Is it pronounced CHUR-chil, or CHURCH-hil? Duh-ZAHST-rus, or duh-ZAH-stur-uhs? Day-gar, or De-gar?

Until recently, ABC staffers were put through their paces through a monthly missive from Aunty’s Standing Committee on Spoken English (SCOSE), run by language specialist Irene Poinkin. Every month, she’d address and rule on reader complaints about how the ABC approaches issues of language, as well as using her own knowledge and close attention to ABC presenters to pick up on odd emphasis, clunky metaphors or even, occasionally, slip-ups in other outlets. For example, here’s Poinkin’s pronouncement, seen by Crikey, on a January 2009 Daily Telegraph headline that read: “New risk free pill”, split over two lines with a break between the second and third words:

“The story was about a new contraceptive pill with fewer unpleasant side effects and less risk (‘risk-free’), but the headline suggests, alarmingly, that a free pill is posing a new risk. Hanged by the hyphen. Of course, putting the hyphen in would have made the banner headline impossible.

“Moral: never let the grammar get in the way of a good headline!”

Aunty’s devoted listenership contributed too, giving Poinkin reams of complaints about whether one can really turn oneself into police, have their interest peaked, or get out of a black hole.

But SCOSE, which used to set ABC reporters straight, hasn’t sent out an email since November. And many (though admittedly not all) ABC staffers miss it.

What’s going on? Our attempts to contact Poinkin this morning were unsuccessful — her ABC email bounces.

Last month’s editor’s letter in Limelight magazine reveals why. Poinkin was one of the corporation’s many “pre-Christmas casualties” after $254 million in funding cuts over five years were announced by the government last November. Limelight editor Clive Paget wrote:

“One of the sadder emails I’ve received this month was from our regular verbal style guru Irene Poinkin. It seems the ABC cuts, about which we’ve all heard so much, have resulted in her becoming one of the corporation’s pre-Christmas casualties. A philosophical soul, Irene is seeing the opportunity for early retirement — we wish her well.”

Asked about SCOSE’s post-November absence, and how the ABC would rule on spoken English in the future, the ABC set us a statement that said SCOSE was being “restructured”.

“The ABC and its editorial policy team are restructuring its SCOSE function with an ongoing commitment to providing staff with advice on pronunciation and other related issues,” a spokesman said. “SCOSE was subject to recent budget cuts along with every other part of the ABC but we are confident the new system that is being put in place will enable us to maintain the high standards that have always been a part of the ABC.”

Peter Fray

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