Former dictionary editor tells what she cannot tolerate

Former Macquarie Dictionary editor shares her journey and her pet hates.

red pen marking mistakes

I am sure that some babies sit up in their cots thinking, ‘I’m going to be prime minister one day’ but I am equally sure that no baby sits up thinking, ‘I’m going to be a lexicographer and editor of the Macquarie Dictionary’.

From what I have read, most dictionary editors end up in the job by accident, and that it is, without doubt, precisely the fact that they have drifted along until the job chose them that makes them suitable for it. 

A dictionary editor needs to have a broad general knowledge and an interest in a variety of things, all of which will come in handy in writing the perfect definition.

So when I arrived at high school in Melbourne with a weird collection of subjects – maths, chemistry, biology, French, Latin and English – the teacher who gave me my textbooks asked what I thought I wanted to do. I didn’t know, and, still not knowing, went on to add Ancient Greek, linguistics and music to the list. 

After a brief stint in a chocolate factory as quality control on the mint slice machine, a period working behind the uni bar where I was proud of my mastery of the beer gun, and six months as receptionist in the Kings Cross waxworks, I was fully equipped for lexicography!

There were two pieces of good advice from my father that proved very useful. I remember him impressing upon me when I was in high school that you couldn’t half-know something. You either knew it or you didn’t. This came back to me when I found myself stumbling over a definition. On closer self-examination, I found that the problem was that I didn’t really grasp the meaning and so I had to do further research before I returned to the definition which usually then wrote itself. 

The other contribution that my father made was to enthuse over how I needed to involve as many people as possible as contributors to the dictionary. The idea for a newsletter to go with the first edition was his. It proved to be very popular and this kind of outreach of the dictionary has been there in different ways through many editions. Nowadays it is online. I found that the constant conversation with the dictionary users expanded the range of raw material for the dictionary and guided us in how we should present it as well. 

Hearing what others had to say about language usage made me aware that my own view of what was good and bad usage did not, surprisingly, always coincide with the views of others. There was more subtlety in the language than I had suspected and therefore, particularly in the role of editor, I should tread warily. While I was still entitled to an opinion as an individual writer, I should not abuse the role of editor by inflicting my opinions on everyone else. 

Sometimes I thought life might be easier if everyone would just accept me as the ‘Great Arbiter of Language Choices’, but that was not likely to happen, so there were occasions on which I should keep my own view in check. Now, of course, I can express my opinions freely and have done so in Rebel without a Clause.

As an individual I can accept agreeance as a noun, particularly in the phrase to be in agreeance with someone, although as a dictionary editor I would probably feel obliged to point out that there are those who do not consider agreeance to be an accepted noun form and demand agreement. I would also cheekily point out that the form agreeance did exist in English in the 1500s, so it is a not impossible derived form, but one that just happened to die out after that.

While I accept agreeance, I do not tolerate the use of infamous to mean famous, and the transfer of hoi polloi from the meaning ‘the ignorant masses’ to ‘the rich and powerful’.

I can accept irregardless for regardless, while abhorring the misuse of the apostrophe, particularly when it is thrust ridiculously and uselessly in front of the –s of the plural form. I would prefer to do without it entirely rather than have it proliferate in places where it should not be.

I find it startling that instead of handing over the reins of power, we are handing over the reigns of power, and instead of having a long row to hoe, we now have a long road to haul. The first error perhaps stems from our lack of familiarity with horse-drawn vehicles, while the second is a switch from an agricultural image to a truckie’s nightmare.

It is quite fun to be able to speak my mind about these things that I regard as errors, which disturb the flow of communication from writer to reader. Something like a long road to haul brings the reader up short. You cease to take in what the writer is trying to say while your mind comes to grips with the notion of hauling the long road. Errors of this kind are the distraction that kills communication stone dead.

Deciding when certain words or usages are an impediment to communication, and when they are just part of ongoing change, which is proof of the vitality of language, is what counts.

What can you not tolerate when it comes to the written or spoken word?

Susan Butler AO was the editor of the Macquarie Dictionary, Australia’s national dictionary, and was largely responsible for the selection and writing of new words. She retired as editor at the end of 2017. She has written the Dinkum Dictionary, published in its third edition in 2009. In 2014 she wrote The Aitch Factor, a commentary on usage matters in Australian English. Her latest book, Rebel without a Clause, comes out in October.

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    On the Ball
    30th Sep 2020
    Ah, the apostrophe... What can I say?
    It seems to me that the ignorant use it to denote that the "s" is pronounced as a "z"
    So they wouldn't use it in "bullets" but they would in "beans".
    But my favourite comes from a very long time ago when a local Television repair shop had vans with their advertising on the side, proudly announcing "Antenna's"
    Oh, so wrong, in many ways!
    Pass the Ductape
    1st Oct 2020
    And here's another! I always thought double quotation marks, " and ", were only used in conjunction with what someone was actually saying, or had said - whereas using only singular quotation marks for the 's' and 'z', would be used when promoting these two letters for the purpose described.
    30th Sep 2020
    One thingf I can't abide is saying "none were available". It should be "none was avaible", since none is a diminutive of no one, and you wouldn't say no one were available.
    30th Sep 2020
    News readers who do not understand the difference between CARNAGE and DAMAGE.
    30th Sep 2020
    I personally detest the word "absolutely". The user's thinking process is like this "Oh dear, I haven't anything meaningful to add to this conversation so I'll just say a word that indicates total agreement".
    1st Oct 2020
    Yes, what's wrong with - indeed, certainly, agree or just plain old Yes?
    Winston Smith
    30th Sep 2020
    I have my first edition of the Macquarie Dictionary, and loved those early newsletters.

    Now, my language pedantry for the day.....

    I read about someone honing in on the solution to a problem this morning. Hmmm.

    The Americanisation of our language bothers me too. It seem very common now to describe something as being inside of or outside of something, rather than just inside or outside. Why add the redundant "of"?
    1st Oct 2020
    There is Too much American in our language. Gotten instead of got for example. Often times - often is about time the word times is redundant. Pay it forward, when they mean to pay back or double down when they are doubling up, doubling increases. 'You all' oh, the list goes on.
    30th Sep 2020
    Compliment and complement
    30th Sep 2020
    I do not like it when TV personalities always take pleasure in saying 'AIN'T. apparently they think aint not is a word!!!!
    30th Sep 2020
    I hate the "there IS lots of them" I reminded somebody of the word ARE, and she replied, I'm strayan, not a snobby pom!
    To say "are" means you are speaking the Queens language, and therefore a snob.

    Also newsreaders who say "sundee, Mundee, Toosdee, Wensdee, Fursdee, Froidee, Satde and Sundee. grrrrr!!!
    30th Sep 2020
    And what about Janury and Febry?
    30th Sep 2020
    Yes, the apostrophe is very well misused these days. Eg anything belonging to me, it would be 'Sue's' as in that's Sue's book, but when there were a group of Sues, then it doesn't have the apostrophe.

    I feel like keeping a red marker in my handbag and every incidence of incorrect use of the apostrophe, I would walk up boldly to the offending material, put a red mark through the apostrophe and mark '-5', which would then get the attention of the signwriters.

    Then there's the incorrect use of the words
    there, their and they're,
    wear, where, we're,
    whether, weather,wether (castrated male sheep).

    My grandfather, in his days as an inspector of schools wouldn't take any nonsense when it came to spelling and times tables. I still remember having to learn them off by rote, and also the 20 times tables, too, as I needed to add up the old pounds, shillings & pence.
    30th Sep 2020
    And what about your and you're?
    30th Sep 2020
    My pet hate is.... I seen the accident, I seen the police arrive, what's happened to the word saw? It's just disappeared!
    30th Sep 2020
    perhaps it sounds too much like are. Saw does sound posh.
    30th Sep 2020
    It doesn't matter how much we think we know with both the spoken and written language, there's more that we don't know and no matter what, the meaning we intend won't always be the meaning interpreted.
    If I find myself heading into apostrophe territory and unsure as to where it should go, I'll often beat a hasty retreat and restructure to avoid it.
    There is an interesting point of pronunciation with some common words between Australia and the citizens of the United States and one that comes to my mind is "solder".
    I have always "sol - dered". But in a number of instructional videos on Youtube, the "l" has disappeared and they insist on "sodder". Even when this point is raised in the comments, they remain adamant that that is acceptable.
    I really must ask Siri sometime. She'll know, she hears everything. And understands?
    On the Ball
    1st Oct 2020
    Don't forget, Siri is American...
    1st Oct 2020
    I have a problem with incidences starting to replace incidents.
    1st Oct 2020
    I was taught that if you have two children, the first born is the " elder" not the eldest and the second born is the "younger" not the youngest. Even seasoned journalists get this wrong.
    1st Oct 2020
    There again, I was taught eldest, middleist, littleist!
    Poppa Bear
    1st Oct 2020
    The first-born would be the elder of two, but the eldest of three or more.
    Similarly, the last one would be the younger of two, or the youngest of three or more.
    Pass the Ductape
    1st Oct 2020
    I so hate the word 'so' which seems to be the 'in' word these days when someone begins to answer a question. Where did this come from?
    On the Ball
    1st Oct 2020
    Why has no one mentioned the misuse of the word "like"?
    1st Oct 2020
    There are many but 'alternate' and 'alternative' being used interchangeably. They are NOT the same!
    1st Oct 2020
    This mostly started in the 70's when teachers decided not to teach grammar, so now we have a generation of teachers who do not know grammar and are not teaching it to our children. A gerund? Is the adverb dead?

    I know that all languages are dynamic and must change to adapt to current norms, but I fear for those who read and write legislation. That language must be beyond misunderstanding, but the recent stuff I read is woefully open to misinterpretation. People's lives and futures depend on our laws, and if they are badly written, then that is a real problem. Many younger folk might not see any difference between shall and should, or shall and will, or may and can.

    Like the old joke: Attendant: "You can't park there!!!". Driver: "Yes, I can. Watch!" and does so.
    On the Ball
    1st Oct 2020
    Old car, broken down. Parked in a disabled car space.
    Fair enough!
    1st Oct 2020
    "Definitely"..this word has become standard in reality shows ( the reason I cannot stand watching them). Counting the word in a one hr show can be entertaining. The record was 28 in the" farmer wants a wife". Its frequent but superfluous use has become annoying and highlights the extent these wanna- be actors will go to attempt to sound intelligent by adding in the four syllable word.
    1st Oct 2020
    now that's where I go wrong. Is it definitely or definately?
    1st Oct 2020
    Oh how you have made my day. What a refreshing article and so beautifully written. My hair stands on end and my teeth curl at the new pronunciation of "important" creeping into our newsreaders, politicians, and health professionals....impordant, arrrgghh it is on YouTube teaching English to immigrants pronounced and taught this way. Noooooo!!! I have steeled myself to the unnecessary ridiculous lengthening of words, but can not live with impordant.
    1st Oct 2020
    What I seem to hear regularly is "the amount of people". If it's something you can count, use "number", if it's not countable, like sugar, use "amount". Similarly this applies to "less" and "fewer".
    Poppa Bear
    1st Oct 2020
    One of my favourite gripes concerns the word "momentarily". We frequently hear it used to mean "in a few moments (time)" i.e. to happen shortly, whereas my understanding is, that it means "for a few moments", i.e. to happen for a short time. When the pilot says "we will be landing in Sydney momentarily", my initial reaction is to panic, because apparently if I don't disembark quickly, I might not have enough time to get off the plane before it takes off for its next destination!
    1st Oct 2020
    too many irritations to list - would be an active forum discussion
    1st Oct 2020
    So many words and phrases are overused, pathetic and dull. The words 'like and 'just' are habitually used. Why do people say 'at the end of the day'? Which day are they referring to? Why do people say 'not bad' to how are you? What does that mean? Also do people proofread anymore? I see spelling mistakes all the time in publications. Some of the texts I receive are shocking.
    2nd Oct 2020
    The use of "that" seems to have replaced "who" and "whom"? Also, why has "advance" been replaced by the much clumsier "advancement"? As in the UK, it will soon become obvious which class or location an Australian person comes from by their use of language.
    Thai Traveller
    6th Oct 2020
    I often read articles written by those living north of Mexico, and amazed at how the English language is being altered. Many are just unaware that peek and peak have two totally different meanings or that people are normally referred to as 'who' and animals as 'that'. (The horse that stumbled and the man who was injured). The 'Greengrocer's apostrophe is well-known I'm sure (Cabbage's on special today).
    However, the word which really gets to me is the lazy use of 'like'. Listening to teens on the train, hardly a sentence is made without 'like'. "and the teacher was like why aren't you listening and I was like, I was so listening!
    Finally, this one really got to me. "He dove into the water and bumped his head on a rock. He drug himself out and sat down."
    6th Oct 2020
    Totally agree with all your annoying examples. I think "like" has replaced "um".

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