delights of 'The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide', by Pam Peters

Australian English Style Guide

Pam Peters' Cambridge Australian English Style Guide is reviewed here by resident language fan Harlish Goop.  He reckons it's something really special, much of its appeal deriving from its fresh informal style.   

Her book may be a whopping 800-odd pages, but you can actually sit down, open it at virtually any page and read it for pleasure

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A Word in Your Pink Shell-like — Harlish Goop


Before I forget, the tenth Style Council conference (State Library of NSW, 22-23 November) has now issued its agenda. Those interested should contact (02)9850 9800 a.s.a.p. As hinted in the previous issue of Bikwil, the cost for late birds is higher ($275) and it’s an extra $25 for the Friday arvo seminar on the Mac. Dict. 3rd ed.

OK. Onward.

When I was doing some German at Sydney Uni in the late 1950s, the Professor was Ralph Farrell. Apart from his interest in the poetry of Eduard Mörike, he had a passion — doubtless born of frustration in marking student prose attempts — for explaining differences between German words that English speakers imagine are synonymous. (Germans rarely confuse them, of course.) Who better, then, as a guide than a German expert whose native language was English?

So for years he worked on his Dictionary of German Synonyms, and in 1953 Cambridge University Press published it. Its main innovation is that the words are arranged alphabetically by English concept, not German. Needless to say, his many real-world German examples complete the picture. For my part, I was always impressed by Farrell’s ability to explain shades of meaning, emphasis and tone, as well as the more obvious distinctions of informal verus literary usage.

Today I’d like to refer you wholeheartedly to another CUP publication, The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide (1995+), by Pam Peters. Over 40 years separate these two language reference books, and, leaving aside their language of focus, in at least one other aspect they are as different as the passing of those decades might suggest. That aspect is that of their formality: Farrell is a bit dry; Peters, as we will see below, is quite chatty. Yet both have a persuasive, credible feel — a tribute in each case to their flawless scholarship and gifted explanations.

Presumably you need little introduction to publications of their ilk, and will be well-acquainted with H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926+) and similarly respected works, like Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage (1947+) and Ernest Gower’s Plain Words (1948-51). Some of you may even have been tempted to look into more recent or more local volumes from that multitude of language watchmen I mentioned in an earlier column (Issue 2, July 1997), such as Phillip Howard’s Weasel Words (1978) or Nick Renton’s Elements of Style and Good Writing (1990).

Good clean fun, all of them (very clean), but as style guides go The Cambridge Australian English Style Guide has achieved something really special. As is sometimes the case, it’s really two books in one, the two aspects being style as applied to writing (language usage) and style in the publisher’s sense (editorial policy). Yet you are hardly aware of it, partly by virtue of the book’s single alphabetical arrangement, but chiefly because Pam Peters succeeds in seamlessly weaving the two strands together by cross-references, or by introducing useful linguistic information into articles on editorial style and vice versa. (Have a look at the first-class entry on hyphens.)

Much of the appeal of this reference work is its own informal style, a feature commented on by every reviewer, because of its freshness. Pam Peters may be an academic linguist (Macquarie Uni in Sydney) and her book may be a whopping 800-odd pages, but you can actually sit down, open it at virtually any page and read it for pleasure.

I like the conversational abbreviations (e.g. it’s, there’s), plus the frequent rhetorical questions as introductions to tricky points, e.g.:

Does the gerund require a possessive?

There are wry quips, too:

[installment or instalment] If you have the next repayment on your layby hanging over you, it seems beside the point to ask whether it’s spelled with one l or two

The pronoun me comes very close to us all, though grammarians and other language commentators of the past have made us rather self-conscious about it

. . . computer grammar checkers . . . are always at their most reliable on the most mechanical aspects of language.

Before I wind up, I’ll try to whet your appetite some more by pointing to a random selection of her thorough yet easy-to-read essays:

collective nouns
its or it’s
taboo words
though or although.

And let’s not forget those useful articles on specific prefixes and suffixes, either (e.g. “-ise/-ize”).

$75 in hard-cover, $30 in soft. O.K. Out you go right now. Get it.

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