An Astronomer Gets a Tricky Word Right

rogersgeorge on May 19th, 2016

If I wrote that title as a headline the way the media do, I’d write “Astronomer Gets Tricky Word Right!” (Sounds more exciting with those articles taken out, doesn’t it? Well, that’s the media for you.) I’ve written about the word “media” in the past. Usage of that word is a good example of linguistic change. Many people use the word to refer to TV, radio, newspapers, news feeds, and other sources of broadcast information as “the media,” and they treat it as a singular. One of my favorite astronomers, Phil Plait, used the term recently, and I feel justified in commenting. Especially since the passage is reasonably thought-provoking and it’s worth reading anyway (emphases are mine):

I think a lot of scientists are on top of the idea that they need to understand how the media work to be able to get their message across. Certainly climate scientists are aware of this (the RealClimate site is written by professional climatologists).

This is a step in the right direction. It’s not a cure-all, of course, since I don’t think any such unicorn exists. If such a beast were real—if there were one thing I would change about how we consume information—it would take the form of people learning how to think critically about the news they get, assessing it logically. Is the medium biased? Who funds that particular outlet? Are you as a consumer biased, willing to believe something more readily because it aligns with your personal beliefs? What information are you being given that’s wrong, and what’s being left out?

That would be a wonderful thing. A lot of media outlets would vanish in a puff of logic were such conditions to prevail. And the world would be a far safer, healthier, and smarter place.

  1. This is plural. Correct! Note the plural verb “work,” not the singular “works,” and the plural “their.”
  2. Singular. He’s referring to the creator of the article or show or whatever you’re looking at or listening to.
  3. Adjective. Technically neither singular nor plural, though he used the plural form to match “outlets.”
“Media” occurs elsewhere in the original post, and he gets it right every time.

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rogersgeorge on October 23rd, 2011

I don’t generally quote others because what they say is good. I prefer to quote mistakes. But I ran into something the other day that is so good, and so in line with one of my guiding principles, that I have to share it. My humblest thanks to astronomer and writer Phil Plait, and to the American Geophysical Union, where he got this table.  Phil’s article (click his link) is particularly worth reading. He also mentions the original source, an article by Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol, from the October 2011 issue of Physics Today.

The guiding principle is that you must write for your readership. Before you publish, have an idea of your readers’ knowledge of the subject you’re writing about, and  understand what stake they have in your content; in other words, work at figuring out what they know coming in, and what you want them to take away.  This means, among other things, that you should reflect on your use of specialized words—either define or don’t use vocabulary that your readers might get wrong.

Without further ado:

Click twice to see it full size. Print this and tape it to your wall if you're not a scientist and you read things about science.