Word nerd Mark Broatch is on a mission to untangle the English language

by Clare de Lore / 11 September, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Mark Broatch Words to the Wise

Mark Broatch and Gala. Photo/Ken Downie

Whether you're procrastinating or prevaricating, Mark Broatch's Word to the Wise will help you make fewer – or less? – mistakes.

Despite a career as an editor and writer, Mark Broatch concedes that even he sometimes stumbles in his daily dealings with the written word. Whether it’s in spelling “tort”, “taught” or “torte”, or meaning “procrastinate” or “prevaricate”, Broatch has spent two years assembling words and phrases that are commonly misused, misspelled or misunderstood. His new book Word to the Wise aims to inform and educate, and while it offers some rules, it concedes to the inevitability that common usage is establishing a new word order.

Broatch’s English parents, Ann and Graham, came to New Zealand 50 years ago when he was a toddler. He and his five siblings grew up in Auckland; Broatch, armed with an MA in English literature and linguistics, went on to a career as a journalist, critic and author. Until the arrival of two-year-old daughter Gala, he was the arts and books editor of the Listener and is still a regular contributor. His career includes the roles of deputy editor of the Listener, assistant editor at the Sunday Star-Times, and in 2011, he received a Sargeson fellowship. In October, he takes up a short fellowship at the Michael King Writers Centre in Auckland to work on a novel. Until then, Broatch is an at-home parent and writer, immersed in a world of words that ranges from popular science to toddler favourites.

Do you and Gala spend a lot of time reading?

I read to her all the time. We have about 200 kids’ books so she hasn’t been left with much choice other than to be a reader. She loves it.

Was that your experience as a child – was your bookishness encouraged?

I was early to write and to read; I was about four. I had older siblings so that probably helped. Both my parents left school at 15. They were working-class immigrant Brits so I don’t know where this language bent came from. I was a curious child – very annoying, always asking my mother, “Why, why, why?”, and my own child seems to have inherited that annoying curiosity. I like facts and was, for a while, a science nerd. I had to decide which path, and though I went down the word path, I am still fascinated by science. How things are made and how language is built – they both stem from curiosity.

Down the word path: Mark Broatch’s parents, Ann and Graham, in their late teens.

Down the word path: Mark Broatch’s parents, Ann and Graham, in their late teens.

I assume you did well at school then …

My parents paid for me and a couple of my siblings to go to private, or integrated, schools. I went to St Peter’s College, which was very good. It offered Latin and French and honed the enthusiasms I had. If you had access to those sorts of languages, you got to see the building blocks of English as well.

Who is the target audience of Word to the Wise?

Anybody who is literate, hence the title. I started with myself in mind and thought that if I’d been 20 years editing in magazines and newspapers and still slipped up on things, surely others do. Even senior editors mix up terms like “imply” and “infer”. When you think about it, everyone is a writer these days – everybody texts, tweets or is on Facebook, so I am hoping everybody is the audience.

Isn’t the language of social media, such as the abbreviations commonly used for texting, undermining correct usage in more traditional forms of communication?

Online language is quite different from spoken language, which is different again from written language. People are more casual with language on Twitter and in texts. But you see some quite complex thinking and ideas expressed online; they’re communicated clearly, so it’s not that simple.

What does Word to the Wise offer that a dictionary can’t?

Unfortunately, dictionaries are dying because people tend to go online to check out a word.

I have at least 30 dictionaries and even though I use them, they don’t tell you everything. I didn’t know the answers to some of the issues regarding usage that I have explained in the book. I would know something was wrong with the usage but couldn’t find the answer. For example “procrastinate” versus “prevaricate” – so I started to look them up. oxforddictionaries.com is an amazing resource; most of the Oxford English Dictionary is there.

Did you uncover any quirks peculiar to New Zealand?

New Zealand and Australia sit in the middle of the great traditions of American and UK English usage. We have a bit of te reo Māori here in New Zealand. The UK tends to have the more traditional usage of a word such as “moot” or “nonplussed”. In the US, moot means “not worth debating”, “an academic thing of no value”, but the more traditional meaning of moot is “arguable”. Nonplussed used to mean “puzzled” but in American use, which seems to have been picked up here, it now means “can’t be bothered”, “not fussed about something”. One of my aims is to be clear about both traditional usage and everyday use.

What is your pet peeve in terms of usage?

Well, most of what’s in the book, but I tend not to be really annoyed about usage. I started off thinking I would be quite prescriptive, that the book would lay down the law and say, “This is how it should be”, but I found that didn’t work. I am an editor and a writer; as an editor, you tend to be more prescriptive about these things whereas, as a writer, you tend to be more freewheeling. Some people are very upset about “impact” and “literally” and “unique” and “quite unique” but they don’t bother me so much. If I was editing, I would question all of them. Things that are really peculiar to me include, “alternate” as in “alternate route” or “alternate universe”, which has become so fixed but would, in reality, be something that pops in and out of existence every day, or every year or so. That is annoying, along with “reach out to”. Similarly, when people give lists of three things and then say “the latter” rather “the last” of those. “Not to mention” – I hate that. You can see how these peeves are as pedantic as anyone else’s. Oh, and “minuscule” being misspelt – that’s annoying.

That’s quite a list for someone who is not annoyed about usage …

Well, I am human. I make some of these mistakes – hopefully fewer of them than others. Oh yes, “fewer” and “less” – they’re not as hard as people make out but people still get them wrong.

If I was editing, I would intervene but if people were speaking, you wouldn’t say anything.

What do you read?

I review a lot, and I read for interviews. Apart from that, I read quite a lot of popular science stuff. I like books of essays, science fiction, and about every second Jack Reacher book. I am trying to read more New Zealand fiction because I think I have been remiss on that front. I have read a lot of Charlotte Grimshaw’s work and I have Pip Adam’s The New Animals on top of my pile, but it is getting bigger all the time. I have read Vincent O’Sullivan and I have a lot of poetry, which I have collected over the years. I was very pleased to have a poem published in Landfall this year, because I have been writing poetry for about 30 years and trying to get published. One day, if I find the time, I will write a book of poetry.

This article was first published in the September 15, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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