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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Superfluous words

rogersgeorge on November 4th, 2011

I remember this lesson from junior high English. Here’s an example of what my English teacher said not to do:

 It’s kind of like going to a showing of The Princess Bride expecting to see a romance film.

Can you believe this movie has been around for 20 years?

“Kind of” and “sort of” were anathema. We were supposed to use “rather.”

This site is mostly about expository writing, the kind of writing you find in technical literature, essays, explanations, instructions; the type of writing in which you explain something. When you explain something, you want to throw as few obstacles as possible into the mental path of your reader. Unnecessary words are obstacles to comprehension—they give your mind something to examine, then reject: two steps when none will do.

In fact, my English teacher didn’t go far enough. “Rather” doesn’t add to the sentence, either. You send the whole message when you write

 It’s like going to a showing of The Princess Bride expecting to see a romance film.

—and it’s less work for your reader.

When your purpose is to explain something, keep an eye open for words that don’t change the meaning if you take them out. Then take them out. Your readers’ minds will thank you.