Don’t torture your readers

9 02 2009

This may seem a little off-topic for ConservationBytes.com, but I thought it pertinent to communicate how bad English hampers the understanding, popularity and implementation of good conservation science. I’ve started a list of common errors, unnecessary jargon, bad phrasing, archaic usage and overly complex constructions that I often see in conservation writing. Many of these are personal preferences, but I try to justify my suggested alternative in each case. Some of these apply to general English writing, others to science only, and others just to conservation/ecological fields. My hope is that students and young researchers can use my advice to improve the clarity of their writing. This first list is only preliminary – later posts in this theme will appear as I record more examples.

  • CONDUCT (as in ‘… we conducted the experiment…’) – What is wrong with ‘do/did’? I have never seen a scientist ‘conduct’ anything, but I have seen a few good operas.
  • PERFORM – See ‘conduct’. While some scientists would probably be more effective Thespians, let’s keep the theatre out of science.
  • VERY (as in ‘… there are very few species…’ – ‘Very’ has no place in scientific writing – I defy anyone to quantify what it means (i.e., it has an entirely subjective interpretation).
  • QUITE - See ‘very’.
  • SITUATED (as in ‘… our study area was situated in…’) – Simplify to ‘is/was’. Much easier, isn’t it?
  • SIGNIFICANT (as in ‘…this result has significant implications for…'; ‘… significant scientific advances…'; ‘… the functional significance of…'; ‘… can play a significant role…’ – This is probably the most abused word in science today. All the former examples mean nothing and are entirely dependent on the subjective position of the reader. Used without a statistical meaning per se (but more on the abuses of ‘significance’ as an arbitrary statistical paradigm in a later post), ‘significant’ and her sisters (e.g., ‘significantly’, ‘significance’) have no more place in scientific writing than ‘very’. Students often invoke this word simply to sound more scientific. Rubbish.
  • TO BOLDLY GO (i.e., any split infinitive; I couldn’t resist using one of the more infamous split infinitives) – I believe the jury is out really on the acceptable use of split infinitives, and I may be losing the battle, but an infinitive (for those of you who are grammatically challenged, an ‘infinitive’ is the base form of the verb prior to conjugation) can never be split by an adverb in English. How many times have you seen ‘… to significantly affect…’, ‘… to adequately measure…’ or ‘… to properly test…’. Sorry, all wrong (should be ‘… to affect significantly…’, etc.)
  • 10m (as in ‘… transects were set every 10m along…’) – You cannot write ’10metres’, so why, oh why, do people insist on sticking unit abbreviations next to the number? It should be ’10 m’!
  • i.e./e.g. – These abbreviations, id est and exempli gratia, literally mean ‘that is’ and ‘for the sake of example’, respectively. They are two words abbreviated each, so a full stop is required after each letter. Absolute correctness normally dictates the addition of a comma after the final full stop, but many journals drop the comma for whatever reason.
  • cf.confer (compare). It is one word, so its abbreviation requires a single full stop after the ‘f’.
  • its/it’s – Why is it so difficult for people to understand this one (especially in Australia)? In almost every other circumstance, an apostrophe followed by an ‘s’ indicates possession to a singular noun, as in ‘…the transect’s divisions’, ‘…the nearest neighbour’s value…’, etc. When the noun in question is plural, then the apostrophe sits nicely outside the terminal ‘s’ (e.g., ‘… the species’ attributes…’). This is a quasi-universal law EXCEPT for its/it’s. In this case ‘it’s’ is the contraction of ‘it is’, so ‘its’ becomes the possessive form. So, you can write ‘…its burrow…’, but ‘…it’s burrow…’ is incorrect. Still confused? There’s a simple way to remember – whenever you see ‘it’s’ in front of something, say ‘it is’ to yourself and see if the phrase makes sense. If it doesn’t, then it should be ‘its’.
  • CONTRACTIONS (e.g., ‘can’t’, ‘won’t’, ‘it’s’) – These are colloquial forms and should never be used in a scientific manuscript.
  • IN ORDER TO (as in ‘… in order to compare the plots…’) – What’s wrong with just ‘to’? I have rarely seen a situation requiring ‘in order to’. Unnecessary verbiage.
  • HAS BEEN SHOWN TO (as in ‘… is a species that has been shown to demonstrate a…’). There is simply no need for this verbiage. Simply state ‘…is a species that demonstrates a…’ and then reference the statement properly at the end of the sentence.
  • ABBREVIATIONS, ACRONYMS AND INITIALISMS – Use sparingly, if at all. They are often discipline-specific and have no meaning outside relatively small circles.
  • UTILISE – Just write ‘use’. For some reason people believe ‘utilise’ sounds more technical. Rubbish.

CJA Bradshaw

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13 responses

28 07 2014
Time to put significance out of its misery | ConservationBytes.com

[…] I believe is one of the most abused, and therefore now meaningless, words in scientific writing: ‘significance’ and her adjective sister, ‘significant’. I hold that it should be stricken entirely from the language of science […]

23 06 2014
Don’t torture your readers III | ConservationBytes.com

[…] has been quite some time since I did one of these kinds of posts (see Don’t torture your readers and Don’t torture your readers II). However, given how popular they seem to be, I have […]

6 05 2013
Take credit for your work | ConservationBytes.com

[...] is an essential preoccupation. I’ve written about grammatical and style issues before (see here and here), and in the spirit of providing tips to young scientists out there, here’s another [...]

22 10 2012
JM

“But it should not be used as an excuse for all and sundry to modify rules mainly because (i) they weren’t properly trained in grammar in the first place and (ii) they are too lazy to look it up. This is why the French have L’Académie Française…”

Really? Because there is no English academy is precisely the reason that so many of these “rules” are arbitrary. Marty *did* look it up, and found “The initial proscription of the split infinitive is traced to an anonymous American publication in 1834, which simply stated that there was no existing rule about this issue and then states that to split the infinitive is incorrect.” As Marty mentions, “That is arbitrary in the extreme.” It seems that your argument is “old arbitrary rules are fine and to be respected; ‘new’ arbitrary changes, whether returning to the use pattern before the arbitrary rule, or in a new arbitrary direction, should be avoided.” Arbitrariness + time = Good rule?

For a scientific approach to these matters, Language Log has no competitor: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?cat=5. The denigration of “Not properly trained in grammar”, they point out in various posts, has been used more as a class distinguisher over time than as a way to improve or maintain clear communication. Keeping undesirables–from lower income classes to former slaves to immigrants–out of “high society” has been a key function of the great many arbitrary “rules” defended by so many English speakers.

22 10 2012
How to write a scientific paper « ConservationBytes.com

[...] Avoid superfluous/tortured language and ‘verbiage’. [...]

17 09 2012
Ecology is a Tower of Babel « ConservationBytes.com

[...] when we use words in a style subject to no real rules (apart from grammatical, although science writing is increasingly fraught with terrible grammar), the odds for distorting the ecological vocabulary are fairly high. Indeed, the outcome of the [...]

5 09 2011
A supervisor’s lament « ConservationBytes.com

[...] you’re not a scientist). I’ve even written a few blog posts (Torture I and II) about particular grammatical bugbears of mine. But to me, without good, precise English, [...]

9 03 2010
TeeKay

Thank you for these posts, just made a quick list and stuck it next to my computer. A lot of common sense, but a few things I wasn’t aware of.

10 03 2010
CJAB

You’re welcome. I hope you find them useful.

22 02 2009
Don’t torture your readers II « ConservationBytes.com

[...] torture your readers II 22 02 2009 The second instalment of “Don’t torture your readers” (an attempt to stimulate better writing in conservation science) follows with some more [...]

11 02 2009
CJAB

I also found this from a related blog:

“Split infinitives are frequently poor style, but they are not strictly bad grammar. In the example above, to avoid the split infinitive would result either in weakness (to go boldly) or over-formality (boldly to go): either would ruin the rhythmic force and rhetorical pattern of the original. It is probably good practice to avoid split infinitives in formal writing, but clumsy attempts to avoid them simply by shuffling adverbs about can create far worse sentences.”

In other words, avoid them in scientific writing.

10 02 2009
CJAB

Thanks, Marty. Hence my inclusion of the ‘jury is out’, but point taken on the definitive use of ‘incorrect’. My major concern here is that it is rarely used to clarify meaning in scientific writing; rather, it encourages sloppy usage that doesn’t respect other, well-grounded grammatical rules. For instance, I concede that

‘… to precisely determine…’

puts emphasis on the method of determination itself, but in most circumstances, scientific writers mean to place emphasis on the result (i.e., ‘… to determine precisely…’).

My skin crawls though when I see long strings of words splitting infinitives:

‘… to quantitatively, precisely and conclusively determine…’

That’s just ugly.

Though I must contest the common retort that language evolution is somehow a requirement, nay, a right. The creation of new words, even phrases, must keep pace with emerging technology and ideas, but it should not be used as an excuse for all and sundry to modify rules mainly because (i) they weren’t properly trained in grammar in the first place and (ii) they are too lazy to look it up. This is why the French have L’Académie Française.

The international ubiquity and bastardisation of English, and corollary that we tend to accept anything remotely approaching communication, argues for the insistence of stronger, not weaker grammatical rules.

10 02 2009
Marty Deveney

The use of split infinitives is vastly more complex than ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’. To state categorically that it is never correct in English is wrong. The initial proscription of the split infinitive is traced to an anonymous American publication in 1834, which simply stated that there was no existing rule about this issue and then states that to split the infinitive is incorrect. That is arbitrary in the extreme.

Current objections centre largely on the assertion that split infinitives are not a feature of prestige English. This argument is applied to other contentious grammar, such as stranded prepositions, double modals, dangling modifiers and the use of the subjenctive for personal expression. This argument denies that the language evolves and that rules rather than use fix the correct mode of use. If this was the case, then Anglo-Saxon would still be used.

It is generally assumed that the ‘to’ is a particle which is a marker of the definitive but it is originally a preposition before the dative of a verbal noun in the Germanic languages from which modern English evolved. The absence of an inflected infinitive form as occurs in German, Danish and other germanic languages, made it useful in English to include the particle in the citation form of the verb. This concept of a two-word infinitive reinforces an innate sense that the two words belong together, but they do not necessarily do so. Claims that the rule is inherited from latin are incorrect.

Use of split infinitives that clarify rather than creating ambiguity should be encouraged.

Marty

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