Monday, 2 December 2013


Here is today’s question:

What is the difference between a PANDA serenely sitting and eating shoots and leaves,


A PANDA having a meal, firing a gun and departing?

The answer……….  a comma.

Here is what I mean.

A Panda eats shoots and leaves.

A Panda eats, shoots and leaves.

The rules of language and punctuation are complex; get them even a little wrong and, well anything can happen, like causing a PANDA to act completely out of character. As Lynne Truss says:

 “We have a language that is full of ambiguities; we have a way of expressing ourselves that is often complex and elusive, poetic and modulated; all our thoughts can be rendered with absolute clarity if we bother to put the right dots and squiggles between the words in the right places. Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking. If it goes, the degree of intellectual impoverishment we face is unimaginable.” 
Lynne TrussEats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

But these rules of language and punctuation can also be a bit tiresome. Winston Churchill, himself a Nobel Laureate in literature, demonstrated how silly was the rule about never ending a sentence with a preposition with this: ‘this is something up with which I will not put’.

Dealing with the language we have is bad enough but having to incorporate new expressions into the language AND to use them as intended by who ever invented them is a nightmare.

Take ‘The Tipping Point’ for example. In his No.1 Best Seller of that name Malcolm Gladwell used this expression when talking about why a particular trend will “tip” into wide-scale popularity while another will ‘splutter and fade into oblivion’. The subtitle to Gladwell’s book is ‘how little things can make a big difference’. Sadly the term ‘tipping point’ is now used by just about everyone to refer to just about any change. So it has lost its potency and uniqueness.

Can all things, including health related issues, rise or fall as a result of tipping points? If so they need to satisfy Gladwell’s three key factors that each play a role in determining whether a particular trend will “tip” into wide-scale popularity’' being, the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.

The Law of the Few. ‘….many trends are ushered into popularity by small groups of individuals who can be classified as Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen.

Connectors are individuals who have ties in many different realms and act as conduits between them, helping to engender connections, relationships, and “cross-fertilization” that otherwise might not have ever occurred. Mavens are people who have a strong compulsion to help other consumers by helping them make informed decisions. Salesmen are people whose unusual charisma allows them to be extremely persuasive in inducing others’ buying decisions and behaviours.’

The Stickiness Factor: ‘ This refers to a unique quality that compels a phenomenon to “stick” in the minds of the public and influence their future behaviour’.

The Power of Context: ‘ If the environment or historical moment in which a trend is introduced is not right, it is not as likely that the tipping point will be attained.’

Let me attempt then to apply Gladwell’s Tipping Point theory, first to one of the case studies that I will be using in a forthcoming webinar I am delivering for the ISQua Fellowship Programme and second to the advent and aftermath of the HIV AIDS epidemic. I am not sure this will work but it should be interesting. I suspect that we may be thinking catalyst than tipping point; let’s see.

Case Study                 

A surgeon is practising beyond his professional knowledge and skills and beyond his hospital’s technical capacity.

After this has been going on for some time and expressions of concern to the hospital and authorities by one assistant and the family of an injured patient go unheeded, the assistant (‘whistleblower’) goes public. The popular Press gets hold of it and, predictably it becomes front page news; and it does not go away.

Bureaucracy finally acts (perhaps overreacts).

Several inquiries ensue and numerous vetting and regulatory practices are changed.

Widespread culture change becomes evident within the period of just 12 months whereby it is now natural for colleagues, patients, families to report their suspicions about less than optimal practices and outcomes.

Let us work backwards. A person deliberately or even knowingly infecting a partner in many countries today is a criminal offence leading to imprisonment. Doctors in many countries today are now required by law to inform a partner of a HIV positive patient of the positive status of his/her partner.
How is it that we have reached this point when we were initially in denial about HIV AIDS, then accepted it existed but seemed powerless against it; rather like the rabbit caught in headlights. (I digress, but is not history repeating itself with climate change?) 
Does this fit our criteria for a Tipping Point?
Let us consider the Australian response to the AIDS ‘epidemic’.
The following extract is taken from Wikipedia.
The Australian health policy response to HIV/AIDS has been characterised as emerging from the grassroots rather than top-down, and as involving a high degree of partnership between government and non-government stakeholders. The capacity of these groups to respond early and effectively was instrumental in lowering infection rates before government-funded prevention programs were operational. The response of both governments and NGOs was also based on recognition that social action would be central to controlling the disease epidemic.
In 1987, a famous advertising program was launched, including television advertisements that featured the grim reaper rolling a ten-pin bowling ball toward a group of people standing in the place of the pins. These advertisements garnered a lot of attention: controversial when released, and continuing to be regarded as effective as well as pioneering television advertising.
The willingness of the Australian government to use mainstream media to deliver a blunt message through advertising was credited as contributing to Australia's success in managing HIV. 
 Australian Governments began in the mid-1980s to pilot or support programs involving needle exchange for intravenous drug users. These remain occasionally controversial, but are reported to have been crucial in keeping the incidence of the disease low, as well as being extremely cost-effective.
Australian governments have made it illegal to discriminate against a person on the grounds of their health status, including having HIV/AIDS. However HIV positive individuals may still be denied immigration visas on the grounds that their treatment takes up limited resources and is a burden for taxpayers.’
 Does this response tick the three ‘Tipping Point’ boxes; The Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor and the Power of Context? I would say a resounding YES.
Can we now ask if our surgery case study passes the ‘Tipping Point’ test? I think it does not. Here I believe we have a ‘catalyst’ rather than a Tipping Point. A catalyst is ‘a person or thing that precipitates an event or a change’.
This BLOG is about how change happens rather than about the (mis)use of the English language.
But I have to end it with a delicious quote from ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’:
“If you still persist in writing, "Good food at it's best", you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.” 
Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

NOW, how many of you have gone back over this BLOG looking for the (deliberate?!) errors of punctuation and grammar?

Peter Carter
Chief Executive Officer
December 2013

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