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Editing as an essential service

In a time of crisis, misinformation spreads faster than ever. The current COVID-19 pandemic is no different. Back in the 14th century, the rapid spread of bubonic plague was blamed on a variety of causes, including a divine punishment for collective sin, celestial alignment of the stars and an imbalance in the human body’s ‘four […]

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Seeing names: the fascinating world of synaesthesia

I’m terrible at remembering people’s names. I’m well aware of this deficiency and over the years I’ve made a conscious effort to address it, admittedly with limited success. As Dale Carnegie once observed, ‘A person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.’ For Carnegie this was simply good […]

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Email tone detector: helpful tool or cultural imperialism?

I’m always interested to see how automation and artificial intelligence are being deployed to help people write more clearly. The latest innovation to catch my eye is a ‘tone detector’ from the popular writing assistant software developer Grammarly. At the time of writing, the beta version of the tone detector is available as part of […]

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A New Year’s resolution on hedging

As 2020 draws near, I think about what I did this time last year, when I said things such as ‘I reckon I’ll exercise more’, ‘Maybe I’ll join the gym’. Hang on. ‘I reckon’? ‘Maybe’? What’s that? That’s hedging – choosing language to make room for alternative possibilities, expressing something indirectly or expressing our level […]

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Four writing styles and when to use them

If you were to read the instructions for operating a nuclear reactor, you would expect it to be written very differently to a novel about a nuclear accident, or a newspaper editorial about the merits (or otherwise) of nuclear power. Broadly speaking, there are four different styles of writing: expository, descriptive, persuasive and narrative. The […]

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Nouns for the masses

Noun words are members of an extensive family, but their variety can be confusing. A while back, I spoke with a friend who came to English later in life, her first language being Mandarin. We were collaborating on a writing project, and she wondered why it was ‘two pieces of fruit’ and not ‘two fruits’. […]

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Where words go when they die

The current online version of the Macquarie Dictionary lists 138,000 words and 210,000 different definitions. According to an online survey of 2 million (admittedly self-selected) people, the average adult has a vocabulary of 20,000–35,000 words. Which begs the question, what happens with the rest? Some words are part of industry jargon or have a technical […]

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