At the National Museum of Australia we write in a way that is clear, precise and direct because:
- it is efficient. It saves time (for both writer and reader), paper, computers, photocopy machines, and so on
- it is effective. It reduces the likelihood of confusion and misunderstanding
- it shows the Museum is professional, progressive and friendly
‘Every Australian’ is the Museum’s audience. Write directly and clearly, in a language that is relevant. Be lively, but be careful not to distort the information.
Readers and visitors react negatively to wordy sentences. Don’t try to pack too much information into a sentence, even when the word count is limited.
Avoid isolated sentences. The text should move naturally from one subject or statement to the next; it should not be jerky.
Keep in mind that readers and visitors react very strongly if they think they are being ‘talked down to’. The challenge for writers and editors is to create simple text, not text that treats the reader as simple.
Before you start to write ask yourself:
- why am I writing this (what is my message)?
- who is my audience?
The clearer you are about your purpose, the easier your writing task will be.
Make a detailed plan — major headings, subheadings, and as many minor headings as possible. When you do write, be methodical: introduce and define your subject; describe, item by item, the details of the subject; analyse and compare or contrast; and then sum up.
Good organisation helps readers find their way through a document. The most important thing is to remember who your readers will be.
Choose your words carefully, especially in the limited space available on an exhibition label. Simplifying your text doesn’t mean that it has to be boring.
In general, use words of Anglo-Saxon (as opposed to Greek or Latin) origin — for example, ‘and so on’ instead of ‘et cetera’, and ‘about’ instead of ‘circa’.
A short word will often be just as effective as — perhaps more effective than — a long word or phrase.
|start or begin||commence|
|now||at this time|
|probably||in all likelihood|
|if||in the event of|
Avoid ‘vogue’ words and phrases, jargon and clichés:
|terms to avoid||alternatives|
|drive, driven — as in ‘the consumer-driven sector’||motivate, prompt, lead — the consumer-led sector|
|enhance||increase, enlarge, improve|
|issue||problem, consideration, matter, factor, thing|
|stakeholders||those involved, interested parties|
|to address — as in ‘addressing the issues’||respond to|
|to fast-track||to give priority to|
|to impact on||to affect, to have an impact on|
|to prioritise||to give priority to|
|to target||to aim at, to concentrate on|
|to utilise||to use|
|accessible||reaching out to visitors beyond Canberra, extending our reach, making the collection available|
Some of these expressions are so overworked they have virtually lost their meaning — ‘issues’, ‘stakeholders’ and ‘enhance’ are a particular problem — so use them only when that is what you really mean and there is no accurate substitute.
Nouns as verbs
Avoid using nouns as verbs:
|The exhibit highlighted Australian innovations.||The exhibit showcased Australian innovations.|
|Mr and Mrs Kitchener donated their collection of teaspoons to the Museum.||Mr and Mrs Kitchener gifted their collection of teaspoons to the Museum.|
Nouns as adjectives
Avoid ‘noun strings’ — nouns pretending to be adjectives.
|experience in managing immigration detention facilities||immigration detention facility management experience|
This is a common pitfall for writers who are trying to pack a lot of information into a limited word count.
Being inclusive means using language that includes everyone by avoiding unnecessary or superfluous references to a person’s gender, age, race, religion, and so on.
Discrimination is so entrenched in the language it can seem difficult to avoid. But there is always a way. This might mean thinking of a replacement word or recasting the sentence to avoid the word or expression altogether.
Use references to age, gender, race, and so on, only if they are essential to the message:
- A recent study shows that female patients do not object to being cared for by male nurses.
Equality of the sexes
Treat people in an equal or parallel way:
- Maria and Paolo
- Mr Johns and Ms Smith
- Abbott and Gillard
|husband and wife||man and wife|
|Joan and Eric, married for 17 years||Joan, Eric’s wife of 17 years|
Do not use ‘feminine’ suffixes, or terms that specifically imply gender:
Use examples and illustrations that represent the diversity of individuals and groups in society.
Do not use the pronouns ‘he’, ‘his’ and ‘him’ to mean ‘he and she’ ‘his and hers’ and ‘him and her’. Rewrite the sentence in plural:
|Children should bring their hats.||Each child should bring his hat.|
Rewrite the sentence using the first or second person:
|You don’t know your true self.||No one knows his true self.|
|From each of us according to our abilities …||From each according to his abilities …|
Replace the pronoun with an article:
|someone who can take advice||he who can take advice|
Use ‘he and she’ or ‘his and hers’. These are best used when you want to raise consciousness about both sexes in a certain context, but it can look cumbersome if used too often.
- Education is helping each person reach his or her potential.
Adopt the singular use of ‘they’ and ‘their’ when this makes for easier reading and avoids clumsy repetition. For example:
|Anyone who was unable to attend could forward their comments electronically.||Anyone who was unable to attend could forward his or her comments electronically.|
And especially avoid:
- Anyone who was unable to attend could forward his/her comments electronically.
Replace the pronoun with a noun:
|To find a friend one must close one eye; to keep a friend, two.||To find a friend one must close one eye; to keep him, two.|
Use ‘it’ to refer to animals (when their sex is unknown) and objects such as ships, countries, and so on:
|HMAS Arnhem ran aground on its first voyage.||HMAS Arnhem ran aground on her first voyage.|
Here are some commonly used words and the preferred alternatives:
|man or men (generic)||human, men and women, people, person|
|mankind||humanity, humankind, people|
|man-made||artificial, handcrafted, handmade, machine made, manufactured, synthetic|
|craftsman||artisan, craftsperson, craftworker, skilled jeweller or potter|
|craftsmanship||skill, level of skill, craft|
Preparing material relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples calls for sensitivity.
Wherever possible, text that tells the stories of First Australian people should be narrated in the first person. Indigenous people tell their own story, and their voices should take priority, both in placement and emphasis.
Writers or editors who find inconsistencies or other possible errors should refer their queries to the responsible staff member. Be aware of significant variances of spelling of similar terms from group to group.
If you are writing about people from a cultural or racial background that is not your own, it is particularly important to use inclusive language at all times and to avoid creating an ‘us and them’ tone in the text. Don’t, for instance, overuse ‘them’ or ‘they’; instead, use proper names or other collective nouns (such as ‘people’ or ‘group’) as much as you can. Similarly, avoid referring to ‘us’ and ‘our’.
Avoid gratuitously identifying people by their race — Aboriginal lawyer, Torres Strait Islander teacher. Only mention a person’s racial background if it is relevant to the text.
As with any kind of text, never assume that what applies to one group will apply to another. Do not make generalisations about what a group thinks, wants or intends.
Some readers know little about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and history, so it is essential that the text be clear and that all terms and usages be fully explained.
Tense and stereotypes
Avoid referring to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as being ‘extinct’.
Be careful with tense. If you refer to people only in the past tense you can make it seem that they no longer exist. Expressions such as ‘the Pintupi lived in this area’ — while possibly strictly true — can imply that they no longer do so. Unless you are sure this is the case, you should qualify the statement, saying, for example, people ‘lived in the area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries’.
Be alert to stereotypes that can present false or biased images of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Readers and visitors need to be aware that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies and cultures are integral parts of Australian life today.
Words to use
|peoples||where referring to a collective of language groups or societies|
|people||when referring to groups of individuals|
|Aboriginal people or person — referring only to those from Australia||but avoid using ‘aboriginal’ to refer to overseas peoples: use the names they use for themselves, such as Inuit|
|Australia’s first peoples|
|Koori, Murri and other words that refer collectively to Aboriginal people from particular regions — but only in connection with people from the appropriate region.||Do not use Koori to refer to Aboriginal people generally. Unless there is a good reason not to, stick to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.|
|law man||for an elder entrusted with keeping and teaching Aboriginal law|
|tjukurrpa or Dreaming||avoid use of Dreamtime. Always make sure the meaning is clear in the text|
|Torres Strait Islander|
|white person or European|
Words to be wary of
‘Indigenous’ is not an adequate substitute for ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’ and may be used only when the reference is absolutely clear. When referring to people, it is always capitalised. Note also the expression ‘non-Indigenous’.
Be careful when referring to people and things as ‘traditional’ when you mean they are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander origin or when you mean that people live in the way their ancestors did.
‘Traditional’ can make things sound ancient or dated when that is not so; it can imply that what is being referred to is not current, not relevant to today’s life, and somehow old-fashioned. Recast the sentence if necessary, and use a word such as ‘customary’ to refer to cultural practices.
Words to avoid
|Aborigine||Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people find it offensive. Note, however, that Tasmanian Aboriginal people often refer to themselves as Aborigines|
|Aboriginal as a noun|
|ATSI or other similar abbreviations||Always spell out the words|
|tribe, tribal||Not recommended for use in relation to the social structure of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Use group, society, people, language group and clan|
|myths, legends and superstitions to describe Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander belief systems||Can imply inferiority. Use creation stories, beliefs, belief system, religion, religious beliefs or spiritual beliefs.|
Avoid unnecessary use of capitals. Words such as ‘country’, ‘law’, ‘elder’ and ‘ancestral’ do not need to be capitalised.
Settlement and discovery
Avoid expressions that obscure the presence or actions of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Australia was discovered and settled long before 1788, and using words such as ‘settled’ and ‘discovered’ can sometimes create a false impression.
You can refer to white settlement at particular times, but avoid saying someone ‘first settled in New South Wales’ or ‘discovered the Blue Mountains’; rather, say they arrived in (date), settled there in (date), explored or travelled through the area, and so on, and try to provide a time frame.
The Museum prefers ‘colonise’ when referring in a broad sense to Europeans’ arrival in Australia. ‘Settled’ might be acceptable when speaking about individual people or situations.
The Museum prefers italics to show that words belong to an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language. If a word is commonly used in English — for example, if it appears in the latest edition of the Macquarie Dictionary — it should not be italicised.
Regardless of whether a word drawn from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language is placed in italics or in roman type, ensure that readers who do not know the word will be able to understand it, either from the context or through an explanation. Generally, the word is given in language first, followed by the translation in brackets:
Hunters used the woomera (a spear-thrower) to increase the range and power of their throws.
Avoid using ‘dialect’ to refer to an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language. A dialect is a form of a language — not a language in itself. Careless misuse of the word in connection with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander languages can suggest that these are not ‘real’ or ‘full’ languages.
You might come across text that refers to family relationships such as ‘cousin–brother’ or to someone as ‘grandfather’ or ‘auntie’ in ways that are at odds with non-Indigenous understanding of these terms. These words mean something different to some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and you should take care when dealing with text that uses these terms.
It might be necessary to explain such usages, so that readers and visitors are not confused. If you need help clarifying these terms, check with the Museum staff member who prepared the text.
Most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander words can be spelt more than one way in English. Watch particularly for:
|dj exchanged for tj or just j||i and j exchanged for y|
|t exchanged for d||one r or l where two are used elsewhere|
|b exchanged for p||vowels such as u and o used interchangeably|
|k exchanged for g|
This means that:
|Batjala might become Badtjala||Jingili might become Tjingili|
|Djingili might become Jingili||Kukatja might become Gugatja|
|Jingili might become Tjingili||Parundji might become Barundji|
If there is a question about the spelling of a word, be guided by the preferences of the person or people with whom the word is most closely associated.
The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies has guides to language use, including a thesaurus for place names, language groups and people. Staff from the institute are available to give advice on language and other cultural matters.
Because of the multiplicity of spellings in use, it is recommended that a disclaimer such as the following be included on the imprint page of publications using Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander words:
Commonly accepted spellings of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander words have been used in this book, and the author acknowledges that there are often multiple spellings in use.
The Museum has a flexible approach to the use of diacritics (character marks) with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander languages. Be aware that many readers and visitors (and writers and editors) will rarely know what they mean, and this detracts from the reading experience. However, for some language groups and areas, there are cultural sensitivities involved, and this should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Images and names of the deceased
Some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people don’t like to see images of the deceased or hear the names of dead people spoken or in recordings; others don’t mind. The safest approach is to avoid potential offence by providing warnings in publications and at particular points in exhibition text.
Museum text carries a warning for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander visitors if it contains photographic, audio or video images or recordings of the deceased or if it mentions their names.
Some of the images in this gallery are of people who are deceased. We have made every effort to ensure that communities and families agree to the use of these images. Where families and communities wish, the names of deceased people are mentioned. If you have any concerns about this, please talk to the Museum staff.
Readers should be aware that this publication contains names and images of people now deceased. The use of such material has been approved by the communities concerned, but guidance of local leaders should be sought before this publication is used in Australian Indigenous communities.
Warning: This website includes images and names of deceased people that may cause distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Objects can be of great significance to some people, and some people must avoid seeing or being close to particular objects. The Museum avoids exhibiting or publishing images of these objects.