Friday, 18 January 2013

Book Review: "Punctuation..?" (User Design)

User Design 2012
ISBN 9780957071223
Sample blurb: "Punctuation..? explains the functions and correct uses of 21 of the most used punctuation marks. It is humorous, fully illustrated using real life scenarios and is for a wide age range (young to ageing) and intelligence (emerging to expert).
This book also makes an ideal gift, birthday present or special occasion gesture."

Ingenuous, somewhat endearing line drawings combined with simple and straightforward punctuation rules and examples make Punctuation..?, from User Design, a bit of a one-off.

I must admit I didn't even know there were 21 punctuation marks, much less how to use some of the more obscure ones such as the Pilcrow (so that's what it's called), the Guillemets (so that's what they're called - despite living in France) and the Interpunct (so that's what... etc.). See the contents page below if you're not sure what I'm talking about either.

The book is aimed at a general audience and seems to be gunning for the Eats, Shoots and Leaves (by Lynne Truss) category of fun-but-frightfully-useful-if-this-is-your-thing literary self-help volumes.

Curiously, for a self-proclaimed humorous book (see blurb) there isn't any in the actual explanations or examples, which are dry enough to have been lifted directly from a scholarly grammar tome, but there's no denying their clarity and indeed brevity, err, efficacy.

In the end it's a pleasant little book, certainly original in its design, and if you are looking for some crystal clear explanations, especially on things like the dreaded apostrophe, which gets six pages, or the subtleties between dashes and hyphens, commas, colons and semi-colons, you could do worse than to check out Punctuation..?.

You need to know that it's slim though - Amazon call it a pamphlet - and at £10 new (although check Amazon, hint, hint) a little steep considering...


Sab Will is, or has been, a freelance teacher, teacher trainer, director of studies, ELT writer, fanatical blogger, Facebook freak and website weirdo. He is also a well-known street photographer, abstract artist, poet and Paris city chronicler. The 'well-known' bit only applies to those who know him well, however.
Hotch Potch English: 'The ELT Resources Review Blog' ~ Book Review: "Punctuation..?" (User Design)
© 2013 Sab Will / Hotch Potch English

Book Review: "Cambridge Learner's Dictionary" Fourth Edition (Cambridge)

Cambridge Learner's Dictionary
Fourth Edition
Cambridge University Press 2012
ISBN 9781107660151
Sample blurb: "The ideal dictionary for intermediate learners of English.
NEW! English Vocabulary Profile levels: all words and phrases at CEFR levels A1 to B2 are shown with a level indicator, helping you to decide which words to learn first.
NEW! A section on common learner errors at particular CEFR levels helps you to avoid common mistakes in exams."

This is how I look at paper dictionaries these days: I love them but. But what? But I don't use them as much as I used to.

Now, I don't have one of the de rigueur CD-ROMs running on my computer all the time, but then again I'm not a serious language learner, in which case I might. No, my criterion for using a paper dictionary is very simple: is it within arm's length? If it is I'll probably reach for that reassuring and highly reliable resource (neologisms notwithstanding, oh dear...).

If, however, I have to bend down to get it, or, heaven forbid, actually leave my seat, I'll probably use Google. As often as not I get the information I'm needing by typing the word itself into the search engine, followed by 'definition'. Sometimes I don't even have to go that far before the confirmation (spelling / meaning) pops up in the automatic suggestions.

What future, then, for the erstwhile essential but laterly humbled paper dictionary, and learner dictionaries in particular? Cambridge evidently believe there is one, or enough of one not to abandon one of their stalwart product lines just yet. But for how long?

Macmillan don't. The last Macmillan paper dictionaries have just recently rolled off the presses and, as from now, or next year at least, shall be a thing of the past.

Which is a shame, coz they were nice. Nice and red. But apparently not read enough for Macmillan to continue with them. Now the other major dictionary publishers are wondering whether they should follow suit I imagine. Only they know how much money they're making (or losing) on them or how much of a flagship product it is and how important it is to have a paper dictionary in their catalogue but I can't imagine, I mean it's unimaginable to think, isn't it, that one day there might not be a Cambridge or an Oxford paper dictionary out there.

The reason I'm going on at such length about this is for one thing because I was kind of asked to, and secondly, you know the learner dictionaries by now, surely. And I've reviewed enough of them to know that there's not much I could say which would surprise you so this will be a rather different review; a non-review, if you like, or a few random thoughts about the entire future of paper dictionaries themselves, if you prefer.

Personally, and this is not an informed opinion, I think there 'should' be a future for paper dictionaries at least for a few years to come. Not everyone has electronic devices surgically inserted into every orifice, and even those who do don't always want to use them all the time (surely). A paper dictionary is a reassuring, standard issue item of literary competence and I don't think any serious student or scholar or thinking person should be without one. I'm not of the youngest generation, however (at 47) and may not be totally in touch with reality any more.

Perhaps a sort of half-way house for the big publishers would be to go the route of selling electronic dictionaries a bit like calculators. Maybe they do already. So, instead of buying a huge heavy brick-sized tome, you buy a palm-sized, feather-weight digital device, for the same price or less, which cost the same amount or a fraction to produce in Taiwan or somewhere and everyone's happy (except the UK printers, that is).

Well, I could waffle on about this all day, but in the end progress will out and Macmillan have shown that the inexorable drift to purely digital has already started, as if we needed any more evidence.

When I worked with the British Council, I think it was, we had piles of dictionaries which teachers would borrow for certain lexically-based lessons or activities. These days I can hardly imagine a serious language learner without their own dictionary of some sort and given the already impressive weight of French kids' satchels (where I'm based), the lighter their dictionary the better. Which means digital.

Should I do a mini-review of the fourth edition of the Cambridge Learner's Dictionary nevertheless? No. I'll just say that it's great, as to be expected. Clear, pleasant and easy to use, with some 'goodies' sections such as the very useful top ten lists of words which are often confused, misused or misspelt at various CEFR levels. I've included plenty of pictures in this article for you to get the idea if you didn't have one already.

In the end, much as I hate to contemplate it, I think the sheer volume of stuff we will be expected to get through as time goes on, and the omnipotence and omnipresence of the computer in one form or another will render the good old paper dictionary redundant sooner rather than later.

Already you can have applications running which allow you to click on, or even just say a word and get instant definitions, synonyms and such like, so why should you even go to the effort of stretching out your arm when a finger will do? For a bit of sport perhaps?

Until then, though, books like the Cambridge Learner's Dictionary will carry on the tradition until market forces and technological advances allow us to simply cock an eyebrow at a word an have an instant definition there and then. It'll be a sad day for some but there's nothing like progress, and you can't stop it even if you try.

As a footnote, and to be fair to Cambridge in case you think I've painted them as some sort of ELT dinosaur, nothing could be further from the truth.

I don't think I'm giving away any secrets in telling you that not only are the Cambridge dictionaries, including this Cambridge Learner's Dictionary, available for free on-line, but you can even add their word definition boxes to your browser's tool bar or your website for virtually instantaneous enlightenment. And this has been available for years now.

In a way the definition of a word has become the equivalent of a simple phone call. It no longer earns the company any money but is used to sell more expensive services off its back.

How long before we see digital ELT books from publishers with built-in dictionaries as a de facto standard in the same way as internet service providers pretty much 'throw in' telephonic communication as an afterthought these days? I'll wait for the message from a publisher telling me they do it already...


Sab Will is, or has been, a freelance teacher, teacher trainer, director of studies, ELT writer, fanatical blogger, Facebook freak and website weirdo. He is also a well-known street photographer, abstract artist, poet and Paris city chronicler. The 'well-known' bit only applies to those who know him well, however.
Hotch Potch English: 'The ELT Resources Review Blog' ~ Book Review: "Cambridge Leaner's Dictionary" (Cambridge University Press)
© 2013 Sab Will / Hotch Potch English
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