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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Whose only passive

October 29, 2019

In my monthly column at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been writing about the placement of only, the passive voice, and the homophones who’s and whose.

Only one right place for ‘only’?’ looks at a word whose ‘correct’ placement has been hotly debated for centuries:

The position of most words in a sentence is self-evident and predictable. Only, used as an adverb, is more flexible. For example, try adding it to various places in the line: I found the eggs in the first shed. Notice how it tends to modify what it directly precedes (or sometimes follows). This ability to affect different elements can generate ambiguity, which has led some prescriptivists to apply an overly strict rule.

Passive voice is not to be shunned’ shows how to identify the passive voice – an ability that seems beyond most of its critics – and why you might want to use it sometimes:

In passive voice we may omit the agent because we don’t know who they are, or it’s implied or unimportant, or we’d rather not say. Mistakes were made, for example, allows someone responsible for those mistakes to avoid implicating themselves. We made mistakes would be a more principled admission. Notice, however, that Mistakes happened and Mistakes were unavoidable also avoid accountability but are in active voice. Many people think that lines like this – without a clear human agent – are passive, but they’re not. Neither has a form of be followed by a past participle.

Finally, ‘Who’s confused by “whose”?’ attempts to sort out a pair of confusables:

Sometimes two tricky areas of English usage – pronouns and apostrophes – combine to create an extra-tricky pair of words. One example is its and it’s, which cause frequent trouble, and so it is with who’s and whose. It’s not just learners of English who confuse them – experienced and native users of the language also slip up. … We’re so used to adding apostrophe-s to show possession (Mary’s art; the dog’s toy) that it seems like who’s and it’s should be possessive as well – but they’re not. This may underlie the error in many cases.


Language like poppies in Ali Smith’s Autumn

October 8, 2019

Autumn (2016), like all of Ali Smith’s novels (I’m guessing – I’ve only read a few so far), is a delight in linguistic and other ways. This post features a few excerpts that focus on language in one way or another.

The main character, Elisabeth, is visiting her old friend Daniel in a care home. Daniel is asleep. A care assistant talks to her:

A very nice polite gentleman. We miss him now. Increased sleep period. It happens when things are becoming more (slight pause before she says it) final.

The pauses are a precise language, more a language than actual language is, Elisabeth thinks.

I like how the writing itself conveys the particular pause in speech before the word final. Smith could have used dashes or described the pause in a subsequent clause or sentence, but the parenthesis, unexpected, feels just right.

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Un-user-friendly hyphenation

September 13, 2019

In the phrase a user-friendly website, few would argue against the hyphen. It clarifies. You could get away with a user friendly website, because user friendly is a familiar term and there is little chance of ambiguity (though hyphen devotees may call you a monster anyway). But the hyphen is conventional.

Things get more complex when the phrasal adjective gets more complex. It’s a non-profit-making group, with two hyphens, not a non-profit making group or a non profit-making group or a non profit making group – though many writers are strangely suspicious of multiple hyphenation.

But one rule does not fit all compounds. When a prefix such as non- or un- is added to an item that may already be hyphenated, things get erratic, as I detail in a post on non-life-threatening unselfconscious hyphens. Take hyphens seriously, one stylebook editor wrote, and ‘you will surely go mad’.

A further complication: In some semantic niches, we have yet to settle on a default phrase, so there are variants, variously hyphenated, competing for popularity and status – though we can get a sense of emerging preferences from corpus data, as I show below.

What, for instance, is the opposite of a user-friendly website? I’m not interested here in synonyms like awkwarddifficult, or unintuitive – only in compound modifiers based on negating user-friendly.

Fill in the blank: It’s a/an _______ website.

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Book review: Because Internet, by Gretchen McCulloch

August 20, 2019

Language is always changing, and on a macro level some of the most radical changes have resulted from technology. Writing is the prime example. Millennia after its development, telephony reshaped our communication; mere decades later, computers arrived, became networked, and here I am, typing something for you to read on your PC or phone, however many miles away.

The internet’s effects on our use of language are still being unpacked. We are in the midst of a dizzying surge in interconnectivity, and it can be hard to step back and understand just what is happening to language in the early 21st century. Why are full stops often omitted now? What exactly are emoji doing? Why do people lol if they’re not laughing? With memes, can you even?

Book cover is bright yellow, with text in black. The subtitle is highlighted in blue, with pins bracketing it, like on a phone.Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language is a new book by linguist Gretchen McCulloch that sets out to demystify some of the strange shifts going on in language right now. It provides a friendly yet substantial snapshot of linguistic trends and phenomena online, and it explains with clarity and ebullience what underpins them – socially, psychologically, technologically, linguistically.

‘When future historians look back on this era,’ McCulloch writes,

they’ll find our changes just as fascinating as we now find innovative words from Shakespeare or Latin or Norman French. So let’s adopt the perspective of these future historians now, and explore the revolutionary period in linguistic history that we’re living through from a place of excitement and curiosity.

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Book review: Semicolon, by Cecelia Watson

August 12, 2019

Most books about punctuation aim to prescribe the rules for its use. Few take a single mark as their subject and eschew any such aim. The semicolon, adored and avoided in equal measure, is used with joy, anxiety, flair, and deep uncertainty. But where did it come from? Why is it perceived as difficult? And how should you use it anyway?

Cecelia Watson’s welcome biography Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark (Ecco, 2019) sets out to examine these questions, in some cases not so much answering them as subverting their assumptions. As a historian, writing teacher, and philosopher of science, she is well equipped to tackle this thorny field.

Watson is also, significantly, a reformed stickler who outgrew her annoyance at supposed lapses in approved usage. Semicolon spends little time on rules. What may seem a strange omission makes perfect sense as Watson instead proceeds to show how diversely those rules have been advanced by different authorities at different times – and how authors have continually disregarded them in the service of style.

This variability serves as a prism through which Watson explores the subtleties of English prose as reflected in the semicolon, ‘charting its transformation from a mark designed to create clarity to a mark destined to create confusion’. The semicolon, she writes,

is a place where our anxieties and our aspirations about language, class, and education are concentrated, so that in this small mark big ideas are distilled down to a few winking drops of ink.

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Grey areas in usage and etymology

July 25, 2019

It’s time for an update on my posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, where I write a monthly column on language.

First up is A quick dive into ‘dived’ vs ‘dove’ – which is right, or does it depend on where you are? I outline the history and the growing acceptability of dove:

Dove is a relative newcomer, probably formed by analogy with drivedrove or strive–strove. The OED’s first citation is from 1855, in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha: ‘Straight into the river Kwasind Plunged as if he were an otter, Dove as if he were a beaver.’ In later editions Dove became Dived, perhaps under editorial influence.

Is ‘alright’ all right? looks at a common variant spelling but one that usage authorities disagree strongly about:

Alright is not wrong, but many people think it is, so writers are often mindful of where and whether to use it. Editors and publishers will keep ‘fixing’ it until it’s more widely accepted, especially in literary and other elevated contexts. But alright will struggle to gain acceptability until it appears more in those same contexts – a catch-22.

In Where does ‘OK’ come from? I trace the curious etymology of one of the most popular words in the world:

There have been so many suggestions and hypotheses that there’s a lengthy Wikipedia page devoted to all the possibilities. And while each origin story has had its supporters, they all lack persuasive evidence – except one, the case for which was laid out in a series of articles in the 1960s by the American etymologist Allen Walker Read. He showed that OK was based on a running joke among journalists in Boston in the 19th century.

For the 70th anniversary of the publication of 1984, I considered the book’s linguistic legacy in Orwell and the English Language:

That legacy includes compound words and phrases that are now seen sometimes in general usage, among them newspeak, doublethink, thoughtcrime, doubleplusgood (‘excellent’), and doubleplusungood (‘terrible’). The familiar phrases Big Brother and Room 101, as well as entering the common vocabulary, have also become the names of popular TV shows. Other terms, such as thought police, were not invented by Orwell but were popularized by his book.

Finally, Simple in the correct sense of the word shows how language use is often far from simple, despite what pedants may claim or wish:

Over the centuries, simple has meant ‘humble and unpretentious’, ‘unsophisticated’, ‘undistinguished in office or rank’, ‘small and insignificant’, ‘bare’, ‘wretched and pitiful’, ‘lacking knowledge or learning’, ‘foolish or stupid’, ‘not complex in structure’, ‘easily done or understood’, and so on. Some of these senses shade into one another, so it’s not always obvious which one is intended.