Nicholas Hudson, Modern Australian Usage
(Oxford University Press, 1993), $29.95


Nick Hudson is a man of great learning, enthusiasm, humor and generosity of spirit. His immense knowledge of publishing, of writing, editing and typography, of the whole craft and mechanics and business of the trade, would barely be contained by an encyclopedia. Somehow he has distilled this knowledge, and a good deal of his inimitable character, into one handy little 450-page book. In more senses than one, Modern Australian Usage may be described as the essential Hudson.
The book's title pays homage to the great Henry Watson Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage (which Hudson says might more appropriately have been called Modern British Usage). It also reflects Oxford University Press's regard for Nick Hudson, as does the Press's device on the book's spine: not every Oxford book carries that mark. Hudson acknowledges Fowler's inspiration, but acknowledges also Dupré's Encyclopédie du Bon Français; he likes Dupré's use of the one-word sentence "Soit!", and claims that from him he learnt the secret of ebullient confidence. I don't believe that. I reckon it comes naturally.
As you browse in Hudson you soon realize that this book is not an Australianized Fowler, certainly not in the sense that Margaret Nicholson's Dictionary of American-English Usage was an Americanized Fowler. In fact, for some time its working title was "A Dictionary of Writers' Problems", and that is a clue to the book's nature. Such entries as dictionary (choice of), copyright, defamation, prejudice, ghost writer, publish, publishing contracts, editor, keyboarding, typography and kern may stretch a little the concept of "usage" -- but the information they contain is most useful, and not easily come by.
Writers are often uncertain, for example, about what a book editor's function is; so are editors, for that matter. Hudson covers this book-length subject in two and a half pages, beginning with a startlingly obvious statement of principle: "An editor's main responsibility is to satisfy the reader." There are publishers who think the editor's main job is to keep the accountant happy. A truly professional editor will satisfy everyone concerned, but there aren't many editors of that sort around. This book may help to redress this situation; I would certainly recommend Hudson as much to editors as to writers. I know some accountants who will enjoy it too.
Hudson's first concern is the language that Australians speak and write, not just the words for flora and fauna, or the "backblocks" and "bathers" and "duco", but the more subtle differences of expression that distinguish Australian from the other main branches of English. Next he is concerned with formal communication ("in which the form is important as well as the content"), with effectively conveying thoughts from one mind to another by means of writing. A knowledge of words and their meanings is essential to this, but unlike some other books on usage currently available, this one does not provide a checklist of common mistakes. If you think there is such a word as "majesterial", or if you don't know what "burgeoning" or "enormity" or "begging the question" means, you must look elsewhere. Other dictionaries will help you to avoid being wrong, but this one is for those who know there is "a difference between not being wrong and being right".
"Correctness" is essential to formal communication, but what is this elusive quality? Hudson discusses the matter succinctly, and provides a workable answer. He is far more concerned with your awareness of problems than your choice of solutions, providing they are sensible. His book is for "people who want to make up their own minds". It follows that he is not overly concerned with consistency:
it is in many respects admirable that a book should be at least internally consistent. However, remembering the fates of businesses which go to the wall with their account books in perfect order, one must always remember that literary consistency is a means to an end -- clarity -- not an end in itself.
Clarity, awareness, inclusiveness -- such refreshing, positive words -- and Hudson never loses sight of these principles, even (no, make that especially) in his most wickedly funny moments. Try, for example, the entry on obscurantism, "a guide to some strategies to minimise communication".
Language is both a minefield and a cherry orchard. Nick Hudson invites us in, saying "Here, try some of these, they're scrumptious. Mind the pips, and watch where you walk. Isn't it a splendid day!"


The Society of Editors Newsletter, October 1993



A Nick Hudson story
Over dinner recently I heard a story about your friend and mine Nick Hudson. I have deliberately not checked it with him because I like the version I heard. Nick was on an interstate flight, and he got talking to the bloke in the seat next to him. The bloke next to him was a BHP executive, and he was fascinated to learn that Nick was in the book-publishing business. Indeed, he confessed, he had often thought that he might open a little bookshop when he retired. "Now that's very interesting," Nick said, "because I have often thought that when I retire I might open a little steel mill."

The Society of Editors Newsletter, June 1991




John Bangsund
Melbourne, Australia



Home