Made-up Plurals

Some nouns don’t have a plural form, “species,” for example. Here’s what can happen if you make up a plural:

As Searses and Toys-R-Uses evaporate from suburban shopping centers, thrift stores are shuttering, too.

Change them to adjectives and you get rid of the awkwardness: Write “Sears and Toys-R-Us stores…”

That latter is a good example of the rule (usually applied to acronyms) that you should add an apostrophe when you make a plural whenever not using the apostrophe could cause confusion.

Another Use for Quotation Marks

You all know that quotation marks (“little goose feet” if you’re a grade schooler in Germany) are used to indicate that you’re repeating exactly what someone says (or writes).

We have another use, in the typography trade, called “scare quotes.” They’re used to separate something from its context. You just saw two sets of scare quotes in this post, so far.

Another use just occurred to me: to indicate how to pronounce something. Here’s my example:

The only exceptions are single polygons larger than a triangle, and something called the θ0 (“theta zero”) graph, in which a vertex in the center of a hexagon is connected to two opposite vertices.

If they hadn’t said otherwise, I’d have pronounced it “theta sub zero.”

I think I run into this use mostly in subjects that are somewhat abstruse, such as some mathematics and physics. The sentence is in an article about the atomic structure of magnetism. Go follow the link if you’re interested.

So there you have it. Make sense?

An Exception to the Less-Fewer Rule

When we count things, the rule it to say “fewer,” and when we measure things, we say “less.” So we have fewer apples, but less distance. Since we measure time, normally we say less.

But you can count time, too, and when that happens, you should use fewer. So the guy in this comic has it wrong.

Just be sure you’re counting units of time, not measuring the time itself.

Good Example of Not Being Concise

If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that I consider conciseness to be an important part of good writing, particularly expository writing, (writing to explain things).

I don’t ordinarily let someone else do all the work, either, but I think this gives a good picture of not being concise, and it’s funny.

Thank you, Analytical Grammar/Grammar Planet

See my comment about being paid by the word a few posts back.

A Correct Introductory Phrase

Lots of people introduce sentences with an adverb when they should use an adjective. Here’s an example of someone doing it right:

Most important, after more than a decade, puberty was finally done with me.

He didn’t say “Most importantly,” which means “in a most important manner,” not exactly the intended meaning. He means that the event was itself important, not just acting important.

Whenever you see a sentence start with something like “Reportedly,” or “Significantly,” or “Importantly,” you’re probably seeing one of these (incorrect) introductory adverbs.

If you don’t do this, your writing will be tighter and easier to follow.

PS—The linked article that I took the quote from is adult reading. Adult in the adult sense, not the pornographic sense.

If You’re Explaining Something, You Don’t Need These

Extra words. Unless you’re being paid by the word, maybe.

Researchers spotted the trend while surveying impact craters on both Earth and our closest celestial neighbor, the moon.

Wordiness is not a virtue, folks. Be concise! And write for the reader. (You didn’t need to be told what the moon is, did you???)


PS—just in case, here’s a picture of the moon. Look familiar?

Get Your Affairs in Order!

The rule of thumb in writing is that you should put modifiers as close as possible to what they modify. If you don’t, you end up with a sentence that your readers have to figure out. Here’s an example:

The project tells the story of how water shapes the planet using aerial photography to deliver a series of stunning images that sit on the border between abstract art and documentary realism.

Wait! The water uses aerial photography??? That’s what the sentence says. You get a little jolt reading the sentence, don’t you? Here’s what the writer actually means:

The project uses aerial photography to tell the story of how water shapes the planet, delivering a series of stunning images that sit on the border between abstract art and documentary realism.

Both sentences are grammatical, but now the flow is better. A serious intellectual problem to decipher the sentence? No. Most anyone should be able to figure out what the writer means. But here’s the rule:

Bad writing must never be justified with the excuse that the reader will figure it out.

PS—Here’s one of the pictures:

(Credit: by @Milan Radisics)

An Unnecessary Modifier

Two, actually.

I refer to the modifier “sort of.” Here’s an example from a science type who wants to be chatty and informal:

Muons are sort of like extra-heavy electrons.

I clearly remember Mrs. Clemens telling us in sixth grade that “sort of” was poor English—we should use “rather,” which would change that sentence to

Muons are rather like extra-heavy electrons.

Sounds a little bit stiff and formal. But even that “rather” is unnecessary! Try this on for size:

Muons are like extra-heavy electrons.

Says the same thing as the other sentences, doesn’t it? And it’s simpler, more direct, and has more punch.

Remember the rule about conciseness:

If you can leave out a word without changing the meaning, leave it out.

A Little History I Had Forgotten

Over the years I’ve mentioned all four of these incorrect rules, both in the classroom and on this blog. Use the search box in the upper right to find several mentions of each bad rule.

What English language rules are incorrect?

Never split an infinitive
Never end a sentence with a preposition
Never use a double negative
The pronouns “them” and “they” are always plural, never singular

I had forgotten the source of these rules. I think he was mentioned once in my sophomore English class. But I have long known that these rules were bad. Anyway, here’s an essay from Quora on the subject. It was written by Franklin Veaux, published author and compulsive writer. Thank you, sir, for the reminder.

All four of these rules were made up by one person, Bishop Robert Lowth.

Lowth was a religious scholar who was obsessed with the “purity” and perfection of Latin. He had a big-time fetish for Latin grammar. He considered Latin the ideal language, and believed that English should be more like Latin.

In 1762, he published a book on English grammar that made up a whole bunch of new rules, including the four above. His sole rationale for many of these rules was simply to try to force English grammar to be closer to Latin grammar.

Those rules had never been part of English until he made them up, and outside of prescriptivist grammar taught in school, they never caught on. Today, English grammar experts have largely abandoned teaching any of them.

Correct but Tricky; Therefore Not Good

I ran into a sentence that’s easy to misunderstand even though it’s written “correctly.”

Here’s the sentence:

Ocean temperatures are also much less variable than surface temperatures, which can swing greatly from year to year, and therefore give a clearer signal of global warming.

What is the subject of “gives the clearer signal of global warming”? Is it surface temperatures or ocean temperatures? Put another way, what does the “therefore” refer to, the “swing greatly” or the “much less variable”?

“Surface temperatures” and “swing greatly” are both closer to the “therefore give,” so that’s what the clause should refer to, right? Nope!

I think the writer of this article, Nicholas Kusnetz, (and maybe his editor) are so familiar with the mechanics of the topic that they assumed the readers would already know that the more stable temperatures are better indicators of change.

They expected the readers to jump over two wrong answers to get to the correct reference, a serious mental jolt. Mental jolts are not good. The sentence should have ended:

… and therefore ocean temperatures give a clearer signal of global warming.

Now the reader can’t get it wrong. And that’s how you should write!

PS—I like to include pictures in this blog when I can, so here’s one from the article. Notice that it describes ocean temps, not air temps.: