Science-writing tips from Cormac McCarthy

November 18, 2019

The science journal Nature recently published tips from author Cormac McCarthy on ‘how to write a great science paper’. Though familiar with McCarthy’s novels,* I hadn’t known about his work elsewhere, which includes ‘extensive editing to numerous faculty members and postdocs at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) in New Mexico’.

Biologist Van Savage, co-author of the Nature article, knew McCarthy at the SFI and they worked together ‘to condense McCarthy’s advice to its most essential points’, combined with ‘thoughts from evolutionary biologist Pamela Yeh’, the article’s other author. This means it’s not always clear whose language is used.

In any case, the resulting advice interests me both professionally – I’m a freelance copy-editor with a background in science – and personally, as someone who strives to write better but is leery of much of what passes for writing punditry.

A lot of what McCarthy and co. say is sensible, if sometimes short on context, and some of it will likely be familiar to you, since many of the same ideas about writing perennially do the rounds. Other tips, however, are dubious or infelicitously phrased.

I recommend that you read the original article before my annotated excerpts below, because I’ve skipped a lot of the good stuff: You don’t need to read me saying ‘I agree’ over and over. So off we go:

Use minimalism to achieve clarity. While you are writing, ask yourself: is it possible to preserve my original message without that punctuation mark, that word, that sentence, that paragraph or that section? Remove extra words or commas whenever you can.

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Being bold in Irish English

August 31, 2018

In standard English the primary meaning of the adjective bold is ‘brave, courageous, unafraid, daring’. This can shade into a related, negative sense of impudence, brazenness, or presumption. Another common sense is ‘visibly prominent, distinct, strong, or clear’, often associated with lines or colour. For nuance, compare the definitions by M-W, AHD, Oxford, Macmillan, Cambridge, and Collins.

When I first learned the word, though, it was in none of these senses: it meant ‘naughty, mischievous’. If I heard someone (including myself) described as bold, it meant they were misbehaving – or maybe being playful in a cheeky way. This is a very common usage in Irish English but absent from standard English; there’s no mention of it in the OED.

The sense is so intrinsic to the word in Ireland that when I read this line in Swing Time by Zadie Smith last week, I had to read it twice to be sure of the intent:

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Cybersecurity Style Guide is a useful editing tool

March 2, 2018

Most people reading this will have partial or passive familiarity with some terminology from programming, information security, and related domains, but they may have just a hazy grasp of how they’re used. What’s the difference between DOS and DoS? Does cold call take a hyphen? Is it a SQL or an SQL? How do you pronounce ASCII? What’s a dictionary attack?*

DoS, cold call, SQL, and ASCII are on the familiar side of digital and infosec jargon. Most industry phrases and abbreviations are more obscure, so they’re not listed in dictionaries. Security consulting company Bishop Fox has done a real service to editors and writers by publishing a modern Cybersecurity Style Guide. The first version, released last month, contains 1,775 entries.

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Adding a comma between the subject and predicate, is inadvisable

November 1, 2017

In his classic short book on punctuation, Mind the Stop, G.V. Carey says of the comma: ‘The writer who handles this puny little stop correctly and sensibly can probably punctuate as well as need be.’ My work as a copy-editor generally bears this out, but such proficiency is unusual. It’s a tricky mark to master.

One of the first things we learn implicitly about commas is that they’re not normally used between a subject and predicate: Jane cycles, not *Jane, cycles. They may, of course, be needed in pair form if the subject is followed by an appositive phrase (Jane, a city girl, cycles) or a non-restrictive clause (Jane, who is a city girl, cycles).

Jane, cycles is perhaps a misleading example in that the subject is short and simple, and such a mistake would be unlikely from a native-English speaker with basic education. Lengthen or complicate the subject, though, and commas begin to materialise.

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On foot of an Irish idiom

August 14, 2017

In a comment on my post about 12 Irish English usages, Margaret suggested that I write about the Irish expression on foot of. It was a good idea: the phrase is not widely known outside Ireland and is therefore liable to cause confusion, if this exchange is any indication.

On foot of means ‘because of’, ‘as a result of’, or ‘on the basis of’. T.P. Dolan’s Dictionary of Hiberno-English offers the example sentences ‘On foot of this, we can’t go any further with this deal’ and ‘On foot of the charges, he had to appear in the court’.

These lines suggest it’s a formal phrase, and that’s invariably how I see it used; I’ve yet to hear it in everyday conversation. A search on Google News shows that it’s common in crime reporting in Ireland. I also see it in academic and business prose, an impression confirmed by the example sentences in Oxford Dictionaries, e.g.:

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“Whom”: to reprise

August 1, 2016

Here’s a curious incident at the NYT, courtesy of author and economist Paul Krugman. On Twitter yesterday, Krugman mentioned an upcoming article and attempted to forestall criticism of its headline’s grammar:

The implication was that the headline would include, per Krugman’s preference, the word who where traditionalists would insist on whom. The rule mandating whom as object pronoun is relatively recent and often ignorable, but style guides are necessarily conservative.

NYT style upholds the rule, as you’d expect, but its writers (or copy editors) repeatedly get confused, often hypercorrecting who to whom in a misguided effort to be formally grammatical. In short, it’s a mess, and much of the confusion results from people’s belief (or nervous suspicion) that whom must always be used where it’s grammatically possible.

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Passive voice peeving and ignorance

May 13, 2016

Despite all the solid, readily available information on the passive voice, there remains a great deal of misinformation and confusion about it. This confusion, far from being limited to non-specialists, pervades professional circles too – journalists, for example, but also journalism professors and authors of writing manuals.

A case in point is Essential English: For Journalists, Editors and Writers by Sir Harold Evans. First published as Newsman’s English in 1972, book one of a five-volume manual of newspaper writing and design, it was fully revised by Crawford Gillan and published by Pimlico in 2000, also incorporating book three, News Headlines (1974).

Essential English first wades into the passive-voice swamp in Chapter 2, in a section titled ‘Be Active’:

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