little red jottings

when a little red pen wanders off the page

Tag: language

That’s “unique”

An interesting conversation came up on Facebook the other day about whether it’s possible to talk about a film being “more unique”. I’ve wound myself into knots trying to think my way through this, and I need your brains, dear readers.

As I read it, the conversation was about the definition of “unique”, but perhaps also about how it can be meaningfully or usefully used. And my first bit of wondering was about whether the trick to using the word in a meaningful way when talking about films (or people) is to attach the adjective to a more specific noun or characteristic.

I can see that describing a particular film as unique is meaningless if we argue that films have so many variables and characteristics that each film is unique — it’s not like the one yellow pebble in a box of blues and browns, where there are few characteristics and most of them are uniform or shared. And following that line, to say that every film is unique is true, but a platitude, so we don’t want to go there.

But I think it could be useful to say something like, “The director’s vision of New York is unique” or “The filming of bridges is unique” — narrow the field of reference and it starts to make more sense to talk of something being one of a kind, rather than similar to or the same as others.

Maybe a litmus test is to think of the non-unique examples: the director’s vision of New York that’s pretty much like someone (or everyone) else’s, the way of filming of bridges that you’ve seen before. If it’s easy enough to come up with other, non-unique (or standard or shared) ways of doing the same thing and you can’t think of another film that does it the same way as the one you’re referring to, then I think you’ve got a good case for meaningful or useful uniqueness.

But definitely no “more” or “less” in the picture.

And then I started wondering if there’s a problem with saying that “unique” or “one of a kind” means that nothing else is exactly the same as it (which is why films and people are all unique). Maybe “unique” means something more like “there’s nothing else like it” or “there’s nothing else similar to it”. So then what we’re talking about is a film that sits in a category all its own, a film that doesn’t have peers or siblings or imitators or close antecedents. And then it’s clear that a film can’t be more or less unique — it’s either out of the box altogether, or in it and playing with its mates. I think that looking at it this way, some films could be unique where others are not, but still no film could be more or less unique than another.

Or, we could scrap all that and say that every film (and person and bus-stop) is unique, and the only meaningful conversation we can have is about what makes a particular film/person/bus-stop unique.

What do you think, writerly, travelling, thinky, wordy, arty,  crafty, wandery friends? Please tell me where I’m wrong, where I’m right, and what I’ve missed. But gently, hey.

Reading lists

P1050661The bedside table
The pile of books by my bed is getting out of hand — I’m partway through eight of these and have worthy intentions towards the rest. From bottom to top, they are: excellent, but hard work; strange; charming, but my French was better eight years ago when I started reading it; essential, but daunting; thought-provoking, but irritatingly blokey; so well written I can’t bring myself to read past the first chapter until I can pay proper attention; fun, then boring; terrific, according to my partner; a classic; very dated, but I’m much calmer this week; also dated, but I’m having a good time.

Coming up
Two of my friends have books coming out at the moment, and they both look to be winners. Check out Maria McMillan’s The Rope Walk and Pip Adam’s I’m Working on a Building.

And I’ve got three books on hold at the library: John Le Carré’s A Delicate Truth (because I can’t hold out any longer) and James Salter’s Light Years and All That Is (because I read a review of one and then wanted to read both).

How to write
If you want to know how to avoid writing rubbish prose, Orwell summed it up pretty well almost 70 years ago. For example:

Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.

The next project
By now, it will be obvious that I have a weakness for the spy thriller, so I might just have to work my way through this list too.

What else?
So, there’s all that, but I feel like I’ve spent the last few years reading in snatches, collecting books at random and inhaling them in any tiny quiet space I can find in a day.

But what am I missing? What’s out there that I don’t know about? What would you recommend? If I browsed your bookshelf, what would you pull out for me? Should I be keeping more lists: “What I Want to Read”, “What I Have Read”? Would that mean I could go stationery shopping, buy a notebook?

Signs that work… or don’t

That’s quite some signage you’ve got there, Australia.







Making your mark

Came across this page the other day (thanks, edit-y people of Facebook). It tells you how to create a HUGE range of typographical characters. Enjoy!

Ultimate cool characters

On shadows

Enough of me; today you get Orwell.

24.2.39 Pretty heavy rain last night & this morning.

Found sprays of fennel, which evidently grows here. Saw very large slow-moving black & white birds, evidently of hawk tribe. Forgot to mention curious property of human shadows, noticed at Taddert. Sometimes one stands on a crag whose shadow is cast hundreds of feet below. If one stands right on the edge of it, naturally one’s shadow is cast beyond that of the crag. But I notice that whereas the shadow of the rock is black & solid, that of the human body, at anything over about 50 feet, is faint and indistinct, like the shadow of a bush. At short distances this is not noticeable & the shadow seems solid, but at long distances, say 200 feet & over, one seems to have almost no shadow at all. At certain distances the body as a whole has a sort of shadow, but eg., the arm by itself none. I do not know whether this is because, relative to rock, the human body is not opaque, or whether it is merely a question of size.

George Orwell, “Morocco Diary: 7 September 1938 – 28 March 1939”, The Orwell Diaries, ed. Peter Davison (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 127.

Laying down the grammar checker

For a while I’ve been slowly unpicking my tendency to snark about other people’s grammatical waywardness, becoming aware of the snobbery inherent in the snark and the stories behind how we write and what we know.

My working position now is that I’ll seek out and celebrate writing that chimes well with me, and if someone asks me for corrections (or better still, pays me), I’ll do my level best to help them create a strong, coherent, engaging document, free of error and jargon. But otherwise, you write your way, my friend, and I’ll turn my editing eye aside.

Anyway, this morning I was visiting The Lady Garden and found a link to this blog post about literacy privilege. Here’s a bit:

Do I sound angry? That’s because I am. I’m angry that linguistic elitism is so deeply embedded in our social discourse with so little critical analysis. I’m angry that it took me four years of being slapped in the face with the daily realities of poor literacy skills before I finally relinquished my own prescriptive bayonet. As a member of a marginalized group myself, I am hyperconscious of other, more well-recognized types of privilege – male privilege, white privilege, straight privilege, able-bodied privilege. I want to be vigilant about the ways that I might be contributing to the marginalization of others. And the more I understand about my fellow human beings, the more I recognize the importance of taking the time to stop, listen, and learn about their struggles before unleashing my own careless judgements. I have by no means become a saint in this regard – I still have redhead moments where I snark before I think – but I am committed to finding better ways to engage with people whose opinions, experiences and means of expression are different from mine.

The whole thing is great; have a look. The discussion in the comments is worth reading too, and the follow-up posts. Something to chew over.

Speaking of which, I’ve got a stellar quote for you, but it’ll have to wait until my sister finishes reading my Christmas present.

Bad grammar between friends

The Lady Garden

Literacy privilege

Something to catch my eye

Well, I’m a reader, of course. One of my favourite picture books (Guji-Guji — do you know it?) starts with an egg — a big, odd, unexpected egg — rolling into a nest. And the caption is “Mother Duck didn’t notice. She was reading.” The picture shows beautiful, homely Mother Duck, glasses perched on nose, sitting high on her pile of eggs, book open in front of her. That’s how to nest, I thought. We could be friends. The next time we see Mother Duck with a book, she’s reading to her babies — ducklings one, two, three, and a fourth, who just happens to look a lot like a crocodile. She doesn’t have a book in any of the other pictures, but I like to think that while Guji-Guji is working out how to save the duck flock, she’s tucked away somewhere, watching her other babies sleep, reading herself into calm and clarity.

I’m not too picky about what I read; the main thing is to have something to catch my eye. It could be a cereal packet, a shampoo bottle, a sign on the train, one of the Cat’s books, a magazine, a novel, a travel guide, something with heft — it doesn’t matter too much what, as long as there’s print and something approaching sentences. And there are lots of places to read. The breakfast table is perfect, or would be if everyone would be quiet and the radio was off and there were no lunches to make. So, actually, that’s not such a good option, except for every now and then, when I get up early, earlier than the children, and sit in the sun and drink my coffee and read. And I do read at breakfast anyway, but it doesn’t work so well because my ears stop working and then I miss what people are saying, but it’s like there’s a sea rushing in around me, and sooner or later a wave breaks through and I am pulled out of the words and into the plan for the day or a request for water or a geography game or a cuddle. Which is nice too.

Or it might not be the breakfast table. The bathroom is good, and bed, and the sofa. A library is a real treat, and one of the best is a café, quiet, light, peaceful, my sister on the other side of the table, coffee at hand, no need to talk. Standing at the kitchen bench works well, and if I’m careful I can make it look like I’m cooking, or eating afternoon tea, or organising drinks.

And the boys look to be readers too, searching out their own inner worlds, learning rhythm, and texture, and thought. The Cat took to it early — a duck to water, so to speak — but the Rabbit has made a more sidelong approach, taking time to warm to each book, to absorb it piecemeal, in slow, broken morsels, before relaxing, body snugged into mine, each key word warm and waiting on his tongue, as we tell each other a story.

Fancy up your punctuation


But hang on, isn’t this a business blog?

Oh, so you noticed. Noticed that along with the writing tips, the wordplay, and the grammar musings, some other things keep slipping into this blog. Bits of fiction. A poem (!). Stories about my children (good grief). Words like decolonisation (really?). Reflections on motherhood (enough already). Feminist analysis (settle down, ladies). Politics, family history, Christmas presents. What’s all that about? Am I confused? Do I know what I’m doing?

Well, “yes” and “not really”.



My main aim with this blog is to treat it like a scrapbook. To gather together snippets of the things that move or inspire me, that have me laughing in agreement or making sense of another day spent trying to fledge a business and hold together the threads of a full and busy household. To say, “Look, this is what writing can do. These are the words we need to guide us into a more hopeful future.”

And I’m also trying to be as open and generous as possible in my understanding of what a business can be. Because why shouldn’t a businesswoman think about colonisation or feminism or children or any of that? Because those things don’t go away when we say, “No, you didn’t see the boundary there; this is business, this is work.” Because I’m not going to cut myself into pieces and sanction one little bit to build this business up. What you’ll get is all of me, stroppy, reflective, silly, curious, ratbaggy as I might be. And I don’t expect anyone else to agree with my views, but I do think that there’s space in the business model for me to wander off the page and write about the rest of my life, about the questions and anchors and truths that keep me alert and keep me whole. And if there’s not that space, there should be.


“Not really”

But, of course, it’s not that simple, is it?

Because I do put my own boundaries on what I write, and I do worry away at the distinction between a personal and a business blog. I question my decisions. I self-censure. I link to other people’s words instead of putting my analysis and thinking on the line. I feel vulnerable when I post creative writing and a bit soft when I write about mothering or my children. I tell the funny or appealing family stories — not so much the ones where I am less than graceful and composed.


“Well maybe”

So, what to do?

You know, the thing I keep coming back to is the idea of wandering off the page. Of saying, “Yes, this writing is connected to my business, because it all stems from me and my writing self, but it’s a little bit to the side, a little bit meandering. It’s where my thoughts turn in my quiet moments, or where they snag as I’m playing with the kids or making dinner or listening to the radio or having a shower. It’s the writing I do when I’ve got something to say.” And what I’d really like is to live in a world where the page origamis into new shapes, where the centre no longer holds and the eye is free to follow those wandering, marginal lines.


Me (thinking the Cat might like to play around with his writing): How would you like to make a found poem or story? [insert long, waffly explanation of how that might work]

The Cat: Hmmm. Can’t we just make up our own hieroglyphic language instead?

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