Environment Magazine

Don’t Torture Your Readers III

Posted on the 23 June 2014 by Bradshaw @conservbytes

TortureIt has been quite some time since I did one of these kinds of posts (see Don’t torture your readers and Don’t torture your readers II). However, given how popular they seem to be, I have decided to do a follow-up post on grammar problems that I tend to see far too often in science writing.

COMPOUND ADJECTIVES: This is a particularly abused component of scientific writing. Although it’s fairly straightforward, I’m amazed just how many people get it wrong. Most people appear to understand that when an adjective (that’s a qualifier for a noun, just in case you are a grammarling) is composed of more than one word, there is normally a hyphen that connects them:

  • e.g., ’10-m fence’, ‘high-ranking journal’, ‘population-level metric’, ‘cost-effective policy’

If two or more adjectives are given in a row, but none modifies the meaning of the others, then it is simply a case of separating them with commas:

  • e.g., ‘a long, high fence’, ‘an old, respected journal’, ‘an effective, enduring policy’

However, if the compound adjective is composed of a leading adverb (that’s a qualifier for a verb), then there is NO hyphenation:

  • e.g., ‘an extremely long fence’, ‘a closely associated phenomenon’, ‘a legally mandated policy’

There are other instances when no hyphenation is required, such as when the qualifiers are proper nouns (e.g., ‘a Shark Bay jetty’), from another language such as Latin (e.g., an ‘ab initio course’) or enclosed in quotation marks (e.g., ‘a “do it yourself” guide). Note in the last example, without the quotations, it would become ‘a do-it-yourself guide’).

A quick way to recognise whether a compound adjective should be hyphenated is to examine the terminal letters of the leading word; if the leading component ends in ‘ly’, then it is likely an adverb, and so the compound should not be hyphenated (although watch for sneaky exceptions like ‘early-career researcher’!).

CAPITALISING COMMON NAMES OF SPECIES: This is a contentious issue, but I am steadfast in arguing that unless the common name includes a proper noun, there is absolutely no English-grammar justification for capitalising common names:

  • e.g., ‘bilgy’, ‘short-beaked echidna’, ‘dingo’, ‘wolf’, ‘moose’, ‘pangolin’, ‘yellow-bellied sapsucker’, ‘Carnaby’s black cockatoo’, ‘red-tailed black cockatoo’

For some strange reason, ornithologists have come up with their own rule of thumb that completely ignores this advice, and some journals go so far as to mandate that contributing authors must capitalise all species names. This is an archaic hold-over from German and has no place in modern writing.

LEVEL: A ‘level’ is a discrete value; therefore, it cannot be applied to a continuous variable. As such, writing ‘carbon dioxide levels’ or ‘high levels of contaminants’ is incorrect. Statistically speaking, a ‘level’ is a discrete value of a factor (i.e., ‘medium’ is a discrete value of a 3-level factor comprised of ‘small’, ‘medium’ and ‘large’).

DECADAL APOSTROPHES: I don’t know how this got started, but it appears to be an affliction related to the abuse of apostrophes in general. When referring to specific decade (e.g., ‘the nineties’) in numeric format (’1990s’), there is no reason to insert an apostrophe, UNLESS it is meant to be possessive. For example: ‘… we acquired data from the 1990s to the 2000s to …’, or ‘… many researchers use 1990′s approaches to investigate …’. I hope you can see the difference.

A NUMBER OF: This is just meaningless, sloppy writing. If you write ‘… a number of researchers contend that …’ instead of ‘… many researchers contend that …’, you’re just wasting words. Taken literally, ‘a number of’ could also mean ‘zero’, because 0 is also ‘a number’. Better yet, just quantify and avoid the ambiguity.

MAJORITY: This is a similar problem to ‘a number of’. If you mean ‘most’, write ‘most’. Better yet, quantify.

KEY: For me, this word is up there with ‘significant‘. Used as an adjective (e.g., ‘… a key determinant of the strength of density feedback is …’), it generally fails the definition of ‘key’. A ‘key’ is something that unlocks something else. The weaker case of using nouns as adjectives notwithstanding, writing ‘key’ as an adjective should only be done when it describes something absolutely essential for a phenomenon to exist. Writing ‘key’ just to make it sound more important is unnecessary sensationalisation.

RELATIVELY: In principle there’s nothing wrong with this word, but it is often added to invoke some sort of importance without any point of comparison. ‘Relatively’ can only be used when it is ‘relative’ (i.e., compared) to something else. You cannot just write ‘… the phenomenon is relatively important in ecology’ unless you can specify its importance relative to something else.

TO THE BEST OF OUR KNOWLEDGE: These are weasel words that just demonstrate you haven’t done your homework. If you have genuinely missed an important reference, your referees will point it out. Don’t try to justify your poor research with this nonsense.

MYSELF: I’ll finish with my most-hated grammatical error of today: using ‘myself’ instead of ‘me’ or ‘I’. I don’t know if it’s mainly an Australian phenomenon, but I hear or see it almost every single day in radio interviews, newspaper quotes and e-mails. I think it originates from that peculiar trend a few decades ago where people who did not understand the ‘I’ rule overcorrected so much that ‘me’ became the embodiment of evil itself:

  • ‘… my colleagues and I wrote a paper that …’ (here, ‘I’ is the subject; just remove the ‘my colleagues and’ to see if it makes sense)
  • ‘… the paper written by my colleagues and me …’ (here, ‘me’ is the object; again, remove ‘my colleagues and’ to see if it makes sense).

However today, many people confused by this terribly simple rule avoid the problem altogether by inserting ‘myself’ wherever ‘I’ or ‘me’ is warranted. I’ve even had people write to me in e-mails ‘… just give send it to myself …’. Whatever did ‘me’ ever do to be vilified thus?

CJA Bradshaw

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