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.


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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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.


A grand Irish usage

June 27, 2019

In Irish English, the word grand has the familiar meanings: impressive, magnificent, high-ranking, very large, etc. – size being etymologically salient – but its most common use is in the dialectal sense ‘OK, fine, satisfactory’. As such it often appears in brief, affirmative replies:

How’s it going?
Grand, thanks.

Was the sea cold?
It was grand.

How did the interview go?
I got on grand.

I’ll pick you up in an hour.
Grand.

I’m sorry about that.
Ah no, you’re grand. [Don’t worry about it.]

This use of grand is so routine and prevalent in Ireland that it’s virtually a state of mind (and hence popular in T-shirt designs and the like). This comes in handy for understatement in injurious situations:

Irish Times screengrab: "'I'm grand': Cork woman cuts off finger after years of chronic pain." "I threw it in the bin ... Ever since I have had no pain. It has been brilliant."

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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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Friends, Romans, countrymen: a language newsletter

May 3, 2019

For the sake of my inbox, I keep my newsletter subscriptions to a minimum. Ken Grace’s Friends, Romans, countrymen… is one that makes the cut. Running since 2012, it’s a weekly update from New Zealand on ‘language, good writing and communication’, often exploring usage and etymology. So it’s right up my street.

After five years of the newsletter, Grace collected some of its highlights in a book titled Nerds, Snotrils and Ferroequines: A moderately reliable history of interesting words. It offers good humour and common sense about words and language use, written in a friendly, enthusiastic, educational style.

Since I’ve been writing about lost words and difficult words, I’ll mention an usual word to which the book introduced me: micromort. It means a one-in-a-million chance of dying. Driving 370 km in the UK gives you 1 micromort, apparently, as does driving 10 km on a motorbike, taking three flights, or travelling 10,000 km by train.

Grace has opinions about usage, but he knows that’s all they are. He can indulge a pet peeve without being dogmatic about other people’s use of language. Here, for example, is his reaction to a street sign that said Roadworks. Use alternate route:

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