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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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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“Quotation marks” or ‘inverted commas’?

May 31, 2019

‘Words for punctuation,’ Lynne Murphy writes in her new book The Prodigal Tongue, ‘offer a neat little laboratory for viewing the possible fates of migrating words.’

Penguin UK book cover of Lynne Murphy's The Prodigal Tongue. Red cover, with black text and white text. The main title is in speech bubbles from two illustrated men squaring up to box one another. One is dressed as a cowboy, the other in a bowler hat and business suit.When North America was being settled, norms of punctuation, including the marks’ names, were very much in flux. So when things stabilized, the names in the US and the UK sometimes differed. Certain marks, such as the comma and question mark, acquired the same name in both regions; others, such as the full stop (period, full point), diverged.

The latter group also includes quotation marks, aka inverted commas. But the facts are more complicated – and therefore more interesting – than is generally supposed. Here’s Murphy:

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Sentences plunging into vacant space; or, Why the full stop is changing

July 21, 2018

I didn’t know the New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones before buying a copy of Mister Pip on spec, persuaded by the back-cover blurbs. The book is a gem, humorous, moving, and understated. It also has an episode of some linguistic interest.

Grace is a black woman from a small village on Bougainville island in Papua New Guinea; Mr Watts is a white man from Australia. They are expecting their first child:

Before Sarah’s birth they had used the spare room as a dumping ground for all the things they had no use for. Now they agreed to start again with it empty. . . . And why pass up the opportunity of a blank wall? Why go in for wallpaper covered with kingfishers and flocks of birds in flight when they could put useful information up on the walls? They agreed to gather their worlds side by side, and leave it to their daughter to pick and choose what she wanted.

And so they begin writing on the walls of the nursery-to-be: family names, place names, scraps of history and philosophy, and lists both ‘fanciful and weird’: things that tell you where home is, broken dreams, advice on how to find your soul.

The narrator, a student of Mr Watts, comments on the writing’s form:

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Anyhow, a hyphen

February 21, 2018

This week I took Alan Furst’s Red Gold (HarperCollins, 1999) off the shelf and am very glad I did. Set in German-occupied France in the early 1940s, it’s an absorbing, rambling spy story full of atmosphere, wry humour, lean characterisation, and suspense.

The protagonist, Casson, is a former film producer scraping by in Paris, hiding from the Gestapo. He becomes a reluctant go-between for various entities in the resistance, and in the following passage has just been told the identity of a contact he hopes to make:

Casson knew him, had sat across from him at a dinner party back in the old days. After that, a handshake two or three times at some grande affaire. Casson hated him. Short and wide, preposterously fat, with thick glasses and tight, curly hair. He floated on waves of amour propre – boundless conceit, in measures rare even in France. He described himself as an ethnologist, no, there was more to it than that, it was better than that. Socio-ethnologist? Psycho-ethnologist? Anyhow, a hyphen. Now he remembered – gods, something about gods. He’d written a book about them.

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