LONGER BOOK REVIEWS
P Peters (ed) THE CAMBRIDGE AUSTRALIAN ENGLISH STYLE GUIDE
Lawyers spend their whole lives working with words. Much use is made of dictionaries, although Judge Learned Hand warned that "it is one of the surest indexes of a mature and developed jurisprudence not to make a fortress out of a dictionary". See Chappell v Markham 148F 2d 737, 739 (1945). It is interesting to observe the way in which the Macquarie Dictionary, with its particular emphasis on Australian English usage, is gradually taking over the primacy of dictionary citation from the much honoured Oxford Shorter English Dictionary, in cases before Australian courts. Sometimes, the same English word will have a slightly different connotation in Australia, making the use of a specifically English dictionary of the language risky or even misleading. An example of this may be seen in the denotation of the word "flood". It may conjure up quite different notions in Australia than it does in England. See Provincial Insurance Australia Pty Limited v Consolidated Wood Products Pty Limited & Ors (1991) 25 NSWLR 541 (CA), 552. In the United States, there is a suggestion that the courts are increasingly relying on dictionaries. This has produced expressions both of judicial reservation (such as that voiced by Scalia J in United States v Smith 113 SCt 2050 (1993), 2060f) and of academic warnings (see "Looking it Up: Dictionaries and Statutory Interpretation" 107 Harvard L Rev 1437, 1452 (1994).
Australian lawyers tend to have several dictionaries and a Thesaurus close at hand as they labour in the garden of words. But now a new book has been produced which they should add to their essential library.
I refer to Pam Peters' Australian English Style Guide. It is the labour of a lifetime. It is one of a collection of national texts which emanate from the National Languages and Literacy Institute of Australia at Macquarie University in Sydney. Pam Peters lectures there in the School of English and Linguistics.
Many writers today lament the pervasive relaxation (if not abandonment) of standard principles of English grammar and the seemingly unstoppable adoption of neologisms, borrowed mostly from the United States of America. Advocates of the true language call for a rear-guard defence of the language against the onslaught of Americanisms, gender neutral distortions, media dominance of values and trendy acceptance of inappropriate words, phrases, spelling and pronunciation.
It is into this world of change, decay and creativity of English language expression that Pam Peters, and Cambridge University Press, have launched this large volume. It is a unique effort to describe the use of the English language in the one continent of the world where a single language is popularly spoken - Australian English. Pam Peters offers both an assessment of the current state of the English language in Australia and a tolerant guide to its style and usage. The book is not pompous. As befits its subject, it is racy, opinionated, fresh and generally tolerant.
Part of the creativity of the English language derives from its intercontinental character, the history of its spread, its commercial dominance and its command of the world of science and technology. But part can probably be attributed to the absence of a formal institution which seeks to control its use. Not for us an Académie Française which will define with precision correct language use and even sanction those who seek to mangle the language with Franglais or other linguistic perversions. The English, who, it is said, gained their Empire in a fit of absence of mind, spread their language, apparently, in the same state of indifference.
Pam Peters' book is full of old legal words which come from Norman French or from the time when every educated person knew Latin. Thus habeus corpus is explained. So is subpoena and mortgage. One of the problems of practising law in the English language is that, in its marvellous imprecision, so fertile for poetry and literature, it usually presents two words for the single concept. Hence last will (the Germanic word) and testament (from Norman French). Little wonder that outsiders find the language and spelling of English as exasperating as its grammar is simple.
When I was appointed Chairman of the Law Reform Commission in 1974, I soon came to know the only other Australian style guide with which I am familiar. It is the Commonwealth Style Manual. This handy book sought to lay down the common way in which Australian Federal statutes should be expressed and official publications worded. Yet there was not a word in that book about gender neutral language. It makes you wonder what new waves are just around that corner which we cannot yet imagine.
My later appointments to posts in the United Nations have exposed me to United Nations style. Everything is expressed in the third person. When I brashly wrote my first report as Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Human Rights in Cambodia, I did so in the first person singular and with direct speech. But this was soon thrown out. Sternly, I was told that the only acceptable style was "the Special Representative did this" and "the Special Representative saw that". My re-ification in the third person had begun.
In our courts there is a kind of style guide, although judges are in many ways the last true individualists. Not so long ago, the reasons of Australian courts, like those of England, were presented in dense prose. They were interrupted neither by subheadings nor by summaries. Now, more attention is paid to the importance of effective communication of ideas. I am sure that the new Australian English Style Guide will add to these endeavours. In my court, Justice R P Meagher is a vigilant guardian against perceived lapses in style. Every now and then a barrister or even a judicial colleague will utter a shocking expression such as "between you and I". In a matter of seconds, Justice Meagher has swooped like an angry eagle upon his prey. No gentle correction but a stern remonstrance is uttered to the hapless legal practitioner. And if the offender is a judge, a furious note is passed expressing astonishment which I am admonished to share and if possible to express. Imagine, then, my astonishment at reading Pam Peters style guidance that by the 1970s "between you and I" had become "standard and even formal English". I fear that this lapse will not endear the Guide to my judicial brother.
The book is packed with information both on the peculiarities of Australian English and on a whole range of matters about which I was previously quite ignorant. The note on the use of "Aboriginal" as a noun - something I learned to accept from the Commonwealth Style Manual - suggests that this runs counter both to common written practice and Aboriginal preference. Perhaps if we leave this problem to one side, we will soon become used to calling the indigenous people "Koories", although this too is unhistorical and unacceptable to the Guide.
There are, however, a few errors to which I feel duty bound to call attention. Doubtless they can be corrected before the second edition. I have already mentioned the intolerable lapse of "between you and I". There is a similarly unacceptable endorsement of "different than". There is time to recant errors such as this.
More worrying is the use throughout the text of the apostrophe. Apostrophes are truly troublesome beasts. At the very moment in the history of our language where they seem to be disappearing from use as a signal of the possessive case, they have crept into this Guide in a wholly impermissible way. Thus, in the entry on "Different from / Different to" the author has written that one expert "argues that it's unremarkable in British English". For a moment I thought that this was just a mistake which had failed to catch the proof-reader's eye. Not so. It's the conversational form in print. In the entry on the use of the ending "re" and "er" (such as centre and center) the same wicked apostrophe reappears. "It's found in Shakespeare and in the earliest dictionaries", declares Pam Peters. There is no excuse. Such lapses must be searched for with benefit of word processor and zapped before they infuriate the readers of the next edition.
There is much in the Cambridge Australian English Style Guide to delight, amuse, inform and intensely irritate every reader. Upon matters such as the use of the English language, most of us have strong opinions - especially if we are professional users of words, such as judges and lawyers are, every day of their lives. I have no doubt that this book will become a companion of many lawyers in Australia. It will join the Macquarie Dictionary, the Macquarie Dictionary of New Words, the Dictionary of Australian Quotations and the Thesaurus as an essential reference in the use of Australian English.
Now that the Guide is published, the author has chartered her life's work. In a rapidly changing society, such as Australia, it can hardly be expected that the use of the English language - even in the law - will stand still. Pam Peters' approach is generally descriptive and not prescriptive. In this, she is a true supporter of the ubiquitous English language. Her book will become a classic.