Paragraph with Some Goofs

rogersgeorge on January 20th, 2017

Here’s a paragraph with enough less-than-good writing in it that it’s worth pointing out the mistakes. It’s from Motherboard, a pretty good source of interesting articles. The title is Fish are having a Real Hard Time in Space

To better understand these biological effects of “microgravitational stress,” there are two varieties of cell that need to be observed: osteoclasts and osteoblasts. The prior are responsible for breaking down bone tissue, a key role in repairing and maintaining bones, while the latter secrete the matrix used in bone formation.

First, let’s look at the title. You don’t need “Real.” Read the title without “Real.” It’s more concise, has a little more punch. The writer probably wants to project an informal tone, which is okay, but the best expository writing doesn’t call attention to itself; you just think about the content.  Next item, and maybe this is a nitpick, but the title should say “These Fish…” since the article is about some specific individual fish, not fish in general. Slightly more accurate, I say.

The first sentence in the paragraph has “there is.” Try to avoid “there is” and “there” with any other form of “to be.” This construction is called a false subject. Writing without false subjects is harder, but think of something else to say. You’ll produce a better sentence. For example you could replace the false subject with “…you need to know about…” or better, take out both the false subject and the relative conjunction so you have “…two varieties of cell need to be observed:.”

Move on to the next sentence. “Prior” is a hobby horse of mine. It means “to have priority, to be first in rank.” Use something like “first” instead, although in this sentence the correct word is “former” because later on he uses “latter,” which is correct, by the way. “Latter” means “the second of two.” By the way, why not repeat the word as the subject? That gives the reader a second exposure to this unfamiliar word, increasing learning. You would have “Osteoclasts are responsible for…”

Finally, in the last line of the paragraph you see the word “while.” “While means “at the same time as.” The simplest solution to this bit of excessive informality is to make two sentences. Put a period after “bones” and capitalize “the” or write “Osteoblasts secrete…”

Okay, enough curmudgeonliness for now. The article is still interesting and informative. Give it a read.

Subscribe to this blog's RSS feed

In which I pick on a paragraph

rogersgeorge on January 22nd, 2014

Scientific American has pretty high editorial standards, but the blogs must use a different editor. This isn’t entirely bad–the goofs provide grist for my mill. I recently ran into a thought-provoking article in the Information Culture blog about removing books from a library’s collection. Thoughtful content notwithstanding, I found a couple things to edit. Here’s the guilty paragraph:

Scientists learn new things everyday that render previous books and articles on a topic out-of-date or simply incorrect.  Yesterday I pulled a book off the shelf about how to conduct radiometric dating published in 1954. There have been major advances in the topic in the past 60 years and we have more up to date information available on the shelves.

I found three solecisms. See if you can spot them before you continue. Here they are, with some additional remarks.

  1. First one: “everyday” is an adjective. In this sentence we want an adverb (tells when), which in this case should be “every day.”
  2. “previous” is correct. A lot of people would have written “prior,” which is wrong. I mentioned that in at least one past post.
  3. “simply incorrect” gets along fine without the “simply.” I wrote several times about fluff—unnecessary words—two of them are “just” and “simply.” However the writer here is being conversational, not giving instructions, and the word is not ungrammatical, so we can call it a stylistic choice. But it’s tighter without the extra word.
  4. Second one: The hyphenation in “out-of-date” shouldn’t be there. It’s a plain old adverb phrase that goes with “render.” No need for hyphens.
  5. This remark is rather picky. I would have put a comma after “radiometric dating” because “published in 1954” goes with “book.” The comma separates dating from published, making you look elsewhere. Books and publishing go together so commonly that you’re not likely to be confused, but the rule is that a modifier belongs as close as possible to what it modifies. The comma makes sure you don’t suppose that the dating itself was published in 1954.
  6. Third one: “up to date” should be hyphenated. It’s a compound adjective, which we hyphenate.

That’s a lot of chopping on one poor paragraph in an interesting article. I should add that nothing else jumped out at me in the whole rest of the article, and I shall give credit where it is due: the last sentence in the article is nice:

Weeding no-longer-useful books is just as important to collection building as acquiring new books.

The sin of pretentiousness

rogersgeorge on December 22nd, 2011

When you write to explain something, your writing should focus your reader’s attention on the content, not on the writing, and not on you. Business English has become contaminated with pretentiousisms (a new word, invented by me, and seen here for the first time!), words that are fancier than necessary, and sometimes incorrect. People insert them to sound more erudite.  Here are a few of my favorite pretentiousisms. Don’t use them.

Using French is either pretentious or funny.

Prior when you mean previous. “Prior” implies greater importance, such as being a prerequisite for what follows. “Previous” refers to something that came first. For example I should say “The previous comic strip was funny, but I cannot quote it without prior written permission.”

Which when you mean that. This is something that Microsoft’s grammar checker generally gets right, by the way. Use “which” when you make an aside, and prefix it with a comma. Use “that” when you’re adding necessary information about something. For example you should say “The lecture that the professor gave yesterday was about the concept of free will, which I know nothing about.” Here’s the rule of thumb: ask if “that” works in the sentence. if it does, don’t use “which.”

Those when you mean the. Bad: “Those people who drive fancy cars are being pretentious.” Better: “The people who drive fancy…” Best: “People who drive fancy…” You might say that you want to more strongly point out whom you are referring to. No need; you make the point just fine with “the” or nothing. (You should be careful of generalizations anyway.)

Get your plurals right. Don’t use artificial Latin endings. Perhaps the most common if these is the plural of process, in spoken English. Don’t say “processees” (processese?) The plural of “process” is plain old “processes,” accent on the first syllable. People Latinize plurals on other words that end in -is and -es, such as “premise.” Be careful, though. Some words do have a Latin plural, “analysis” for example.

Another plural that a lot of folks mess up is the plural of “incident.” It’s “incidents,” not “incidences.”

Be careful of instant and instance.  “Instant” a measure of time, “instance” is an example of something.  The plurals are “instants” and instances.” Don’t make the plural of “instant” into “instantses” just to add a syllable.

The word “different” is often unnecessary. Usually you can leave it out. “There are two different ways to get there from here” means the same thing as “There are two ways to get there from here.” Leave out “different.” This one is a pet peeve of a fellow curmudgeon, Jim Murray, whom I worked with at Gateway 2000 many years ago. Hi, Jim!

Using myself when you mean me. Use “myself” only when you have already referred to yourself in the sentence. (Note that this applies to “you” and “yourself,” too.) Here is an example of the wrong usage by someone who ought to know better, Michael Shirmer, the founding editor of Skeptic magazine, in his book, The Believing Brain:

Good point. But the problem for both Dawkins and myself is our chauvinism. As Carl Sagan used to say, we are carbon chauvinists.

Why didn’t he write “…the problem for both Dawkins and me…”? I haven’t asked him, but I’ll suspect that Dr. Shirmer felt that “me” was too casual. In other words, not high-falootin’ enough. The context (page 198, by the way) is a discussion of the likelihood of encounters with extraterrestrials, so here’s a picture. Both Dawkins and Shirmer say we don’t have any extraterrestrials on earth, and I’m inclined to agree with them.

Picture used without permission. If you own it, I'll take it down and use something else.

Expect another post on pretentiousness. This list is merely items that came to mind this evening.