Your Novice Accent

This article originally appeared in the November, 1956 issue of QST Magazine with the title “Your Novice Accent–and What to Do About It.” Originally authored by Keith S. Williams W6DTY, it was revised at some point by someone, and then I got my hands on it. You can read the original here.

Neither the call sign W6DTY nor the name Keith S. Williams appear in the QRZ.Com database, and my attempts to contact him have been unfruitful. Nevertheless, I thought it would be a good idea to update this venerable article. Most notably, I have changed the word “Novice” to “beginner.” While there are some Novices still on the rolls, their numbers are dwindling, and I’d guess that more Techs and Generals that can use this information than there are Novices. There may soon be no Novices, but the advice in this article is timeless.

A note about prosigns: Normally a prosign that is a combination of two characters, such as AR, is written with a bar over the letters. Instead, I use brackets (for exmaple, [AR]) to denote when to slur the two characters together. When a prosign is sent as two separate characters, such as DE, I don’t use the brackets.

Finally, if you have any comments or suggestions, please feel free to add them below or to e-mail them to me. Thanks, Dan.

Your Beginner’s Accent–and What To Do About it

originally written by Keith S. Williams, W6DTY
updated by Dan Romanchik, KB6NU

A language is means of communication. It is most efficient when all who speak it follow the same grammatical rules and pronounce its words in the same way. Isolated groups of a given linguistic stock tend to develop differences in speech habits. They speak with different accents, follow different rules of grammar, the difference growing with continued isolation until each group finds it difficult to understand others even though all speak the same basic language.

International Morse code is, in a way, a language. We can use it efficiently because we all follow the same procedure and use the same set of abbreviations and Q-signals. Most CW operators learn these procedures, abbreviations, and Q-signals over the years, and it becomes second nature to them.

Now and then, though, you’ll run into an operator who’s new to CW. How can you tell? Well, generally, he will be a bit slower than the average op, but you can also tell by the way he uses Q-signals and abbreviations. He has a “beginner’s accent.” And just like it may be difficult for a native speaker of a language to understand someone who is just learning to speak that language, it may be difficult for experienced CW operators to copy someone with a beginner’s CW accent.

Since most folks learning a new language want to get rid of their beginner’s accent, we’ll assume that most CW newbies want to get rid of their accent too. With that in mind, let’s talk about CW operating procedures.

Tune Around
When you flip the switch on your power supply and prepare for a session of brass pounding, don’t be too hasty to call CQ. Check your gear, and when you’re satisfied it’s all ready, listen for a few minutes. Tune around a little and see what’s going on first. More than once I’ve heard some good DX going to waste while the brethren are busy honking out CQ’s without, apparently, having listened more than two seconds after turning on the rig. Listen for stations already calling CQ and answer that call rather than adding to the the bedlam with a CQ of your own. On the remote chance that you hear no CQ’s, go ahead and try one.

Novice Accent Drawing #1

Two things are important:

  1. Your receiver has a tuning dial. Use it. Doing so keeps it from locking up, and you may hear someone calling you off your frequency. Many QRP operators, for example, use crystal-controlled transmitters, and they may not have a crystal for the frequency that you’re calling on. If you don’t tune around, you won’t hear him calling. If a fellow calls CQ, signs and says “K”, then starts another CQ in ten seconds you know he’s not tuning. He just sits there like a lump, expecting a call on his own frequency. He has few QSO’s and he creates beaucoup QRM with his useless calling.
  2. Don’t make your calls too long. Contrary to your first impression, a long call does not attract eager prospects. Rather, just the opposite is more likely–the longer you call the fewer the answers you receive. People are a restless lot. After waiting through ten or twelve CQ’s the average operator will lose patience and start looking for someone else.

Three-by-three-by-three
A CQ pattern that has proved very successful over a long period is the old three-by-three. CQ three times, sign your call three times and repeat the whole thing three times. This is more than sufficient and results have been satisfying.

Today, however, you rarely hear a CQ that long. I generally call CQ four times, followed by my call three times:

CQ CQ CQ CQ de KB6NU KB6NU KB6NU

I then pause and listen for calls, tuning around a bit. Unless band conditions are really bad, I generally get a response by the third call.

When answering a CQ, first make sure that you are on the same frequency as the calling station. YOU do this by tuning your receiver so that the tone of the station calling CQ matches the CW sidetone of your transceiver. Some radios have a special control that makes this even easier to do.

Also, make your call as short as conditions warrant. In general, you only need call about three times and then sign your call three times. For example:

K6DBG K6DBG K6DBG DE KB6NU KB6NU KB6NU

If conditions are good, call twice followed by your call twice. If conditions are poor, or if you’re operating a crystal-controlled transmitter somewhat off the calling frequency, make your call longer.

I’ve noticed recently that some operators–even under marginal conditions–don’t send their calls more than once when responding to my CQ. This is not a good practice. Even if a signal is strong, a static crash can obliterate one of the characters in your callsign. Always send your call at least twice when answering a CQ.

If you’re 25 kilohertz (kHZ) away, call a bit longer, but not too long because it doesn’t take the receiving operator long to tune through the band when activity is light. On the other hand, when QRM is heavy, make your call somewhat longer because it takes a receiving operator longer to comb through the mess. In other words, make the length of your call suit conditions. It is seldom necessary, even under the worst conditions, to call station more than eight or ten times before signing your own call.

Procedure signals (prosigns)
Prosigns are single characters–or a series of characters–that call for the other operator to do something. For example, the prosign K is used at the end of a transmission to invite the other operator to start sending. Other frequently used prosigns include [AS] (wait), [BK] (break in immediately), and R (all received correctly). K3WWP has a good list of prosigns on his website. You can find it at http://home.alltel.net/johnshan/cw_ss_list_proc.html.

Novice Accent Drawing #2

Some beginners misuse the procedure signal DE. DE means “from” and it is sent only once before each series of a call sign. Do not repeat it before each transmission of your call sign in a series. It is common to hear something like this:

CQ . . . CQ DE KN6ZZZ DE KN6ZZZ DE KN6ZZZ CQ . . . ETC.

This is not good practice. Under poor receiving conditions it is very confusing to the receiving operator who is trying to dope out your call letters. The extra DE throws him every time. (Along the same lines, never sending DE messes up many a receiving station when they are used to listening for it.

When you sign for the last time on a CQ don’t be fancy. Just send the procedure signal K. This invites anyone who heard your CQ to answer. Do not send [AR] either by itself or followed by K:

CQ CQ CQ DE KN6ZZZ KN6ZZZ KN6ZZZ K

When making calls, [AR] is used only when you have contacted another station, but are not yet in contact with him. [AR] is a procedure signal sent as one character, di-dah-di-dah-dit. It is not sent as the two separate letters A and R:

W4YYY W4YYY W4YYY DE K6ZZZ K6ZZZ K6ZZZ [AR]

Once you have established contact there are certain preliminaries you should get squared away. At the beginning of a QSO, it is common practice to exchange three pieces of information: a signal report, station location, and operator name. It used to be standard procedure to send these three pieces of information in exactly that order. Nowadays, however, more operators seem to send their name before their location.

The first two transmissions of a QSO might, therefore, look something like this:

W8JNZ DE KB6NU TNX FER CALL OM [BT] UR RST 599 599 [BT] NAME IS DAN DAN [BT] QTH ANN ARBOR, MI ANN ARBOR, MI [BT] HW? W8JNZ DE KB6NU K

KB6NU DE W8JNZ R TNX FER RPT DAN [BT] UR RST 599 599 [BT] NAME IS CLAY CLAY [BT] QTH DIXBORO, MI DIXBORO, MI [BT] HW NW? KB6NU DE W8JNZ K

Note that both operators repeated each piece of information. This is to ensure that the other operator correctly received the information.

Abbreviations
Ham radio is full of abbreviations. There is good reason for this. It saves time. You can say more in less time and with less wear and tear on the key. A great many abbreviations are standard the world over. You’ll find them listed in handbooks. Don’t go overboard, but learn to use the universally understood shortcuts in operating. A good example is “AND.” Most experienced operators send “ES” instead of “AND.” It’s standard practice, and it’s quicker and easier to send. While you’re at it, learn the proper use of abbreviations.

If in doubt, look them up in the handbooks or on the Web. K3WWP has a good list of prosigns on his website at http://home.alltel.net/johnshan/cw_ss_list_abbr.html.

While there are symbols for the period and the comma, and you need to know them to pass the code test, you rarely hear them sent on the air, except to separate the city and state when sending a station location. The reason for this is that they are awkward to send, and you really don’t need them.

All the punctuation you need is the question mark and the prosign [BT] [dah-di-di-di-dah]. Although it’s become common practice, you don’t really need to send a comma between your city and state, and you certainly don’t need it in any other situation.

Nor do you need to send the lengthy, time-consuming signal for period. Just use the break prosign [BT] between sentences or thoughts. It is much easier to send and sounds smoother. The only time that you really need to send or receive formal punctuation signals is when you are handling traffic or official bulletins.

When you sign over to the other station, make it quick and easy and use on of the standard methods. I have heard some beginners send, “… NOW I AM TURNING IT BACK TO YOU SO HERE IT COMES …” Long winded guff is okay in its place, but it shouldn’t become a habit on CW. Some operators send, “… SO BK TO YOU …” This is an improvement, but may be misunderstood because “BK” is the break prosign as well as the abbreviation for “back.”

All you need to say, really, is “HW?” (short for “how copy?”) or “WATSA?” (short for “what say?”). Either signal indicates to the other fellow that you are through for the moment and are about to sign over to him. Another signal that is becoming popular is “BTU,” which is short for “back to you.”

If it’s also your last transmission it is customary to part with a certain amount of well-wishing. Don’t drag it out too long. You’ve probably sat through a final transmission like the following:

WELL BILL NOW I MUST QRT AND WISH YOU MANY 73S 73S TNX FOR THE SWELL QSO BILL AND 73S BEST OF LUCK AND LOTS OF DX AND BEST WISHES TO YOU AND THE FAMILY SO 73S AND I WILL SEE YOU AGAIN SOON BILL 73S …

All you have to say after you’ve told Bill you must QRT is something like this:

TNX QSO OM 73 GN [SK] W4YYY DE K6ZZZ

Note that it is not necessary to add an “S” to 73. By itself, 73 means “best regards.” If you say 73’s you are, in effect, saying “Best Regardses,” which is just plain silly.

More Procedure
Now a word or two about correct procedure when signing over to the other station or when ending a QSO. It’s all very simple, but many operators seem confused as to how to do it properly.

When you are turning the QSO over to the other operator you proceed as follows:

… SO HW? [AR] W4YYY DE K6ZZZ K

The [AR] indicates that you are through for the time being. The K says, “go ahead and transmit to me.” In practice, most operators omit the [AR] these days.

Incidentally, there is a variation of the K signal. You may have heard it and wondered what it meant and as like as not you have misused it. I am referring to the procedure signal [KN]. This signal indicates that you are engaged in a QSO, that you are inviting the other operator to go ahead with this transmission and you do not wish a third station, the breaking station,” so called to interrupt by calling either of you.

This signal was originated as an aid in DX operating and is not often needed in domestic communications. Therefore I don’t advise its use in ordinary QSO’s. But if you have occasion to use it do it right. It is definitely not a substitute for the plain signal “K”. I have heard novices end a CQ with [KN]. This is obviously simple-minded . Translated to English it means, “I am calling a CQ, a general call, inviting anyone to answer, but please do not call me!”

When ending a QSO use the prosign [SK]. This is easy. [SK] is never the last signal sent. The last item is either your call or the letter K. If you have made your last transmission but will stand by for the other station’s closing remarks you send:

… 73 ES CUL GN [SK] W4YYY DE K6ZZZ K

The [SK] indicates that you have made your last transmission. If you have completely finished the QSO and wish to remain open for business you just naturally don’t put anything at all after your call. If you intend to “close station” and hit the sack you should indicate this fact by adding the CL immediately after your call. Listening operators are thus informed that you will not be in the market for another QSO. It saves them needless calls.

CW operating procedures are fixed by long usage and in part are called for by law. The correct procedure is just as easy to learn and use as the wrong procedure, and if you are a beginner, you might just as well start right. Bad habits are difficult to break. If you find it hard to remember what to send and when to send it make up a sheet with standard forms and keep it on your operating desk. Refer to it when in doubt, and soon, using the correct procedure will be automatic. Once learned, it isn’t forgotten.

R?
Being long winded, I don’t mind adding a few items that are pet peeves of mine. First on the agenda is an ancient complaint about operators who come back with “R” when they have copied only part or perhaps nothing at all of your last transmission. You often hear something like this:

WNYYY DE K6ZZZ R R R OK OK BUT PLEASE REPEAT MY REPORT AND YOUR QTH ALSO MISSED YOUR NAME AND DID NOT COPY YOUR LAST QUESTION IN THE QRM…

If you send “R” you are indicating that you copied solid everything the other operator sent. Do not send a single R if you missed any part of his transmission. Just send a break sign, [BT], after your call when you go back to him, if you missed anything, and tell him what you missed. There is nothing more exasperating than to hear, “R BUT MISSED EVERYTHING OM!”

In connection with this business of receipting, one other point might be mentioned. If you have copied the other fellow’s transmission solid and have so indicated by “R” when you go back to him, he can be expected to have sense enough to know that you got what he sent. Therefore it is needless wear and tear on your key and a waste of your time and his to go through this rigamarole of

OK ON THIS, OK ON THAT, OK ON YOUR RIG, OK ON YOUR WX, OK ON YOUR DOG HAVING JAUNDICE, ETC., ETC.

Just proceed with your remarks and comments. If he asked a question, answer it. If he made a statement that requires no answer, make no answer. It’s really very simple.

Another pet peeve is the guy with long, deathly silences. He sends your call, signs his, then says

R ES TNX FER REPT OM [BT]…

then apparently lapses into a coma.

When you finally decide that the op has suffered a heart attack and departed this vale of tears, he suddenly comes to life and burps out a couple of BT’s and staggers along with

RIG HR 807 WID 50 WATTS [BT]…

and promptly falls asleep again. This makes the receiving operator nervous. If your mind goes temporarily blank when you are on the key, send a series of [BT]. Just don’t sit there leaving the other operator to wonder if you are still alive. There is nothing worse than a lot of clatter on the air except complete silence.

??
A final pet peeve is the misuse of the question mark as a prosign. The question mark does not mean that you made a mistake and that you are going to resend, correcting the mistake. The correct way to note that you made a mistake is to send a series of eight dits, although few operators send all eight these days.

Often, operators will pause and then send three or four widely-spaced dits to note that they made an error. Many high-speed operators don’t even bother sending the dits. They simply pause for a short time after they make a mistake, then start up again, resending the word.

When you send the question mark as a prosign, it means that you are planning to repeat some bit of information so that the receiving station gets it properly. For example, you might send it after you’ve sent your location, especially if it has a tricky spelling. For example,

QTH ANN ARBOR, MI ? ANN ARBOR, MI

Novice Accent Drawing #3

Sloppy Sending
To get the most out of operating CW, it’s a good idea to practice sending properly. No one enjoys working an operator with a sloppy fist. No one expects you to be perfect, but poorly sent code is a real horror to copy.

Pay special attention to the spacing between characters and between words. I would rather copy code with proper spacing and some errors than code that is error-free, but where the letters and words are all run together.

Some operators go on for years blithely unaware that their fists are bad. In fact, they may even fancy themselves as artists on the key. They get huffy if anyone suggests that they are not 100% readable. They suggest that the receiving operators need a little practice. If you are one of those boys, you are probably a hopeless case. However, if you know that your sending leaves something to be desired, and you are sincerely interested in developing a good readable fist you can stop worrying. It’s simple.

Just practice sending–nut not on the air. Rig yourself a code practice oscillator and send to yourself. Many modern transceivers even have a practice mode that you can use.

The ideal manual fist is one that sounds like a tape transmitter. Don’t laugh! It’s a skill that’s easy to acquire. Of course, to begin with, you must know how good code sounds. The simplest way is to turn on your receiver and tune in a commercial tape circuit and listen. Tune around, find a station sending press or other traffic and just sit and listen. You don’t have to be able to copy it solid. Maybe you can copy only seven words a minute and the commercial is sending at 20 or 25. No matter. Don’t worry about what he’s sending, just pay attention to how it’s sent. Listen to the individual letters; get the feel of his rhythm and spacing. Then adjust your key, get comfortable, and send to yourself. Try to make your hand-keyed letters sound like the tape-sent letters. Send from a newspaper or book and pay attention to spacing between words and letters as well as to the shape of each individual letter. At first it may seem an impossible task but you’ll be surprised how rapidly your sending improves. Sure it’s a lot of work, but you weren’t born with a telegraph key in your hand and you have to learn. You don’t write a letter in such an illegible scrawl that it can’t be read (or do you?), so why transmit a botched-up mess of dots and dashes to some poor wretch on 40 meters who is trying to read it.

It’s Fun!
Perhaps the best reason for using the proper procedures and developing a good fist is that it makes CW operating more fun. Using genuine International Morse and standard procedure will make life a pleasure for both you and your adversaries.

Comments

  1. Rob Locher W7GH says:

    Hi Dan, thanks for the update of a great article. I have a couple comments: first, you may as well update kilocycles to kilohertz or kHz. Second, I would take out all references to “OM”. I’m new to CW myself mind you, but I’ve never heard “OM” on the bands.

  2. Ned W8VFM says:

    Hi Dan: Thanks for this fine article. I got my Novice on January 1955 and remember reading the original in QST. In fact, our teacher, W8VSB SK, gave us all copies of it. Keep up the good work!

    73,
    Ned, W8VFM

  3. Dan KB6NU says:

    Hi, Bob–

    I think you’re right about using kHz instead of kilocycles/s. I’ll change that. I’m not so sure you’re right about OM, though. I hear it a fair amount, and quite a bit when working DX stations.

    73, Dan

  4. Bill Coleman AA4LR says:

    Dan,

    Good job. I was thinking about doing such an update myself (one of my GUPs — great unfinished projects).

    A couple of comments:

    * About calling CQ – these days it is rare to hear a CQ (except during a contest). If anything, people need to be encouraged to call CQ. Years ago, I certainly know what the original author was talking about, but it rarely happens any more that people call CQ without listening.

    * Do we really use “de” that much any more. In contests or quickee DX contacts, you almost never hear it. If it is implied in context, you won’t hear it.

    * When replying to a CQ, the 3×3 format is pretty much obsolete. it used to be important when operators were rock bound, since you might have to tune 5 or 10 kHz (or more!) to find a station replying to your CQ. It’s more normal to hear either a 1×1, 1×2 or just to have the calling operator send his callsign without any prosigns.

    73, Bill

  5. Dan KB6NU says:

    Hi, Bill–

    Thanks for your comments.

    I’m not sure I agree about it being rare to hear CQs. I hear and respond to CQs nearly every day (as well as frequentyly calling CQ myself). I do agree that it would be a good idea to encourage more people to call CQ, especially on “dead” bands. Just because you don’t hear anyone doesn’t mean that propagation is bad.

    As for “de,” I’m still in favor of using it, especially when establishing contact. It gives the other operator a little bit of a heads-up that what’s to follow is my call sign.

    As for how many times to repeat a callsign when establishing a contact, I think the key is to gauge band conditions. If conditions are poor, a 3×3 certainly may be warranted. If band conditions are good then I’ll use a 2×2.

    I’ll stick to my statement that it’s never good practice to send a call only once when establishing contact. The other operator may be distracted, or there might be some QRM, and that will cause him to miss part of the call. If you only send his call once, and he misses it, he may not be sure that you’re calling him. If you only send your call once, he may not copy it properly. Either situation can cause confusion.

  6. Douglas Williams says:

    Dan,

    Keith Williams, W6DTY, is my father. He died in 1986.

    I’m glad to see that his article is still of use. It might be better, however, if you listed the authorship of your version as:

    by Keith S. Williams, W6DTY
    adapted by Dan Romanchik, KB6NU

    That would avoid any confusion about authorship. You are clear in this blog, but sometimes things get excerpted without the full story.

    Thanks,

    Douglas Williams

  7. done…….Dan

  8. Wonderful blog, I’ve lost most of the last 2 days reviewing old articles.

    Just one question I always thought that when turning over the converation that you would use [KN] instead of [K].

    [K] being an invitation to any station to transmit
    [KN] being an invitation to a specific station to transmit.

    Keep up the great blogging

    73 de KA9KQH

  9. Dan KB6NU says:

    You’re correct about the meaning of the two prosigns, but think about this. Say you’re working a station, but are open to having someone break in and join the conversation. That’s when you’d use [K]. You’d only use [KN] when you absolutely do not want another station to break in. On CW, stations rarely break an ongoing QSO, but it does happen occasionally. I hope that makes sense…….73, Dan

  10. I appreciate your article. One tweak I would do is to leave out the part where it says you don’t really need a comma between your city and state. The comma there alerts the other operator that you are done sending your city and a two letter state abbreviation is about to follow. In times of hard copy that comma is very helpful and I am very used to it. Fortunately (at least for me) most CW ops I work use the comma. On a snail mail envelope the comma between city and state is superfluous — but imo not during sending QTH via CW.

    73,

    Rob K9AIM

    • Good update. A note, punctuation was seldom sent in old telegraphy and radio telegraphy. Proper length pauses are the norm. I have several “newbies” friends and I am seeing new habits creep in that are of no benefit. This may help. Your link to the original article is not functional.

  11. One thing that I notice on the bands that screams “novice accent” to me is the people that absolutely can not send their callsign without preceeding it with “DE”. I hear this in DX pileups all the time. The DX indicates that he is listening and you hear people send: “DE W1XYZ”. By the time he gets half way through with his callsign, the DX is halfway through his next QSO. Why doesn’t W1XYZ just send it callsign. What does sending “DE” add to the communication ?
    Then of course I still hear people sending a comma between their city and state. I didn’t that for years myself and I learned it as a novice. At some point I realized it was stupid and quit doing it.

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