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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Reading the book before seeing the film

September 29, 2019

Pauline Kael in Going Steady (1970), a collection of her film reviews for the New Yorker, writes about something of perennial interest to book-readers and film-watchers:*

If you’re going to see a movie based on a book you think is worth reading, read the book first. You can never read the book with the same imaginative responsiveness to the author once you have seen the movie. The great French film critic André Bazin believed that even if movies vulgarized and distorted books they served a useful purpose, because they led people to read the books on which the movies were based. But when you read the book after seeing the movie, your mind is saturated with the actors and the images, and you tend to read in terms of the movie, ignoring characters and complexities that were not included in it, because they are not as vivid to you. At worst, the book becomes a souvenir of the movie, an extended reminiscence.

I sympathise with both Kael’s and Bazin’s positions. ‘Read the book first’ is sound advice, but it’s not always practicable. And the ‘saturation’ and ‘souvenir’ effects that Kael describes, while undeniable, are not always calamitous, especially if enough time passes between watching the film and reading the book.

If I see a film that’s based on a book I decide I want to read, I tend to wait a while to allow the memory of the film to fade. Among other things, this reduces visual interference from the actors and scenes. I prefer my own visuals to manifest when I read – the ‘imaginative responsiveness’ that Kael cherishes – and that’s trickier, sometimes impossible, when a film experience was recent or particularly vivid.

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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 spine poem: Secret Place

August 15, 2019

Here’s a new book spine poem (aka bookmash). For the uninitiated: This is a game where you make a visual poem from the spines of books on your shelf.


Secret Place

Wild flowers, the wild places,
The birds of the innocent wood –
The secret place on the black hill,
Half a life still life,
The living mountain
Changing my mind.


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