Using “Kind Of,” and Astronomy

rogersgeorge on May 9th, 2016

I clearly remember Mrs. Clemens, my sixth-grade teacher, telling us not to say “kind of,” but to say “rather.” “Kind of” is incorrect, she said. We should always use “rather” in our writing, she said.

She wasn’t quite right. “Kind of” is informal, and it’s idiomatic, especially in spoken language. It fits the kind of writing, too in which you want to create an informal, conversational feel. I still agree that you shouldn’t use it in formal, expository writing.

I said all that to say this: I’m not only a grammar geek, but I’m also kind of an astronomy hobbyist. And today, May 9, 2016, is rather special. (See how I switched from informal to expository?) Today Mercury passes directly in front of the sun as seen from earth. This is called a transit, and it happens only a couple times per century. It starts about 7:15 in the morning in the eastern time zone (US) and it lasts a couple hours. Google “Mercury transit” if you want lots of details.

You don’t need a telescope to watch it, but you certainly don’t want to look directly at the sun! Do not look directly at the sun! (If you have a telescope with a solar filter, you already know about all this. Have fun!)

Here are two approaches you can try.

  1. Get some sun-viewing sunglasses, or use a number 14 or higher welding mask. Today is too late to order the glasses; they cost about $5 online and you can get them for future events, such as the solar eclipse in 2017. Besides, Mercury is small—it might be too small to see unmagnified.
  2. Use a pair of binoculars. (Do not look at the sun through them!) Get a piece of paper. Prop the binoculars against something to hold them steady and point them at the sun. Hold the paper a couple inches away from the eyepieces and move it back and forth until you find a nice, in-focus image of the sun. Mercury will be a little tiny dot moving across the lower half of the sun. (Well, maybe across the upper half.)

Here’s a picture of the last transit, about ten years ago. My thanks to Bill Bunker for the photo:

Since the transit lasts a couple hours, you won’t be able to see it move, but you’ll have lots of time to impress your friends with your astronomical savvy. That would be rather kind of fun, wouldn’t it?

 

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When not to hyphenate

rogersgeorge on October 25th, 2011

One of my favorite errors to point out is an unhyphenated compound adjective. A compound adjective is when two words work together to modify a noun, and you need to connect those two words with a hyphen. If you leave out the hyphen, you get the first word modifying the second word, and this can lead to serious ambiguity. I wrote about missing hyphens recently here. Go look at the article—it contains examples. People don’t usually put in the hyphen if they don’t need it, but I found an unnecessary hyphen today. The article is interesting, too, if you like astronomy.

 By blowing a wind prior to exploding, the white dwarf was able to clear out a huge “cavity,” a region of very low-density surrounding the system. The explosion into this cavity was able to expand much faster than it otherwise would have.

You’re reading along, and suddenly you wonder, “a region of low-density what?” That hyphen told you “compound adjective here” so you expected a noun. Maybe you filled in the noun yourself—low-density vacuum. Or perhaps you re-arranged the whole sentence, “…a very low-density region surrounding…” Or maybe you picked the simplest  solution and removed the hyphen—a region of low density.

Perhaps some science writer has been reading this blog and got over-enthusiastic about hyphens. (I flatter myself. I’ve never gotten a comment from a science writer about anything.) Here’s the picture that goes with the article.

Four telescopes teamed up on this one

Oh—one other thing I need to be curmudgeonly about: Don’t write “prior to” when you mean “before.”