Category Archives: Language Miscellany

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.

Muphry’s Law

You’ve likely heard of Murphy’s Law (that’s Sod’s Law, you UK lot): anything that can go wrong will. But did you know there’s an editorial version, too? Muphry’s Law is the “principle that any criticism of the speech or writing of others will itself contain at least one error of usage or spelling.” (See this article for the etymology and some fun examples.)

I’m all too aware of this phenomenon. That’s why I instituted the “My Bad!” contest.  If you spot an error anywhere on my site, I’ll reward your eagle eye with a $5 discount off your next project. ALL writers–even (especially?) editors–need editors.

Google Ngram Viewer: Now more powerful than ever

You’ve seen me use Google Ngram Viewer output before to make points about eggcorns, adverbs, and ingenuity. Earlier this month, the tool got a few welcome upgrades. You can now conduct case-insensitive searches, find all the inflections at once, and use wildcards.

Check out these blog posts from Google’s research team and The Atlantic for more information and interesting examples of how to exploit these options. A few of mine follow.

Case insensitivity: Now, instead of searching separately for aids, Aids, and AIDS, you can toggle back and forth between having them combined and separated.

aids All

aids separatedInflections: Now, instead of searching separately for different verb tenses like run, running, ran, and runs, you can toggle back and forth between having them combined and separated.


run separated

The same logic applies to adjectives like tall, taller, and tallest.


tall separated

Wildcards: Want to know which Kings are most often mentioned in books over time? Now you can, simply by adding a noun wildcard.

King All

King separatedI thoroughly recommend playing around with these new tools. Find anything interesting? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter!

For your edutainment: a listorama of libfixes!

Want to know how to make anything instantly more entertaining? Add the suffix -tainment. Spice up your boring educational materials and make them edutainment!

A liberated piece of a word that now acts as a prefix or suffix has been named a libfix. Examples abound in today’s culture. Remember Climategate? And what about Snowpocalypse–not to mention Snowmageddon!

For a fun A-Z list of libfixes, check out this post by Neal Whitman. He couldn’t come up with any for H, U, X, and Y, but commenters have suggested -holic and -umentary. Can you think of any X or Y libfixes?