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Precision in English


Ophiolite
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Summary: Precision in the use of language parallels the importance of precision in the use of mathematics, within scientific writing.

 

 

On another thread a member used the phrase "very unique". In a follow up post I asked the member not to qualify an absolute. It is incorrect English.

 

Rather than acknowledge this correction they restated it and implicitly declared they thought the usage was acceptable. Subsequently they said this:

 

And I am free to write as I wish and qualifying an absolute really is not distracting. Nitpicking of English at this level is really about trying to score points.

This statement contains one truths and a couple of misunderstandings.

 

Of course one can write as one wishes, but if one wishes to be readily understood then following established rules of language is a good idea.

 

Writers do not get to decide what is and what is not distracting. That is the domain of the reader. And I find qualifying an absolute to very distracting.

 

Asking for precision in the use of language, asking that it be written correctly, is not nitpicking. One might as well say it is acceptable to quote the result of a calculation to more than the correct number of significant figures. The meaning may leak through, but it's still frigging wrong.

 

Thoughts?

 

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I suspect more miscommunications arise from the parties concerned using different definitions of a key word, phrase or construct, than from any other source.

 

Adherence to precision greatly reduces the scope for this form of miscommunication, so is to be recommended.

 

However there is some difference of usage in different branches of the English language that may or may not impede communication.

 

You say that the reader has exclusive rights of deciding what is distracting.

 

If I find american spelling of say sulphur distracting when I read it, should I therefore enjoin all americans to change their spelling or should I put up with it.

Or should I follow the words of that famous scholar of English and say "That is something up with which I will not put"?

 

How about that old and very common chestnut AC current or AC voltage?

Edited by studiot
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Summary: Precision in the use of language parallels the importance of precision in the use of mathematics, within scientific writing.

 

 

On another thread a member used the phrase "very unique". In a follow up post I asked the member not to qualify an absolute. It is incorrect English.

 

Rather than acknowledge this correction they restated it and implicitly declared they thought the usage was acceptable. Subsequently they said this:

 

This statement contains one truths and a couple of misunderstandings.

 

Of course one can write as one wishes, but if one wishes to be readily understood then following established rules of language is a good idea.

 

Writers do not get to decide what is and what is not distracting. That is the domain of the reader. And I find qualifying an absolute to very distracting.

 

Asking for precision in the use of language, asking that it be written correctly, is not nitpicking. One might as well say it is acceptable to quote the result of a calculation to more than the correct number of significant figures. The meaning may leak through, but it's still frigging wrong.

 

Thoughts?

 

 

As a non-mathematician I would characterise precision in mathematics as a binary on-off state, however I would describe precision in language as a more analogue state. Thus, I believe, there are degrees of precision in language and any judgment of where a piece of prose lies on this spectrum is contextual and subjective. Personally, whilst agreeing the main thrust of your argument, I would dispute the purported error that raised the subject and, if I were proof-reading, a few very minor points in your delivery.

 

Unique has been used for centuries as a relative term and, whilst its origins are in the absolute meaning, usage is everything in language. I agree that meaning must be maintained; however we risk creating lingual shibboleths if we are to be too prescriptive. Additionally, how can we expect languages to grow if change is denied, to evolve if no mutations are tolerated? That said, I would try to avoid the qualification of absolutes and I do advocate 20 years hard labour for those using disinterested and uninterested as if they were synonyms.

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I think it's great that many regulars that are committed to science endeavour to use words, sentences and grammar correctly - for where they are from - but linguistic perfection, in the eyes of the reader, is all but impossible to expect and expecting it to the nth degree is not realistic in a public forum As long as the intent of the author is received correctly by the reader that's all that matters really in this format. I'm sure I could be shot many times over for transgressions in my use of the language here but I do try.

 

The easy manipulation, misuse, and bastardisation by people over the centuries is what has given the English language it's global dominance today ...they can easily make it their own. It has probably communicatively joined more different people together than any other language. What we see, like with chadn's "error", is English language evolution in action.

 

Having said all this, I do enjoy your style and overall precision and hope you continue to be as anal .as you are. We need at least some bastions of proper English. :)

Edited by StringJunky
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Asking for precision in the use of language, asking that it be written correctly, is not nitpicking. One might as well say it is acceptable to quote the result of a calculation to more than the correct number of significant figures. The meaning may leak through, but it's still frigging wrong.

 

Thoughts?

 

 

One might think no information is lost by saying something is "very unique", but from my perspective the result will be the acknowledgement that the other person doesn't actually understand the definition of unique. It's similar to other redundancies, like "ATM machine" or "Please RSVP". It's an indication that you know what the abbreviations mean in general, but don't know what the letters actually stand for. The abbreviation has become a word unto itself. So if the speaker/writer doesn't know the actual meaning, I lose confidence that the proper information has been transferred, and/or that they said what they meant to say.

 

But since people tend to get defensive when this is pointed out, I just usually respond with snark.

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It's similar to other redundancies, like "ATM machine" or "Please RSVP". It's an indication that you know what the abbreviations mean in general, but don't know what the letters actually stand for.

Even worse is LAZER, which I don't recall being used here.

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I've seen it. "Your search for the term lazer returned 83 results" (including your post)

I would hazard that most of those are from American posters as there is a tendency in American-English usage to put a 'z' where a Briton would put an 's'.

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Agree. English is very imprecise, because is being constantly deformed by mostly laziness of the writers/speakers, beyond its already crooked birth.

There is no regulator for the language, as shown here :
----> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_language_regulators
They want a dictionary publisher to be the ruler. And there is more than one.
So if a few want to respect the language, there is no support.

The habitual "excuse me !". When I answer "Yes, I excuse you !" You have to see their faces.

Mail and male pronounced the same. Then why write them different ?

Responding with a dozen 'you know' per minute when asked a question.

Useless k in knife, knock, knight...

People born in U.S. believe they are not 'native Americans'

Not even educated scientists say
gasoline,
Amperes,
advertisement,
identification,
mathematics,
demonstration,
temporary,
temperature,
carburetor,
carbohydrate,
laboratory,
hippopothamus,
rhinoceros,
application or
petroleum any more, from pure laziness.

Terrific can be a good thing now.

Laziness is saying oh instead of zero.

Law could be better written lo,
and Phoenix as finix

The stupidity of babbling mrs or ma'am instead of just saying mistress or madam -or is it madame?-.

Footage ?

Snow tires... Rubber ones would not melt. Wood screws... metal ones are better.

And what is the business of putting an u in bisnes or bisy

In permanent addiction to acronyms

England yes, but never got why writing the adjective english muffins with upper case.

Whoever decides bootup, software, googling are words have lamb followers and claim to 'coin' those with no relation to coins.

The laughable 12:20 AM. There is no such thing; it is 00:20 !

And it never ends... It is beyond fixing.

http://montreal.ctvnews.ca/drop-the-english-dictionary-quebec-comedians-parody-language-police-1.1208033





http://ddeubel.edublogs.org/2011/10/28/top-5-funniest-videos-about-teaching-english/

 

----> Smile, tomorrow will be worse !

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I would hazard that most of those are from American posters as there is a tendency in American-English usage to put a 'z' where a Briton would put an 's'.

 

Could be, but this isn't an aluminum vs aluminium or math vs maths issue. "z" is flat-out wrong; the S represents "stimulated" and we don't say "ztimulated" in the US (though now I'm tempted to start). People using a "Z" are showing that they don't know that laser is an acronym, and I wouldn't count it as nitpicky to point it out.

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Could be, but this isn't an aluminum vs aluminium or math vs maths issue. "z" is flat-out wrong; the S represents "stimulated" and we don't say "ztimulated" in the US (though now I'm tempted to start). People using a "Z" are showing that they don't know that laser is an acronym, and I wouldn't count it as nitpicky to point it out.

I agree. I was just speculating a possible source for the error by the ignorant not aware that it's actually an acronym.

Agree. English is very imprecise, because is being constantly deformed by mostly laziness of the writers/speakers, beyond its already crooked birth.

I like this. :)

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With regard to punctuation, after more than 30 years of having the Oxford comma purged from my writings, I'm starting to add it back in where it makes the most sense. I cringe first, then I smile, because I'm finally allowing myself to do what I argued with my English teachers about. I can finally delineate my lists more obviously, meaningfully, and with greater clarity. I was tired of seeing so much ambiguity, especially when list items have multiple words.

 

I don't think textspeak is appropriate anywhere, and I really hope it will die a painful death as more phones are voicetext capable. I think it's a crutch for laziness, justifying itself as efficient and succinct. For me and many others, it says, "You're not worth the time to poke a few more keys, and I don't care if you understand me or not". Textspeak always distracts me.

 

Writers do not get to decide what is and what is not distracting. That is the domain of the reader. And I find qualifying an absolute to very distracting.

 

I want to agree with you here, because I also find some writing habits extremely distracting. But a single writer can't know what all his readers find distracting. You can follow all the various rules and still find folks who will object to what you've written.

 

But still, following accepted rules is the best path to understanding, and that should always be the goal of communication. It's not about scoring points for nitpicking. Good answers should only spawn follow-up questions, rather than clarifying questions (e.g., "Where does that thought lead you?" rather than, "What do you mean by that?").

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With regard to punctuation, after more than 30 years of having the Oxford comma purged from my writings, I'm starting to add it back in where it makes the most sense. I cringe first, then I smile, because I'm finally allowing myself to do what I argued with my English teachers about. I can finally delineate my lists more obviously, meaningfully, and with greater clarity. I was tired of seeing so much ambiguity, especially when list items have multiple words.

 

 

 

"I would like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God" is the best argument for the Oxford comma, IMO.

 

OTOH, "An Oxford comma walks into a bar and orders a gin, and tonic."

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Oxford comma?

 

Swans, you should have looked up your examples before the G&T not after.

 

:)

 

It needs a list of three items or more.

 

But it is so last century anyway.

 

If I want to enhance the separation in a list I use semicolons, not commas.

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If I want to enhance the separation in a list I use semicolons, not commas.

 

I'm having two parties. To the first I'm inviting the strippers, swansont, and Ophiolite. To the second party I'm inviting the strippers, swansont and Ophiolite.

 

Which party do you want to go to?

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Oxford comma?

 

Swans, you should have looked up your examples before the G&T not after.

 

:)

 

 

 

It's a joke. Don't shoot the messenger.

Ophi makes up for what he lacks in aesthetics with exuberance, but swansont's monopole dancing should have remained theoretical.

 

Like everybody, I'm just working for the weekend

http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/chippendales/n41045

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-----To replace a lost edition, I just bought a new copy of Strunk & White's Elements of Style. In 1918 Strunk wrote "make every word tell" and it is no less applicable today.

-----For the serial comma issue Elements of Style instructs to use the comma preceding the conjunction in a list of 3 or more items. The example given is 'red, white, and blue'.

-----Part of precision in writing is formatting and I particularly dislike how indenting is so difficult on a computer. Oh for the ease of the typewriter in this regard! (To indent these paragraphs I inserted white dashes.)

-----Also a formatting issue, I find posts such as Externet's multiple-double-spaced one-liners hard to read and jarring. Indenting alone wouldn't help so I'd recommend a single-spaced bulleted listing.

-----All-in-all, disregard for the reader -if not the rules- results in poor communication. Tighten it up people! :P

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On another thread a member used the phrase "very unique". In a follow up post I asked the member not to qualify an absolute. It is incorrect English.

<...>

Thoughts?

I'm reminded of Mr. Twain:

 

Screen-shot-2011-10-26-at-11.18.42-PM-29

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-----Part of precision in writing is formatting and I particularly dislike how indenting is so difficult on a computer. Oh for the ease of the typewriter in this regard! (To indent these paragraphs I inserted white dashes.)

Why insist on indenting, though? A blank space between paragraphs serves the same purpose. It wastes vertical space, but that is not in short supply on the Internet.

 

On the topic of precision: I agree wholly with Ophiolite. Writing exists to convey meaning, and in science the meaning is often complex and counterintuitive. Only with precision and careful planning will your writing succeed.

 

Recently I have been writing a book about the improper use of statistics, and many points center on a subtle misunderstanding of some tricky statistical concept. My editor frequently writes comments like "I didn't quite understand this paragraph," and when I read it again I realize I've said something entirely misleading. ("Power of the coin? What does that even mean?") Readers are endlessly imaginative misinterpreters of statistics, and I have to choose every word with incredible care to convey my meaning correctly.

 

The tragedy is that few of my readers will read as carefully as my editor does, and so most will miss important points.

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Recently I have been writing a book about the improper use of statistics

 

I look forward to reading this book when it comes out.

 

Hopefully it will include some of the tall tales from the forum campfire.

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The tragedy is that few of my readers will read as carefully as my editor does, and so most will miss important points.

 

You can only do so much, then it is up to readers to put in some effort. It shouldn't be a passive process. Lazy reading surely facilitates lazy writing, as writers get away with ambiguity.

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