Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Oh.....the woes of english language.....

One of the qualities, which you develop as a scientist, is to write papers that are concise, clear, and coherent. Paying attention to all the issues like tense, punctuation, flow and so on. Writing my first scientific paper was a great learning experience, my boss pointed out the mistakes and helped me write a very structured draft, where the entire story made a logical sense. One of the things I learned from this was that vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a machine should have no unnecessary parts. No wonder why Shakespeare said "Brevity is the soul of the wit". Inspired by my boss's writing style I asked him - How did you learn to write so well and how can I improve my writing skills? And his reply was - Read the book Elements of Style by Strunk and White. 

I wasted no time in getting the book and discovered that it was written 90 years ago and many of the common mistakes that people make have been pointed out in the book. So here begins my journey to be a great writer. One of my favorite sections in the book is - misused words and expressions. Here are a few I was always confused about, but not anymore  - courtesy of Strunk and White.

1. That and Which: That is defining, or restrictive pronoun. Which is non defining, or nonrestrictive. Moreover, when writing a restrictive clause, introduce it with the word "that" and no - comma. While writing a non - restrictive clause, introduce it with "which" and insert commas around the clause.

For eg.: The painting that was hanging in the living room was stolen
Means - there is only one painting in the room and it was stolen. However, if there were several paintings in the room this use would be incorrect.

The lawn mower, which is broken, is in the garage.
Means - there are many mowers in the garage but I am referring to the broken one.

2. Secondly, thirdly, etc: Do not prettify numbers with - ly. Instead prefer second, third, and so on. 

3. Etc. : In formal writing use of etc = bad writing. An item important enough to call for etc. is probably important enough to be named. For other type of writing use the phrases like - and the rest, and so forth. 

4. Data: Like strata, phenomena, and media, data is plural and is best used with plural verb. The word, however, is slowly gaining acceptance as a singular. 

For eg - The data is misleading.
The data are misleading.
Both the above formats are accepted now. 

5. Among and Between: Use among when more than 2 things or person are involved. When more than 2 are involved but each is considered individually, between is preferred.

For eg - The money was divided among the 4 players.
An agreement between the six heirs. 

6. Thanking you in advance: I had it one of my emails as a signature and now I feel stupid about it. Why?
It means that "It will not be worth my while to write you again." Use phrases like - "I shall be obliged" or "will you please".

I will keep posting other interesting english language usage, but it is a good idea for you get a copy of The Elements of Style.


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