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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Podcast recommendation: Talk the Talk

April 30, 2019

‘We get a lot of binge listeners,’ says linguist Daniel Midgley in episode #221 of Talk the Talk. I’m one of them. When I first encountered Talk the Talk, a podcast about language and linguistics based in Australia, I listened to an episode here and there. Soon I came to like it so much that I wanted to listen to everything they had recorded.

So I downloaded all the mp3s and got stuck in, usually while walking. It took a while because there are, at the time of writing, 360+ episodes, more or less one a week since November 2010. Early episodes are short, 10–15 minutes, then they grow to 40–65 minutes. I had to binge to catch up, and I enjoyed every minute.

A podcast’s appeal hinges not just on its topics and ideas but also, critically, on its people. This is highly subjective, of course, but I’ve bailed on podcasts before because I found the presentation style too dour, too portentous, too breathlessly enthusiastic. No such problems with the Talk the Talk hosts, whose company is affable and edifying.

Talk the Talk logo has dark red text on a light grey background, with a medium-grey speech bubble overlaid. Below "Talk the Talk" is a subtitle: "A weekly show about linguistics, the science of language."

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Is ‘corpse whale’ the real etymology of ‘narwhal’?

February 8, 2019

‘We know more about the rings of Saturn than we know about the narwhal,’ writes Barry Lopez in Arctic Dreams. This ignorance extends to its etymology. Wondering why the animal remains ‘so obscure and uncelebrated’, Lopez believes that the answer lies partly with ‘a regrettable connotation of death in the animal’s name’:

The pallid color of the narwhal’s skin has been likened to that of a drowned human corpse, and it is widely thought that its name came from the Old Norse for “corpse” and “whale,” nár + hvalr. A medieval belief that the narwhal’s flesh was poisonous has been offered in support of this interpretation, as well as the belief that its “horn” was proof at that time against being poisoned.

This is certainly the prevailing etymology. Look up narwhal in most major dictionaries that offer one – American Heritage, Oxford, Merriam-Webster, the Online Etymology Dictionary – and you’ll see the ‘corpse whale’ derivation presented more or less definitively, with a ‘probably’ or two included as insurance.

Lopez shares a different possibility:

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The linguistics of colour names

May 16, 2017

The news website Vox has produced some good videos on linguistic topics, which can be found amidst their many other clips. Its latest one looks at the vexed question of colour names and categories in different languages, and in 6½ minutes it offers a decent summary:

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The Language Hoax: John McWhorter on linguistic relativity

April 12, 2017

Linguist, professor, and author John McWhorter has featured on Sentence first a few times before, in posts about texting, creoles, dialects, linguistic complexity, and book spine poems. He has written many books and countless articles about language, and has been hosting the excellent Lexicon Valley podcast for the last while.

In the video below, McWhorter talks about the ideas in his recent book The Language Hoax, the hoax being the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, aka linguistic determinism or relativity, depending on how strongly it’s believed to apply.* This is the appealing but mostly unfounded notion that our language shapes the world we experience. There’s a helpful summary of it here, and further discussion in this book review.

The subtitle of McWhorter’s talk, ‘Why the world looks the same in any language’, outlines his position. But he acknowledges there is wiggle room for weak versions of the hypothesis, whereby our perceptions can vary slightly because of our different native languages. It’s a fun and interesting talk, given at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico in 2016. It’s around 50 minutes long, and there’s a lively Q&A to finish.

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Kinship terms around the world

March 31, 2017

It’s often assumed that when babies say mama or papa (or similar) they are addressing or referring to their mother or father explicitly. Not so. In a 2012 post on mama/papa words around the world, I wrote:

Before I knew anything about language acquisition, I assumed that babies making these utterances were referring to their parents. But this interpretation is backwards: mama/papa words just happen to be the easiest word-like sounds for babies to make. The sounds came first – as experiments in vocalization – and parents adopted them as pet names for themselves.

These pet names, or nursery forms, in turn gave rise to our grown-up terms like mother and father – or rather, their ancient predecessors – according to Roman Jakobson’s 1959 paper ‘Why “Mama” and “Papa”?’ (PDF). The striking correspondence of nursery forms cross-lingually can be seen in a table from Larry Trask’s ‘Where do mama/papa words come from?’ (PDF):

The Great Language Muster is a project collecting data from hundreds of languages in an effort to update our knowledge of these and other kinship terms – how we address and refer to parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. It’s being run by UCL linguistics professor Andrew Nevins, whose research assistant Evan DeFrancesco emailed me about it.

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Lingthusiasm: a new podcast about linguistics

January 2, 2017

Two of my favourite linguabloggers, Lauren Gawne of Superlinguo and Gretchen McCulloch of All Things Linguistic, have teamed up to create a podcast called Lingthusiasm – so named because they’re enthusiastic about linguistics. If you share this enthusiasm and interest, you’re sure to enjoy their new show.

lingthusiasm-linguistics-podcastSo far there are three episodes: on languages constructed to expedite world peace, and why they’re destined to fail; on the many types and functions of pronouns; and on the fine sci-fi film Arrival (2016), whose protagonist is a linguist encountering an alien language. At 30–35 minutes long, discussions stray into related topics without losing sight of the main current.

All the shows to date have been fun and illuminating, and I’m looking forward to hearing what they talk about next. Lauren and Gretchen know their stuff, have an easy rapport, and are skilled at pitching linguistic concepts to a general audience. I also like the mix of Australian and Canadian dialects.

You can tune in to Lingthusiasm on Tumblr, iTunes, Soundcloud, Facebook, YouTube, and so on, or you can use this RSS feed to download mp3s directly, as I’ve been doing. Happy listening!