Don’t 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 mistakes, bad grammar and personal pet peeves.

  • DECIMATE (as in ‘… the population was decimated following…’) – I’ve seen this one used way too often. It is usually invoked by the author to imply some devastating reduction in population size (somehow it sounds bad); for this reason alone, the emotive language should be avoided. However, ‘decimate’ has a specific meaning: to reduce by every ‘one in 10’ (hence the ‘deci’ prefix). If you really mean the population was reduced by 10 %, use ‘decimate’. If you are just stating the population was reduced, state by how much and avoid emotive and incorrect terms.
  • DRAMATIC(ALLY) (as in ‘… we observed a dramatic decline in…’) – another meaningless, emotive word that belongs in the theatre, not in scientific writing. Quantify your meaning instead of relying on subjective terms.
  • CRITICAL(LY) (as in ‘… highlights the critical importance of…’ – This term is generally meant to communicate some urgent need or absolute necessity. While most authors would like to think their chosen topic is ‘critical’, many neither define to whom or what the results are ‘critical’, or even what the lack thereof would entail. In some circumstances it is used to infer some sort of threshold beyond which another state dominates, so I question the need for ‘critical’ at all in conservation writing. If you are trying to inflate the importance of your work, ‘critical’ is the word to use; if you mean a threshold, then simply state so.
  • FEW versus LESS – I’m amazed this still stumps so many people. ‘Few’ should be used to define a small number of countable (discrete) items (e.g., individuals, quadrats, plots). ‘Less’ should be applied to a measurable, continuous variable (covariate) that cannot be easily discretised (e.g., water, biomass, carbon). If you ever see someone write ‘less individuals’, get out the big red pen.
  • DATA – While on the subject of quantification, the word ‘data’ should always be followed by plural forms of the verbs (e.g., ‘… the data are…’; ‘… the data were…’). A singular ‘datum’ is one measurement and requires the singular form. A ‘dataset’ is a single group of data, so it too can use the singular form. If you want to communicate that your sample size was too small (for your intended purposes), you need to write ‘too few data’.
  • MIGHT/CAN versus MAY – I’ve often got this one wrong too. ‘May’ implies doubt or permission, so it is most often better to use ‘can’ or ‘might’ (where appropriate) when you expressly mean ‘under certain circumstances’.
  • THAT versus WHICH – This is not an easy one, and for a full discussion, visit this link. In the most basic description of the difference, ‘that’ usually introduces essential information in a restrictive clause, whereas ‘which’ introduces additional information in a non-restrictive clause. Quoting from the link given above provides some more clarity:

“What is FASCINATING to me is that . . . one way to determine . . . the correct word . . . is to ask the question, ‘Does the clause clarify which of several possibilities is being referred to?’ If the answer is yes, then the correct word to use is that. If the answer is no, the correct word to use is which.”

Seems somewhat counter-intuitive, but it’s correct (hence the confusion).

CJA Bradshaw

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