The old Runic alphabet was common in early Norway but supplanted eventually with the Latin alphabet.

futhark - NorrøntThe word rune comes from the Norse rún which means mystery. No one knows exactly when, where or by whom the runes were invented. The only thing archaeologists can confirm is that the oldest runic inscriptions we know of are about 1700 years old found in Denmark and Norway.

The runic alphabet was used within Germanic languages – but primarily in the Nordic countries. It was a writing system where each character marked a certain sound. The alphabet is called Futhark after the first six runes. (An observant reader count seven letters in the name: The reason is that th is a diphthong – the same sound as the English sound th in thing). The original name is spelled fuþark.

Runes could be written in both directions from right to left or left to right. The runes could also be inverted or upside down.

The elder Futhark…

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Fluff words or … please don’t tell me, show me

a lioness hunting worthogs in the western corr...

a lioness hunting worthogs in the western corridor of the Serengeti Deutsch: Löwin jagt Warzenschweine in der Serengeti (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You know them … the words that tell you what the author sees, but you can’t see anything because the author has not shown you what he or she actually sees. What do you see when a writer says ‘beautiful’, ‘ugly’, ‘dangerous’ or uses verbs like ‘kill’, ‘loved’, ‘swam’ ? … words that are full of air and no substance. The writer has so much opportunity to portray an image in the reader’s mind that can seem more real than reality itself. You’ve heard the term ‘Larger than life’ – which is what a good writer can do. It is an escape from the ordinary to the extraordinary.

Okay, let me demonstrate what can be done. Take the first example word ‘beautiful’. Say the author writes ‘It was a beautiful sunset.’  The author knows what they say, but is it the same as the reader can see, and will the reader be able to use as many of their senses in re-experiencing that sunset? Yes, more words need to be used, but the description then becomes powerful. Consider the following expansion:

‘A warm breeze, filled with the burnt-honey scent of melaleuca blossoms drifted across the verandah as a flock of fruit bats flapped across a golden sky in their hundreds, creating black silhouettes as they flew to their nightly roosts. Shafts of light were cast through the clouds like stationary search lights. I raised a wine to my lips as the sun melted into red and yellow as it sunk into the ocean.’

Here the sunset is not just a narrow visual image but filters across into the senses of feeling (warm breeze), smell (scent of flowers), taste (the wine). It is a much more sensual experience that shows you so much more than a mere sunset. You have a sense of tropical Australia with the fruit bats (flying foxes), melaleuca (tea tree or paperbark) and verandah (Queenslander style house). You can then experience what the author is saying is beautiful.

Let’s move on to the verb ‘kill’. An example: ‘The lioness killed the zebra.’  That’s nice and neat. There’s no emotional involvement for the reader, who can remain aloof and unaffected. But what about this:

‘The lioness lunged out of its crouching position in the grass. All her will was focused on the zebra as it noticed, too late, that it was being pursued. The zebra snorted and ran. It’s heart was pumping rapidly as it tore into full flight. The lioness zig-zagged in step with the zebra’s frantic attempt to elude capture. Long claws dug into hide as the lioness cloaked the body of the zebra, then sunk its razor teeth into the animal’s neck, tearing and pulling until the zebra lost balance and collapsed, tumbling along with the lioness as she maintained pressure …’

The reader finds themselves now as part of the experience. My example may be rough but it does convey much more than merely saying that the lion killed the zebra. You can feel the zebra’s panic and the weight of the lioness as she pulls it down. Notice, however, that I am using a smattering of adjectives. They are like seasoning … use just the right amount and it is agreeable.


The lie of the lay or the lay of the lie

This is one I’ve avoided because I’ve found it a difficult one, but The Cambridge Guide for English Usage – a trusted friend of mine when editing – has shed some light on this nebulous and hazardous pairing of words. Of course, I speak of ‘lie‘ and ‘lay‘ and how to work out what goes where and when.

Okay, first there is lie to tell an untruth, with past tense and past participle both spelt as ‘lied‘.

That’s easy enough so far, but then we meet lie to be in a horizontal position, with past tense ‘lay‘ and past participle ‘lain‘.

And then it gets tricky. We have the present tense word lay, which is spelt the same as the past tense of the latter lie. This word means “put, place, set down” with past tense and past participle ‘laid‘.

The essential difference pointed out in the guide for ‘lie‘ (2) and ‘lay‘ is that lay takes an object, i.e. you “lay something”. Lie, on the other hand, is intransitive and doesn’t take an object.

Clear as mud? It makes my stomach squirm too. To explain a little on transitive (verb with an object)  and intransitive (without object), consider the following:

They flew me to Singapore. (transitive) or The birds flew away. (intransitive) Or using lie and lay; We lay the groundwork. (transitive for lay present tense) and He lie on the ground sleeping.


Chicken (Photo credit: Ward.)

Oh dash … double dash!

English: CMOS 16 cover image.

English: CMOS 16 cover image. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was intrigued when Port Yonder Press in a Facebook discussion talked about the em dash being used in dialogue (among other things) when speech is interrupted. This was according to the Chicago Manual of Style, which is the bible for editors in America. My editing experience is from an Australian perspective where we often use the ellipsis points (…) as an indication of interrupted speech or where words are omitted. I thought I’d go to the Australian Style Manual for authors, editors and printers, and what I found was quite interesting.

I discovered that the manual talks about the 2-em rule which can be used for sudden breaks and omissions. I go on to quote here my sixth edition on page 107:

A 2-em rule can be used to mark an abrupt break in direct or reported speech: 

I distinctly heard him say, ‘Go away or I’ll —— ‘ 

In this instance a space is used to separate the rule from the preceding word because a complete word is missing. If only part of the word is missing, no space is used:

It was alleged that D—— had been threatened with blackmail.

The double em dash is solid in the manual but I just had to use two em rules in succession here.

The use of the ellipsis is differentiated in the manual (page 110) in that they are primarily used to show an omission of a word or words from quoted material. It goes on to say that ellipsis points can also signify indecision and incompleteness.

Well, as they say (hey, it’s always those clever people called ‘they’!), you learn something new every day.

Don’t spoil a good story with bad editing

Fiction S-Z (a sequel)

Fiction S-Z (a sequel) (Photo credit: Mrs Logic)

AS AN author as well as an editor, I know that we all can make typos and silly mistakes that escape our attention. But writing a full length story or novel shouldn’t be spoilt because you’re in a rush to get it published. I’ve been reading several ebooks of late … all great stories but sprinkled with typos and misspellings that could have easily been picked up by a sharp-eyed proofreader or an editor. I even have writer friends who dismiss a final edit by an expert and rather resort to a scan by family members and friends who are not trained to pick up those errors. I know there is an expense involved, but if you are not prepared to pay a proofreader or editor to go through your copy, then at least learn to do your own editing, arming yourself with a good dictionary and grammar guides.

Hey, I’m not even talking about a substantial edit where a professional editor begins to rewrite your work (although some may indeed need that). The basic need when you finish all the drafts of your work is to find a good proofreader to scan it and fix up all those typos and misspellings that even your wordprocessing program’s spell checker misses. It won’t pick up things like mixing up there, their and they’re or then and than, your, you’re and so on.

I have even seen authors use a word wrongly, creating a whole new meaning that has nothing to do with the word, but is associated with a similar word. An example was an accomplished young author using the word drug as a past tense form of drag. As a reader it was like slamming into a wall every time I read the word … it just stopped me dead for a moment before I could read on.

My concluding advice is if you love writing but you’re not the best in the spelling and grammar department, get a professional to go through it. If you pride yourself on good English structure then go through your copy with a fine tooth comb. You’ll be surprised at what you will pick up.

The Interro what?!

Interrobang big

Interrobang big (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I would like to see this rare punctuation mark in common usage. It has the strange name of Interrobang or interabang and it looks like the picture on the left. And as you can see, it is a combination of a question mark and an exclamation mark. If you use Microsoft Word, then you will find it under ‘more symbols’ with the character code 203D. I recognise the first part of its name associates with the word ‘interrogate’ or ‘to question’, and I’d like to think it is a question with a ‘bang’.

How many times has a writer frustrated over whether to end a sentence with a question mark or an exclamation, as both appear necessary? This is where the handy Interrobang comes to the fore. For example, it suits the What the?! situation. Another example would be in dialogue where the character is shouting out an angry question. “Where do you think you’re going?!”

What do you think? Would you like to see the Interrobang in common usage?

Bad grammar — no job!


I read about a publishing house of technical literature that conducted a grammar test of all its prospective employees, whether they were involved in the editing side or handling the accounts, or manning the front desk … it did not matter what job they did, they had to pass the grammar test first or no job. If they confused their, there and they’re, or your and you’re, it’s and its, then they were shown the door. It is a strict condition of employment, and one that I wish mainstream media applied in Australia, as standards seem to have gone out the window, with news reporters on newspapers clueless on some of the basics of grammar, yet they have graduated with a degree supposedly qualifying them to be journalists.

I think the process of disintegration began in schools decades ago. English grammar was forgotten, to be replaced with the attitude that as long as the story was okay, spelling and grammar rules didn’t matter. I recall when I did my three years for my degree that the university (actually then called a college of advanced education) was forced to introduce some training in grammar rules as students were coming out of school without that knowledge. Of course, the lecturers and tutors could not suitably make up for all those years that grammar had been neglected, and cadets on newspapers and on television and radio news teams were ill prepared. You cannot blame the new journalists themselves, as the system had failed to emphasise the importance of grammar in communicating the right message in their news reporting.

Thus began the downward slide through the ranks. Young  reporters were promoted to sub-editing positions. They had the smarts to pin down a great news story but the expression was lacking. Then, as editors, they failed to pick up all the errors that appeared, and newspapers and captions on TV news showed more and more silly mistakes. What has made it worse is that news groups adopted differing styles for spelling of some words, for example, some adopting upper case to describe names of things while others went for lower case, or hyphenation verses no hyphenation (co-ordinate or coordinate). Reporters began to “leave it to the editors” but not all the editors were much better than the reporters.

I can only speak for regional newspapers in Australia, but I have also noticed glaring errors in captioning on TV news. To their credit, news groups such as the one that employs me have made some effort to address these shortcomings through training sessions, but it is all too little, too late, for many. And, I’m afraid, the rot now has reached the editor level (as in the person who leads the newsroom) … the person with the capital ‘E’ editor who should have impeccable grammar skills.

I know that no person can be perfect in their English expression, and we all make mistakes from time to time, but when the basics are forgotten or confused, then it contributes to the whole dumbing down of the population. So, getting back to the original thought that spurred this post, perhaps media, especially newspapers (and that includes online content providers) should require all its cadets to undertake a grammar test before being employed. Then, just maybe, we can stop the slide.