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Back to hard sums and commas

School term started a few weeks ago here in the UK. This weekend saw thousands of new students (including my nephew) head off for university which means Cardiff, where there are two universities and a further education college, is best avoided for a little while. I made a mistake last year and ended up in the city during Fresher’s Week – the pavements were congested with  gangs of students (why do all newbies go around in large groups) and the roads full of these odd-looking vehicles where people sat at a bar drinking beer while cycling. A dangerous combination surely? The most amusing aspect was to encounter the people handing out leaflets for parties and bars  – I clearly wasn’t in the right age profile for such festivities but they didn’t want to offend me so kept foistering all this stuff on me. I kept all the coffee shop vouchers and 2 for 1 cocktails but ditched the ones for the burger chains along with the free condoms.

Not to be outdone I had my own back-to-school event this week. Not as a student but as a volunteer for an adult literacy and numeracy programme being run in my village. Literacy is something I’ve always been passionate about, even more so after I met the woman who started the Plain English Campaign in the UK. Chrissie Maher didn’t learn to read until she was in her mid teens. Many years later,  frustrated by the complexity of a lot of government forms, she set up a project in Salford, UK to help people in the same position. In 1979 she took on the government by burning piles of their forms in front of the Houses of Parliament, an act which brought her to the attention of a government minister called Margaret Thatcher. The Plain English Campaign was born as a result.

I’m not in the same league as Chrissie Maher but I know there are many adults who struggle with writing and arithmetic because they missed out a lot of formal education. The Essential Skills programme is giving them a second chance. A few of the people in our programme are mothers who want to become youth workers but can’t start training until they can prove they have basic literacy and numeracy skills. We also have some young people who can’t start college because they don’t have the required qualifications. Even though we’ve only had a few sessions together I’m impressed by how determined all these people are – it takes a lot of courage to say ‘I need help.’

It’s been an eye-opening experience for me because it’s meant digging into the grey cells to remember concepts I first learned 40 or 50 years ago. I’ve worked with words for all of my career so I think I know a thing or two about punctuation and sentence construction but explaining it, now that’s a different thing. Faced this week with the question: what are the two situations in which you use a comma, my mind went blank. I know it instinctively but that’s not much use to students faced with the conundrum of when to use it’s rather than its or whose instead of who’s.

The picture with arithmetic is even worse. I’ve thought for many years that there are words people and numbers people. I belong firmly to the first. Show me a piece of text and I can summarise, analyse, edit or proof read it easily and quickly. Show me a set of numbers or a chart and I’ll be able to make some sense of it  – eventually. It made work rather challenging often when I’d be sat with one of our business boards reviewing last quarter’s performance for example and everyone else would quickly home in on what was working well/ what was heading for a fall etc. Me, I’d still be working it out long after they’d passed to the next topic.

Addition, multiplication , subtraction, division I can do in my head (the product of working in my parent’s shop every Saturday without the benefit of a calculator or fancy cash till). But I’ve forgotten everything I ever learned about multiplication of fractions, how to solve an equation or calculate the area of a circle. I knew it once (I have the certificate to prove it) but it’s long disappeared down memory lane. As for those stupid questions about calculating how long a bath fills if the tap runs at x gallons a minute and the plug hole empties at y gallons a minute, I never did figure how out to solve those puzles. I couldn’t ever see the point really. Nor did I see the purpose in calculating the point at which two trains would pass if they were travelling in opposite directions at different speeds. I mean, how many times in the last five years have you been called upon to know how to do this?

maths booksBut these are still questions that our students might encounter so I thought I’d better refresh the old memory. Part of my summer has therefore been spent re-learning how to multiply and divide fractions and decimals (this has generated much heated debate with Mr Booker Talk who takes a completely different route to get to the answers) and work out percentages. As you can tell from the title of these two books I’ve gone right back to the beginning. It’s going to get harder from here on though – next step is my old favourite of algebra. But I need a glass of wine to help me with that I suspect.

Thanks to this book…..

Marking Thanksgiving in the USA, The Broke and the Bookish has decided that the Top Ten Tuesday challenge this week is to identify 10 books for which  we are thankful. Many of my choices are non fiction.

1. Roget’s Thesaurus: this has been my lifesaver throughout all the years when I had to write newspaper stories and then speeches for executives or internal articles. I still have the large hardbound version I acquired about ten years ago though often I now use on line synonym/antonym tools.

dailymirror2. Daily Mirror Style Guide by Keith Waterhouse: Many of the big media outlets create a style guide for their journalists, giving direction on which terms to capitalise, how to represent numbers etc. The Daily Mirror guide is rather different however because Waterhouse (one of their leading columnists) delves into cliches that are too commonly used. For example,  tabloid newspapers always write that ‘police swooped’ on a house conjuring up pictures of flying detectives descending from the skies. He also tackles the headline writer’s propensity for puns, complaining that most of them are too obvious like the story where a comedian going into hospital was said to have been bound to have nurses in stitches. It’s great fun to read but was also my guide when I was a young journalist.

3. Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course. A weighty paperback that I acquired as part of a prize from the Economist in about 2001. Delia was at one time a cookery expert that was on the BBC with primetime TV shows, books and other spin offs – a bit like Mary Berry is today. Her inclusion of an item in a recipe was enough to clear the shelves in the supermarket. One tiny company found itself bombarded with orders when Delia recommended their omelette pan. Many food writers leave out some key elements of their method or recipe so the result never looks the way it does in their book. Not so Delia – you know if you follow her step by step, you will have success.

4. Why Most PowerPoint Presentations Suck by Rick Altman. Remember the days when you didnt get confronted by slide after slide in meetings? Today it seems we treat Powerpoint like a dummy without which nothing can ever be discussed in a meeting. The slides are usually rubbish – too many fonts, too much text, etc. Altman’s book doesn’t cover the same ground you find in most other books – he shows how to cut down text and still make it meaningful and how to do clever things with pictures and graphics. The templates he uses are also available on his website. Highly recommended you get this if you ever have to do presentations.

5. Make the Connection: Ten Steps to a Better Body and a Better Life by Bob Greene

Greene is the guy who Oprah Winfrey turned to when she wanted to get her weight back under control. He took her from a 17 minute a mile walking pace to a marathon. I came across this by accident one holiday when I got some time to browse a bookstore in Alexandria, just outside Washington DC. I’d been trying exercise programs for years with not a lot of success – this book was the first time I learned that the key to success was exercising at the right heart rate and I had been doing it all wrong. I immediately went out and bought a heart rate monitor and a new pair of trainers and started following the program. The weight dropped and I felt fitter than ever before. Now,when I have slacked off a bit, this is the book I go back to for help and motivation.

6. Colour me Beautiful Ok, this isn’t a book as such but it is printed material so I’m counting it. It’s the little wallet of colour swatches that I was given after my style session with my sister. I take it with me whenever I’m going shopping as a reminder of what particular shade of red or orange works best for my skin tone. It’s saved me from some expensive mistakes! Other shoppers do give me an odd look though whenever I get it out and start holding up to the garments

7. A-Z of Alternative Words from the Plain English Campaign. Anyone who has worked in the corporate world or in the public sector will know that plans and proposals usually sound stuffy because people use words that they wouldn’t normally use in every day speech. Somehow they have gained the idea that certain words sound more important so if they want their document to have credibility they need to use those words. But often the effect is just to make the document sound stuff at best and at worst impenetrable. All hail to the Plain English Campaign for their tireless efforts to get companies and government bodies to understand that simple words are best. The A-Z of Alternative Words is a slim but effective pamphlet. If you’ve ever been frustrated by colleague who insist on using “as a consequence of” instead of the simpler “because” or “emphasise” instead of “stress”, this is for you.

8. Macbeth by Shakespeare ( as if you needed telling who the author is). I credit this play with setting me off on a path that led to a literature degree and a career where I could indulge my love of words. Until this play was introduced to our class I had been a fairly middling student. But something clicked that day in class. By the next day I could recite all of Act 1 Scene 1 much to the astonishment of the teacher and my class mates.

9. Middlemarch by George Eliot My favourite novel of all time and the one I would take to a desert island if I knew I was going to be stranded. It has such depth of meaning and so many ideas that it rewards re-reading and re-reading

madwoman10. The Madwoman in the Attic by Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert My university days coincided with the publication of this landmark text of literary criticism in which the authors examine the idea that women writers of the nineteenth century were confined in their writing to make their female characters either embody the “angel” or the “monster.” It was my first introduction to feminist critics. A complete revelation. I’ve had many occasions since to refer back to this book – hence it looks rather battered around the corners


Armchair BEA: 10 resources for creating blog posts

book heart armchairbeaToday’s Armchair BEA topic is a free choice selection. Since I’ve spent so much of my time this week writing posts for BEA, I thought I’d pass on some resources that I’ve found a great help when creating blog content.

First of all, finding the right word

Obviously you need a good dictionary like the Collins English Thesaurus so you can check you are using the correct spelling in your post. Although most word processing software programs these days come with automatic spellcheck you can’t always rely on them for accuracy. I do like to look up words myself.  But there are many other  tools. Here are 5 recommendations:
1. Plain English Campaign Guides

The Plain English Campaign is an organisation I admire enormously for their work in getting government departments, insurance companies and travel firms to simplify their official documents.  The site gives you the basics on how to write plain English. The tool I find particularly helpful is the A-Z of Alternative Words – this will help you avoid writing that can be complex.  Look up ‘acquire’ and it tells you the better word is ‘get’ or ‘buy’ as an example.

2. The Visual Thesaurus 
This is a good resource for people who like to think in visual terms. It’s both a dictionary and a thesaurus. You type in a word and the tool creates word maps based on that entry. The maps branch out to related words. Although use of Visual Thesaurus requires you to take out a subscription, there is a free trial version.


This is more of an unusual tool. It’s really useful when you are struggling to find the right tense or when you are trying to avoid repeating the same word too much in a sentence. It enables you to search for words under different categories; for example you can search by “singular for “adverb for,” “past tense of” and you can also get help on how to pronounce your chosen word.

4. Idioms at The Free Dictionary

This one is good if you want to use headlines that involve a play on words. You put in a word and the tool gives you a list of common phrases in which the word appears.

5. Thsrs (The Shorter Thesaurus)

If you are making a conscious effort to shorten the way you write (Plain English Campaign guideline is to aim for sentences of around 20 words), this is the tool for you. In The Shorter Thesaurus you enter a long word and get a list of shorter synonyms. Would be useful for Twitter users also.

Finding the right image

We all know what a difference a good image can make to a blog post. It’s not always easy to find the right one and stay legal at the same time. Here are some resources that can help you say within the law.

But first let’s touch on the thorny question of when it is ok to use an image you find on the web.

Often when you go to a site it will tell you that an image is free to use. That doesn’t give you carte blanche to use the image however – you need to make sure you understand the terms and conditions. For example, some images will be labelled in Google as Labeled for reuse which means the license allows you to copy and/or modify the image in specific ways. If you’re blog is not generating income, then that will generally be sufficient for your needs but if you are getting an income stream from your blog you need to look for Labeled for commercial reuse images instead and follow those terms and conditions.

1. Google Images

This is where most of us start off when we are looking for an image.  Not all the images you see here are ones that you can use without breaking copyright law. You need to refine your search so that you only look for ” free images”  using the small gear icon on the right side of the screen. Then select “Advanced Search.” and the correct image use type from the blue sign that says “Usage Rights.” You do need to know what image use types exist.

2. Flickr Creative Commons

There are thousands of images on this site. Again you need to make sure you are using only those which are designated as ‘creative commons’ usage. Make sure you select the “Creative Commons” box in the Advanced Search page.

3. PhotoPin

This could be a quicker way to find Creative Commons images since it finds images with all the attribution details and license info.


A rich source of good images. Those which are free tend to be smaller in size but that should be ok for a blog. If you need anything bigger, you pay for them.

 5. You

Yes, believe it or not, you are a source for images. All you need is a digital camera and a tiny bit of technical know how to upload the image onto your computer.  Instead of grabbing an image of a jacket cover from Google (which could get you into trouble) why not take your own photo of the book – maybe put it in the place where you do your reading to make it more distinctive than everyone else’s photo of that book cover. This is something I’m going to be trying out myself starting this weekend.  I’m also going to be looking for a low cost graphic design package so I can create my own images. The last thing I want is a solicitor’s letter dropping through my letter box alleging I have stolen someone else’s intellectual property.

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