Category Archives: Language Miscellany

Why Academics Stink at Writing

If you care about academic writing at all, I urge you to read Steven Pinker’s latest article at The Chronicle Review. It’s long, but very worth it. His central question is,

Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand?

He goes on to demolish some of the most common explanations for poor academic writing. It’s not just deliberate obscurity, or that it’s unavoidable, or that it’s imposed by journals. It’s about communication style.

Rather than writing in a clear, classical style, most academics blend the practical and self-conscious styles. Why is this so? “The curse of knowledge, in combination with chunking and functional fixity.” You’ll have to read the full article to see what he means by all of that.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. As Pinker put it,

Enough already. Our indifference to how we share the fruits of our intellectual labors is a betrayal of our calling to enhance the spread of knowledge. In writing badly, we are wasting each other’s time, sowing confusion and error, and turning our profession into a laughingstock.

Free Writing in the Sciences MOOC

A free online course called Writing in the Sciences starts on Tuesday, 9/2. I have no experience with this instructor or MOOCs at Stanford, so I can’t provide a personal recommendation, but it looks like it’d be a great experience. The topics include everything from crafting better sentences and paragraphs to how to do a peer review. If you take the course, please let me know what you think of it!

Language stiltedness vs. “the rules”

On one of the copyediting email lists I follow, someone recently linked to the following article: “Paradigm Consistency and the Depiction of Stiltedness: The Case of than I versus than me.” I heartily recommend reading it to anyone interested in how the official rules of formal, standard English often differ from the everyday usage of most folks. Though it leaves something to be desired from my perspective as a psychology researcher, the article does an admirable job of opening the line of inquiry for future better-designed studies. Enjoy!

Happy Saint Paddy’s Day! (And NOT St. Patty’s.)

Saint Patrick’s Day is on Monday, so many people are celebrating it this weekend. Here in America, even those who aren’t at all Irish or Catholic love taking the opportunity to celebrate with a Guinness and some corned beef and cabbage (mine are in the fridge waiting!).

One result is there’s a whole lot of talk about St. Patty’s Day across the internet.

But not so fast!

The proper form is actually St. Paddy’s Day. In fact, one disgruntled man has created a whole website dedicated to teaching people the proper spelling. It’s that important. is “a modest proposal to the people of the new world.” It explains the distinction as follows:

  • Paddy is derived from the Irish, Pádraig: the source of those mysterious, emerald double-Ds.
  • Patty is the diminutive of Patricia, or a burger, and just not something you call a fella.

So if you don’t want to cause your Irish friends to be “needlessly distracted from their Holy Tradition of drinking themselves into a stupor in honour of Saint Patrick and the wee island he adopted as home,” don’t wish them a Happy St. Patty’s Day. It just ain’t right.

Happy National Grammar Day!

Happy National Grammar Day, dear readers! For an interesting discussion of the difference between what laypeople mean when they say grammar and what specialists mean by grammar, see this post on the Copyediting blog.

If you’re in the mood to celebrate language–or if you’re just in the mood to save some money!–don’t forget that you can buy a $100 Science Refinery gift certificate for only $85 through tomorrow.

Catch-up post of recent Facebook updates

So I’ve been pretty terrible about keeping up this blog recently. I could list off some excuses like the holidays, new obligations, and prioritizing actual editing over writing about editing, but the truth is I’ve just let this slip by. I won’t promise a dramatic change (the new obligations and priorities are actually real), but I am going to recommit to posting here semi-regularly.

In the meantime, here are some updates from the Facebook and Twitter pages:

2/20/14: I ❤ Google Ngram viewer. “Should I change this author’s use of ‘indispensable for’ to ‘indispensable to’?” Rather than deciding blindly, I can check the data first! Click to see what I found then guess what I chose to do.

2/12/14: I just spontaneously shouted “I love this paper!” Good thing I work from home :). It’s a good day to be an editor.

2/11/14: Reading the methods of a paper that used HPLC is daunting and makes me glad I quit chemistry after one semester of organic. (Luckily I still know enough to be able to confidently, competently edit it after several passes.)

2/6/14: I’ve been doing mostly journal articles lately, but today I am editing a grant application. Nice change of pace! 🙂

2/5/14: My favorite error in this ESL paper so far: talking about the normally distributed “residues” (instead of residuals) 🙂

1/10/14: I’m editing a paper about altitude sickness and the author just referred to “seal level.” Made me think of the Seal as a Seal meme.

12/18/13: I’m editing a paper by authors whose native language is Korean. There were some unique errors, which led me to Googling to learn a little something about Korean syntax. Wikipedia taught me that Korean is generally considered a “language isolate” (meaning it has “no demonstrable genealogical relationship with other languages”). No wonder there were some unusual mistakes when the authors translated their ideas to English! Cool.

12/4/13: Pandora is blasting my holiday shuffle, I get to gaze out at beautiful snow, there’s tasty tea in my mug, and I’m editing a very interesting paper on IQ psychometrics. All I need is a fireplace and I’d be happy as a clam at high tide 🙂

Thoughtful writing goes beyond negative grammar “rules”

Yesterday I posted about how I sometimes let my Random Capitalization Syndrome shine through. “For me, the key is to know when it’s appropriate to unleash my RCS,” I explained, citing texts, personal emails, and Facebook posts as better venues for it than official publications and other formal contexts.

Then I found a great post in The Chronicle’s Lingua Franca blog by Geoffrey Pullum that fantastically echoed my message. Most grammar advice is framed as an absolute “don’t-do-this-don’t-do-that brand of usage bullying.” Instead, writers “need answers to open interrogatives about when to do what, and why, and how.” So it’s not that RCS should always be banned, it just needs to be used in the right place and time. Same goes for other “rules” like not ending sentences with a preposition.

As Pullum eloquently put it, “You have to steer between the Scylla of sounding like a tweet by an excited high-schooler and the Charybdis of sounding like a great-grandfather in a starched collar.” A good editor will help you do just that to produce a final product that’s appropriate for its intended context. We spend a lot of time thinking about when, how, and why to do the whats of grammar.

Are you afflicted with RCS? I am (in some contexts).

RCS stands for Random Capitalization Syndrome. In the words of Mike Pope,

RCS causes writers to capitalize Words that they think are Important. It is related to, but not the same as, CEWIASS (Capitalize Every Word in a Sentence Syndrome), which often affects children, and it’s not to be confused with CELS (Capitalize Every Letter Syndrome), which is sometimes known by the colloquial name SHOUTING.

I’m inclined to agree with the author’s Winnie-the-Pooh Theory of etiology: “RCS victims learned to read via the books of A. A. Milne, especially those featuring a Bear of Very Little Brain (who would sometimes Think of Things).”

When it comes to official publications and other formal contexts, I completely agree that RCS is a scourge. But I have to confess, I am unapologetically afflicted with RCS when it comes to texts, personal emails, and Facebook posts. Yes, I like to talk about things that are a Big Deal, describe my Awesome weekend, and tell my friends they’re The Best. For me, the key is to know when it’s appropriate to unleash my RCS. 

So are you sometimes afflicted with RCS too? Or do you want to yell at me for my ungrammatical writing? Share your thoughts below.

A collection of thoughts on metaphor in science writing

In a pithy post on his Scientific American blog, Caleb Scharf opined:

I like my black holes fearsome and my interstellar gas thin and frail. It may well be that in doing so one reinforces a certain blinkering, but we’re not all Mr Spock, we need structures, we need something to hang on to – as long as we remember to let go occasionally.

To which commenter davedobbs added:

Writing about science without using metaphors is like…it’s like…

In a lofty piece in American Scientist, Roald Hoffmann advised:

They have no substance, these mental fetters that constrain metaphor and teaching and narrative in the communication of science. Break them.

In a fun post on her Madam Grammar blog, Lisa McLendon cautioned:

The reason to use a metaphor is to help readers understand something. If it doesn’t do that, it’s not working — and your best bet (a gambling metaphor) is to rewrite.