Peter Coleman: Wise words in Broatch 'book of confusables'

Words matter, and the ringing warning of Leslie Sellers to beware of 'well known' lest you should descend to the redundancy of 'Jesus Christ, the well-known evangelist' still resounds with me, half-a century after The Simple Subs Book and Doing it in Style were published (writes Peter Coleman).

I'm a pedant when it comes to words, and not the only one in the house: my wife Maggie and I each brought a copy of the Sellers tomes to the marriage.

Which makes Mark Broatch's new Word to the Wise most welcome, especially when - as he points out - "we are all writers today". It's not a style book - though goodness knows we could do with one - perhaps as an alternative to the News Corp version - but rather a guard against using the wrong word through simple lack of understanding.

It should be obligatory reading for newcomers to publishing and older commentators who lack the knowledge or sadly, simply don't care. Both - and the likes of ABC Think Tank host Paul McDermott - have an obligation not to spread their ignorance abroad.

Exisle Publishing describes New Zealander Broatch as "a journalist, editor and all-round language nerd", and that's possibly exactly what our industry and the broader media needs.

As natural language processing by "bots" becomes more widespread, it's good to have the context that defines 'taught', 'taut', 'tort' and 'torte' explained... and for that matter, as the sleeve notes continue, 'corny' or 'cheesy' and 'angst' and 'ennui'.

In as likeable way as possible.

Broatch himself calls it a book of confusables, and the bulk of this slim volume is an A-Z of confusable words, from abrogate (end or abolish) and arrogate (take or claim) - with surrogate thrown in for good measure - to wreak (cause damage), reek (smell) and wreck, 145 pages later.

Importantly, the reminders constitute a crash course in vocabulary extension, and are supported by three pages of unusual plurals, a page of clichéd streets - think Grub Street and skid row - and an alphabetical list of misspelled words across five pages.

Social media abbreviations - a dynamic category Broatch may have difficulty keeping up with - also gets its own section, from AFAIK (as far as I know) to YW (you're welcome). While some, such as the ubiquitous WTF may be best left as initials, it would be good to think that readers' interest might lure them further in.

There's so much here from which journalists - including a few on mass-circulation publications - could benefit. The difference between 'dependent' and 'dependant', 'descendant' and 'descendent, between 'desert' and 'dessert', and where to use 'passed' and 'past', for example. And how to avoid 'whom' - which Broatch finds fussy - by flipping a sentence around to make 'who' acceptable; and 'while' instead of 'whilst' which he describes as an attempt to be literary.

A valuable opening chapter explains how to write "what you mean to say", mentioning Amazon boss - and Washington Post owner - Jeff Bezos' demand that executives should compose "narrative" memos rather than resorting to PowerPoint bullets.

There's also advice on rewriting: Hemingway's 39 attempts at the end of Farewell to Arms, to "relax the prose" and the much-attributed "kill your darlings", which is an reference to the importance of editing your text. And the importance of not dangling... your participles, that is.

Something that might encourage greater understanding of - and avoid - the "greengocer's apostrophe" would be welcome but I didn't find it. So far, of course, I've merely 'riffled' through the book's 181 pages - as in casually looked at them. I may be tempted to 'rifle' them later.

Published in September 2018, Word to the Wise (RRP $29.99) is from www.exislepublishing.com and booksellers.

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