Writing a tweet involves discipline. Its length is restricted but its meaning may be limitless.

Stormy Seas and Mount FujiI thought that haiku poetry may prove to be helpful practice. After all, I want to write better tweets. For me, that means tweets that sometimes burst through the limitation of 140 characters.

When I asked my followers for a haiku, I received this gem from Dave (@workdayweb).

challenge accepted,

i dare to draft a terse tweet;

counting syllables.

I was mighty impressed. So, I wrote one, too. In an attempt to follow the Japanese tradition more closely, I tried to write about nature from personal experience and to have a strong contrasting element in the poem. Of course, like Dave, I adhered to the 5:7:5 syllable structure. I also worked in a theme of honesty. It’s an old favourite.

Low hills lie sleeping.

Tall trees murmur furtively.

Leaves truly twitter.

Would you like to know more about haiku on Twitter? Follow this link to an interesting National Public Radio piece.

By the way, some call haiku on Twitter ‘Twaiku’. Neat.

hyphenI was asked recently about when to use a hyphen with a prefix.

The word causing concern was ‘nonmandatory’. To hyphenate or not to hyphenate; that was the question.

Of course, the issue is bigger than simply hyphens. It is about the stylistic influences on Australian English.

Generally, removing hyphens when using prefixes is an American style although it is becoming more common in Australian style. So, uncertainty about hyphen use is entirely reasonable. It would be great if there were a simple rule; however, as I will explain, I think there is a ‘rule of thumb’.

The Chicago Manual of Style recommends removing hyphens. American editors and writers would use ‘ballplayer’, ‘billfold’ and ‘applesauce’.

However, the lack of a hyphen may be a little disconcerting for an Australian reader.

Even the Chicago recommends using a hyphen in words where difficulties may arise, such as in ‘pre-existing’ and ‘de-ice’. Similarly, the hyphen can be crucial for some sports professionals: will they resign or re-sign?

The hyphen in ‘nonmandatory’ is not mandatory but it looks too difficult. The ‘nm’ combination is a little odd but not unique (e.g., ‘unmindful’). However, an Australian reader may stumble and need to re-read (or, maybe, ‘reread’).

So, my preference is ‘non-mandatory’ (with a hyphen) for the simple reason that it is easy for an Australian reader to understand at a single glance. And, that’s my ‘rule of thumb’: can they read it without pause?

A few years down the track (or trail), after Australians have adopted more American styles, I would expect to change this recommendation. But, for now, I would hyphenate and breathe easier because the Australian reader will not have to stop and start again.

That’s the last thing you would risk with an Australian reader.

Maybe, you aren’t lazy. Maybe, your work colleagues and all other humans aren’t lazy, either. You may have heard that word ‘lazy’ slung around in claims such as ‘The spell checker makes you lazy’ and ‘The calculator makes you lazy’.

People tend to be ‘lazy’ about things they find too hard, too boring or too obscure. And, they are often energised by things that are easy, entertaining and relevant.

Writing in a public sector environment would, for many people, fall into the first category: too hard, too boring and too obscure. Lots of public servants just try to skate through with their fingers crossed (forgive the mixed idioms) when they are writing at work. Sometimes, they just rely on the embarrassing but sure-fire method of leaving the hard work to their supervisor. Hmmmm.

Another aspect of this ‘laziness’ relates to something I have noticed lately. Imagine you learned a grammatical rule some time back and you have stuck with it. Once learned, never forgotten.

But, there may be a problem. For some rules, the epithet should be ‘once learned, never revisited’.

There is a danger is this approach. At times, the memory falters. Maybe the original rule was too narrow or too specific in some way.

alert woman at deskAfter growing increasingly anxious about the ‘truth’ of the grammar, punctuation and convention ‘rules’ that I had learned when young, I decided to go back to my sources. I toiled through my myriad style manuals, grammar books, punctuation guides and the rest. It was a massive ‘polishing’ effort.

Then, I started visiting websites and blogs. I found lots of new information about writing. I learned plenty about the subtleties and intricacies of modern conventions. And, in the end, I think I learned how to be a better writer.

The answer was not to cling to a rigid certainty about a rule or a style. The answer was to revisit and polish my knowledge. I bet someone gave me a golden nugget of advice when I was young. It was ‘practise continually’. I must remember that.

So, I started giving people links to the various sites I had visited. People I knew asked for more.

That’s when the benefit of having my Twitter account kicked in.

Now, I provide a link via Twitter to every useful article on writing issues, every refresher on grammar and every interesting insight into the world of punctuation. I don’t agree with them all, but a quick read here and there and my knowledge is refreshed. Sometimes, it is confirmed. Sometimes, it is contradicted. I love this approach because it is my own self-training course.

I hope you can benefit, too. If you spend a couple of minutes every day following my Twitter links, I guarantee your writing will improve. It is the perfect training for people who find writing at work to be too hard, too boring and too obscure. It is also excellent for those who care about expressing themselves well in a professional environment.

What else should I be including in my tweets?

Are You Truly Fluent?

December 20, 2015 — Leave a comment

True Fluency Cover What is true fluency? I am not just thinking of fluency in a language like English or Spanish, but in communication itself. What does ‘being fluent’ mean? Who is (and who is not) fluent?

For a number years I have been researching structure in language. By simplifying some of the greater complexities and broadening my understanding, a new and fascinating area of study has opened. I call it ‘Infra Language’.

I have put many of my findings into a new book which is now published on Amazon Kindle.

‘True Fluency’ shows you how to use the power of structural communication. It helps you to understand how and why people think, say, and act as they do. It teaches you how to change yourself and how to change others.

I really did find this approach communication changed they way I thought about how people interact with each other. Infra Language clearly shows how people wield  influence as they manipulate modes to strengthen themselves and to weaken others.

True Fluency shows how five key modes create structure in all messages. Its simple but profound insights will help you to know yourself and everyone else like never before so you can perceive, persuade, and predict like a master (or mistress).

Feel the passion of True Fluency and use the fundamental forms of communication to grow personally and to influence everyone around you.

True Fluency is available at Amazon Kindle.

I really hope you enjoy it and find it useful. If you do, tell me about it.

I read a blog recently, which focused on grammatical and punctuation errors that irritate. I tended to agree with most of what was written but I started to wonder about the way it was presented.

Each article was accompanied by a GIF, one of those brief animations or very short video files, showing the problem written on paper. A hand, holding a red pen, was shown circling the problem and correcting it. No problem, so far.

What has this attitude got to do with editing?

What has this attitude got to do with editing?

But, what worried me about the GIFs was not the error or even the correction, it was the manner in which the correction was made. To identify a missing or misplaced apostrophe, for example, the pen circled the problem around and around, seemingly with increasing irritation and intensity. I wondered whether the point of the pen would break through the paper. I imagined the mind behind the hand yelling, ‘Wrong. Wrong! WRONG!’. There was a strong, triumphalist sense about the act of correction. And, I wondered why.

‘Gotcha’ Moments Do No-one Any Good

I have been involved in writing, editing and publishing for nearly 40 years. During that time, I have found a zillion errors in other people’s text and I have made many of those errors in my own writing, as well. But, I can’t recall having a moment of such intense zealotry that was implied by those GIFs.

No, I take that back. I can recall moments of intense dissatisfaction on the discovery of errors, but only when the person who made the mistake was me.

An editor who is obsessed with a ‘gotcha’ moment does not help the writer, particularly if they are tentative souls. Such bombastic behaviour frightens them. It dampens a writer’s desire to reach out. To find their own voice. Why would they write when they can be ridiculed or abused so easily by an angry expert?

Obviously, good grammar, punctuation, spelling, and style are important in creating effective written communication. But, surely, it’s time for a gentler, more professional approach. Editors are supposed to help people to communicate effectively, not to stall, to suppress and to straighten.

What are your experiences with angry experts?

There was a guy in Canada who was in a pickle. His name was Jack McKay, and I have used the past tense ‘was’ deliberately. Now, his name is different.

Unfortunately, someone somewhere somehow (possibly/probably his mother) put a space between the ‘c’ and the ‘K’ in ‘McKay’. It seems she left a space for a little problem to grow into a big one when she first filled out Jack’s birth certificate.

I guess no-one paid much attention back then. They just wrote ‘McKay’ in the usual way in all the usual government documents and forms.

But, recently that the space was been spotted and included in Jack’s re-issued birth certificate. Now, every important document in Jack’s life has that space, including his re-issued marriage certificate and his driver’s licence.

In the past, when handwriting was all there was, such a problem may not have existed. In fact, many people had their names misspelt many times, whether it was when they landed at Ellis Island or in a baptismal record in an obscure parish church. Some folks couldn’t spell their own name, anyway.

Shakespeare spelt his name many different ways when he was alive. Sometimes, he was ‘Shaksper’, sometimes ‘Shakspere’, sometimes ‘Shakespeare’. And, that was not the end of it, either. His name was spelt many different ways after his death as his plays and sonnets were reprinted.

But, no such luck for Jack Mc Kay. It may be that he is stuck with Mc Kay forever after.

The bigger issue (bigger, that is, unless you are Jack Mc Kay) that this problem highlights is the demand for greater precision in all of the text we create. Technology brings wonderful bounty, but one small error can cause countless problems to erupt.

The exquisite precision needed to write computer-programming code is a fascinating example. Think, also, about the proliferation of passwords, many of which are case-sensitive, as well.

What really grabbed my attention about this story is the small but worrying aspect of our technology. It can become brittle when it bumps against human error.

No doubt, this fragility forces us to change our behaviours. We accommodate the digital by becoming more accurate.

I wonder how else we change to accommodate technology. Are we becoming more binary?
What are your thoughts?

The Curse of Cursive

November 26, 2015 — Leave a comment

Writing by hand seems to be a fundamental skill that everyone should have.

It brings the brain and body together in a single act of communication. But, now that Common Core standards have been adopted by 44 US states (plus DC), schools are teaching children typing skills rather than cursive handwriting. Some say that the ink is running out of this flowing writing style.

If you feel conflicted by this change, it is time to think again about handwriting in the modern world.

Placing a computer between people as they communicate with each other is laden with dangers and difficulties. The most obvious reactions are easy to guess. What about people who can’t access the technology? What happens when the power fails and the computers go blank? Why do we have to lose one skill to gain another? Can we have both?

Manuscript FontMaybe similar arguments were heard when humans shifted from handwriting in candlelit scriptoriums to winding the lever on old wine presses in the first print shops. I bet the same questions were posed by those listening to someone shouting into the mouthpiece of the first telephone.

What we used to call ‘running writing’ was an attempt, among other things, to write faster than ‘printing’. The simple, handwriting style called ‘printing’ was called ‘Manuscript’. You can see a sample on the left.

It seems likely that short-hand writing was the next ‘logical step’. Faster. Usually based on sounds. Used to transcribe someone talking. Done on the fly by journalists who smoked and secretaries who smoked, too. Most are no longer with us.

Then, recording came along. No need to write quickly. All the words were taped. When green-screened Wang computers were turned on in government offices, a fast typist soon produced legible text far quicker than most handwriting ever could.

Which Way to Go?

So, with the computer tide racing and decisions demanded, maybe we should concentrate on the basics. At times, we need to write by hand, and it must be legible. We need to write fast at times, but it still must be legible.

Maybe we should hand-write clearly with Manuscript and type quickly with a keyboard (you can choose any font you want).

Children can learn Manuscript when they are very young. And, that is probably all they will ever need. They can learn typing, too, and that will carry them until voice recognition makes the keyboard redundant.

That means, cursive will die a natural death. Except, I guess, for your signature. You’ll want to keep a bit of character in your mark.

What are your predictions about handwriting?


On 14 January 2014, Isabella in Puerto Rico experienced a sharp earthquake of magnitude 6.4 at a depth of 31 kilometres. Puerto Rico had 38 quakes that day and 60 that week. We know because http://www.earthquaketrack.com publishes that level of detail and it is easily and instantly available on the Internet.

Puerto Rico EarthquakeWhen an earthquake starts shaking houses, the social networks usually start quivering, too. When cupboards are tilting and lights are swinging, Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook begin swarming with activity.

It is a fascinating conjunction of geological event and human response. In this case, the human response is digitised, just like the seismic flex. That makes it measurable in terms of volume, velocity, and voice.

Of course, the number of messages and the speed of responses give us an insight into the intensity and location of the human experience. But, the voice?

Nowadays, we can also test the intensity of emotions expressed. We can test the syntax of messages and their grammatical attributes. Very brief tweets or Facebook posts that include high levels of active voice tell us something about the intensity of the experience. We can measure and map it all.

So, emergency services sometimes know a great deal about an event, like an earthquake, before the first responders arrive on the scene. Paramedics can read hashtagged tweets as they travel to the scene. When they get there, they have already read multiple witness reports. No doubt, some emergency services are already providing summaries and statistics for their staff in real time.

From the perspective of government operations, emergency services provide a model for analysis, response and evaluation. Fire, rescue and paramedic services work in limited frameworks of time, space, and action. So, they provide useful insights into effective and efficient service delivery.

emergency workersUnderstanding emergency services’ reactions to an earthquake can deepen our knowledge of how, for example, formal strategic decisions at headquarters can link to flexible and appropriate responses on the ground. But, more than that, they can show us how government activities actually operate from an individual’s point of view. It is a slight exaggeration, but government services, such as the delivery of social welfare programs, are simply slower, broader and more complex than emergency services. They are emergency services in slow motion.

But, the reaction of those touched by a government program is invaluable to help us understand what works and what doesn’t. The possible uses here may include everything from the perceived clarity of an online, benefit claim form to the change of attitude that a national- or state-wide television advertising campaign engenders.

government workersIt seems that social media can provide vast amounts of insight into our clients’ and customers’ actions and reactions. That includes insights that we haven’t yet realised and those whose significance we haven’t yet grasped. Of course, there will be issues of overreach, such as impinging on people’s privacy. Obviously, these issues must be managed appropriately in a modern, open democracy.

Maybe, we are experiencing yet another jolt in a long series of technological earthquakes. This one is about understanding people’s thoughts, feelings and actions at a new level of precision, the implications of which may be outside our current comprehension. Keeping in mind the inherent problems that attach to such radical change, it is possible that instant, quantifiable insight may demand much greater accountability in government. It could, over time, change the very nature of the work of government.

Francis Walsh

If you are anxious about writing, you are not alone. Lots of people are sensitive to criticism. The risk increases if you use social media at work. One typo, one split infinitive, and you may be declared a ‘fool’ … publicly. Even if you offer the briefest comment, your words may be criticised … internationally. That’s not good.

mocking commentersThe web provides lots of information on people’s ‘errors’. They are called ‘fails’. You can find images of the ‘funniest spelling errors in signs’. There are features on the worst first sentence in a novel. There are many more. And, they are all funny to a point.

But, does everyone react the same way to these mocking entertainments? Thousands may be amused, but what about the humiliation of the person who ‘failed’? Are they a victim or simply an object of passing pleasure for the mob?

I wanted to know more about the writing ‘fail’. Do people react differently on social media when they see a spelling error or a grammatical tangle? How can I manage this better?

I decided to choose two commenter interactions on two different blogs. Both related to poor writing.

When I say ‘different’ blogs, I mean it.

The first blog focused on grammar and linguistics. I guess its visitors are men and women who are older than 30 years and well educated. I’ve called them ‘The Linguists’.

The second blog focused on YouTube-style, video entertainment: cars, gals, sport, that sort of thing. My guess was that those visitors are mostly men from 18 to 35 years old who are not tertiary trained. These are ‘The Lads’.

Of course, this analysis can provide only scant anecdotal evidence. However, I thought it may be useful as public sector organisations prepare to engage more intensively with social media.

I’ve used the terms ‘corrector’ and ‘defender’ to highlight the commenters’ individual stances.

examining textThe Linguists

The first commenters I examined are people I will call ‘linguists’. They are professionals and amateurs interested in English grammar, writing and stylistic conventions. They appear to be enthusiasts.

I expected this would be a tolerant group. After all, rules and usage is their interest and they would know the vagaries of language. Remember, this is a totally random selection and, no doubt, is highly skewed.


The Economist claimed to have found the world’s worst sentence. This is the ‘culprit’.

‘Yet the nightmare cast its shroud in the guise of a contagion of a deer-in-the-headlights paralysis.’

No doubt, it is pretty bad. So, how do language enthusiasts react to it?

The Commenters’ Interaction

Here’s one commenter.

(I’m struck by your deers found in headlights, which could suggest that plurals of irregular nouns get regularized when they denote mentions of the word instead of uses—deer vs “deer”s.)

First, notice the parentheses. The commenter is indicating that they are ‘speaking parenthetically’. At first, it looks odd but it is a quick and easy method to make that point clear.

The commenter notes that ‘deers’ is used as a plural because the writer is referring to the word ‘deer’ not to the animal. The plural of ‘deer’ (the animal) is ‘deer’.

Raising a parenthetic, technical issue suggests that this commenter is reasonably comfortable in joining with the general criticism. However, they are smart and have pin-pointed another potential problem, which they resolve by waving it through as common usage: ‘irregular nouns get regularized’.

Another commenter then writes

I think rabbits is the usual animal in British metaphorical headlights, whereas deer is for American ones. Thus an American contributor to the Economist can be Orwell-compliant by using “rabbit”, and a Brit likewise by using “deer”.

This comment has an echo of the previous: another problem and a potential solution. Of course, this comment finishes with something close to an amusing ‘plausible denial’.

A third commenter follows up with a zinger.

Here’s another hapless journalist caught in a linguist’s headlights. Bang!deer in headlights

This commenter is vigorously defending the original writer, whom they see as the poor hack journalist trying to do their best. The commenter swapped the journalist for the deer and the linguist for the car. There is a reprimand here directed at those who criticise, even if they do so mildly.

A defender now battles two correctors.

Then, another commenter jumps in: a linguist aficionado who delights in the kitsch images evoked by mixed metaphors. I imagine this commenter as Lady Gaga walking in a university lecture hall, unannounced.

I happen to love mixed metaphors – I always assume they are deliberate, which is part of my love, and I admit that thinking they are inadvertent would make me love them less. I love them even when I hate what they are saying.Mixed media.

So I couldn’t figure out what anyone could find to object to in this.

Oh, right. I get it. Nice dress, Lady Gaga.

Now, remember that these commenters are enthusiasts. No comment seemed excessively harsh, but, all were clever in their own way. Two correctors and two defenders. The correctors both identified problems and related them to usage. The defenders defined the writer as a trapped victim and a free spirit.


The Lads

Now let’s see how a very different group of commenters deal with poor writing.


These comments are from an entertainment blog for young men. Most visitors are not tertiary educated.

The visitors have watched a short YouTube-style video of a homeless person being helped by a kind-hearted stranger. The ‘stranger’ is the video creator. He finds the homeless man and gives him new clothes, a hotel room and good food. To complete the video clip, he provides the man with a wonderful dessert.

The Commenters’ Interaction

The first comment of interest was

I thought he was going to bring in a hooker for “desert”.

That comment was corrected by the next commenter.


I’d call that a gentle correction. It’s just an asterisk followed by the correct spelling. Determined but discreet.

Here’s the immediate reaction from the first commenter who is the original writer.


Ouch. Someone is having a bad day or they need anger management. They are yelling. They are abusive.

Then, another commenter writes

thats spelling, not grammar. stupid bitch.

fight club

So, a verbal brawl has broken out.

Notice how quickly and vigorously the writer defended his comment. Notice the ‘roundhouse’ swing from the last commenter.

While reading that final comment, I wondered if should join the fray. After all, the last commenter (correcting the previous on the basis of accuracy) forgot to start a sentence with an upper case letter. They omitted the apostrophe; misused a full point by using a comma instead; and, after the full point’s misuse, neglected to use an upper case letter again.

But, what would happen if I joined in? I know where this leads: absolutely nowhere. This is a barroom brawl. I’m not going there.

Commenters are Gold

What lessons can we gain from this?

1. Comments tell you lots about the people engaging with you. It doesn’t take much effort to develop a keen insight into commenters’ educational level, their attitudes and behaviours. So, their comments are gold.

2. People who are reading your posts, tweets or blog are assessing you. You are assessing them. So, be friendly and focused. Think ‘relaxed professional’. That seems to work best in most social media interactions.

3. If you don’t understand something, ask for clarity. It’s simple.

4. If a commenter has made an error but their meaning is perfectly clear, get on with the interaction. Ignore the irritation. Correcting other people’s writing is asking for trouble. The writer or their defenders will attack your ‘uncharitable behaviour’ and/or will find errors in your writing. It will be their sweet revenge. So, don’t correct commenters’ writing.

6. Continue being polite. Treat commenters with respect, especially when you disagree with their ideas or when you are offended. Deal with the issue at hand, not the writer’s skills or lack of them.

Together, I believe these rules create a framework for maintaining the quality and integrity of a social media interaction.

Keep it friendly. Keep it focused.

What other lessons should we learn from commenters?

Francis Walsh

I am sick of them: those pedantic, posturing poseurs who know every rule of English grammar (or, so they say). They win every spelling competition (or, so they say). And, they use their personal perfectionism to demean others’ writing. (That’s what I say.)arrogant grammar boss

If ever there were a serial pest whose behaviors should be curbed, it’s the one who chooses grammar, punctuation, and spelling as their preferred battleground.

In organisations, there are ‘comma Nazis’. In universities, there are ‘bibliography bastards’. In the media, there are ‘bad-grammar-leads-to-the-end-of-civilisation zealots’.

They claim certainties that
no linguist would dare.

They pronounce on standards that stand without a fig leaf of facts. They demand that governments and teachers impose the rules of grammar and ignore all other priorities.

Of course, there is one pricking premise that underpins their stance. They know precisely how smart they are because they have their own measure of clever.

They find errors in other people’s writing. In fact, they can find errors in any text. If it is not wrong, they’ll say it is too modern or too radical. They know that true adherence to the rules of grammar began to crumble in (insert their preferred date here) when they (insert their preferred personal achievement here). Note the unmistakable self-referencing.

You see, the paragraph pedants decide that ‘correct’ grammar and spelling are the best measures of intellect. Pedants are very good at grammar and spelling so they must be very bright. (That’s what their mother told them, anyway.)

Some allow this egomania to spread to other forms of human interaction. They become Mr or Ms Manners. ‘This is how you should behave. These are the rules. See. My manners are so much more polished than yours.

The clever ones can make this leap. The rest are rude and crude about the endlessly difficult task of writing well.

King Henry IThe trouble is the damage they do.

It is incalculable. Every snooty comment. Every disdainful glance. Every huff and puff is an attempt to slight the person who has done the writing. So, confidence slips and competence slumps. Then, there is dependence on other people’s skills and goodwill. Eventually, the path of least resistance is to avoid the trouble altogether.

English is a complex and rather irrational language. Its spelling is clearly held together with a prayer and duct tape. Its grammar is sometimes so odd that few native-speakers follow its intricacies.

People who get their English tangled need support not condemnation. They need cheering up not bringing down. They need to know that, in committing some ‘error’, they are probably with the vast majority. And, in English, over time, that can make them right. You see, that’s the way English works. It muddles through. In time, wrong can become passably right. Just as ‘all right’ has become ‘alright’. Alright?

The favoured pedagogical approach by these self-appointed experts is often a bullying bluster. I’ll let you imagine what ends they have in mind.

I ask you: what has grammar ever done?

Grammar is an innocent spirit, well-intentioned to a fault. Someone saw it being hustled into a car late at night by a couple of truncheon-wielding goons for a little informative conversation in a disused warehouse with a grammar boss who wanted to discuss the misuse of dangling participles … and, long sentences.

Terrified, the spirit of grammar whimpered, ‘We does our best, Boss. Honest! We tries to do it correct. Then, we fix it as we go. Please don’t hit … Ouch!’

No. No. No. This has to stop.truncheon

The clear fact is that, nowadays, we write and publish to the entire world at the press of a button. We tweet, e-mail, blog and text at speed. So immediate is the interaction that the new relationship between writer and reader was barely foreseen just 30 years ago. Rare is the electronic text that can demand the time and effort of a long and perfect proofreading. ‘We does our best, Boss. Honest.’

It’s like a bad movie, isn’t it? Mostly, I don’t bother watching. My Twitter lists are more interesting than dom-sub junk.

However, I am not finished with this subject. I’ll pack a few surprises for those grammar goons next time. And, I’ll have an answer when the boss claims that my grammar’s participles dangle occasionally. Just wait. Next time.

Francis Walsh