What the internet desperately needs is another blog post about the Oxford comma

The Oxford comma – also known as the Harvard comma, the serial comma, and the what the hell is wrong with you people why can’t you just get a life – provokes strong opinions.

It’s the difference between these two sentences:

1a) I ordered bacon, eggs and beans.
1b) I ordered bacon, eggs, and beans.

The Oxford comma is the last one, before the “and” in version 1b.

Should it be there?

Some people say no (loudly): it looks fussy and slows the sentence down. The “and” is quite enough to separate the last two items in the list.

Other people say yes (even more loudly): it’s helpful for clarity. Well, maybe not in this case, but it’s more important when the individual items in a list are grammatically more complex, especially if they contain “and”s. Compare:

2a) They ordered bacon and beans, chips and eggs and toast.
2b) They ordered bacon and beans, chips, and eggs and toast.
2c) They ordered bacon and beans, chips and eggs, and toast.

Sentence 2a, without the Oxford comma, is ambiguous about which ingredients make up which meals: it could mean either 2b or 2c.


3a) The hallway contains a chest of drawers, a mirror, a sculpture made of copper wire and a hatstand.
3b) The hallway contains a chest of drawers, a mirror, a sculpture made of copper wire, and a hatstand.

While 3a may take a moment to decipher – is the hatstand part of the sculpture? – 3b makes it clearer.

The Oxford comma can also help in cases like these well-known examples:

4a) We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.
4b) We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.

5a) This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
5b) This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.

Here the problem is confusion between different types of comma. In 4a, is the comma after “strippers” there to keep items separate in the list or to introduce the extra information (an appositive phrase) that JFK and Stalin are the strippers?

Likewise, 5a might suggest that Ayn Rand and God are my parents. But 4b and 5b make the separation clear.

Now, sure, there’s no real danger of misunderstanding in these two cases; rather, the risk is of a brief sense of absurdity. There are more sensible examples, though:

6a) I asked my neighbours, an architect and a builder.
6b) I asked my neighbours, an architect, and a builder.

So the Oxford comma can be useful. But given that it hardly seems necessary in “I ordered bacon, eggs, and beans”, should we use it all the time?

The AP Stylebook says no, recommending it only in more complex or potentially ambiguous cases: “do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series: The flag was red, white and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry.”

But the Oxford Guide to Style says yes: “Given that the final comma is sometimes necessary to prevent ambiguity, it is logical to impose it uniformly”. The Chicago Manual of Style also favours using it consistently, as do Bryan Garner, Steven Pinker and others. (It’s more common in American writing than in British.)

I agree that consistency is good – other things being equal. But other things are not equal. There are disadvantages to using the Oxford comma.

It can slow a sentence down. This is obviously subjective and depends on what you’re used to, but I find “I ordered bacon, eggs, and beans” pretty ponderous and deliberate.

The New Yorker’s Mary Norris has taste that goes the other way, favouring the Oxford comma everywhere: “I’ve gotten used to the way it looks. It gives starch to the prose, and can be very effective.” Well, if starch is what you want…

She adds:

The New Yorker isn’t asking you to pause and gasp for breath at every comma. … The commas are marking a thoughtful subordination of information. … It looks choppy, but you don’t have to chop it up when you read it.

Sure, this is thoughtful (it’s in a great extract from what looks like being a great book by Norris), but it makes two huge assumptions.

It assumes that readers consciously choose how commas come across to them. And it assumes that readers will understand the publication’s policy on commas and the reasons behind it. Even for the New Yorker, that feels like a stretch.

As a copyeditor, I’m a big fan of the fine distinctions copyeditors fret over. But we have to have some perspective about whether our readers understand those distinctions the same way we do – or even at all. Sometimes we might be zealously and ingeniously splitting hairs that are invisible to the untrained eye.

There’s a second, more serious problem with the Oxford comma: sometimes it creates the very ambiguity or absurdity that it’s supposed to remove. I’m amazed that its partisans so rarely acknowledge this, because you only need to tweak their examples slightly to see it:

7a) We invited the stripper, JFK and Stalin.
7b) We invited the stripper, JFK, and Stalin.

8a) This book is dedicated to my mother, Ayn Rand and God.
8b) This book is dedicated to my mother, Ayn Rand, and God.

Here the tables are turned: 7b might suggest that JFK was the stripper, 8b that Rand was my mother. 7a and 8a are clear.

So we have to choose whether to use an Oxford comma or not in each case. A blanket policy, pro or anti, just won’t work.

And it gets worse. Try this pair:

9a) I spoke to my uncle, a magistrate and a priest.
9b) I spoke to my uncle, a magistrate, and a priest.

Neither is clear. Does 9a mention three people or one? Does 9b mention three people or two? We need to rephrase somehow:

9c) I spoke to my uncle, who is a magistrate, and a priest.
9d) I spoke to a priest and my uncle, a magistrate.
9e) I spoke to my uncle, who is a magistrate and a priest.
9f) I spoke to a magistrate, a priest and my uncle.
9g) I spoke to my uncle as well as a magistrate and a priest.

We have to face the awful truth: the Oxford comma is not a magical blade that can chop any sentence into slices of perfect meaning. It’s just one fallible tool among many.

Use it when you must, avoid it when you must, choose as you prefer (or as your readers will prefer) when you can, and rewrite whenever that would be better.

Oh, and try not to get too worked up about it.

Accidence Will Happen – by Oliver Kamm

I find it hard to review books that I like, because I tend to feel that I need to be critical to be useful. (It’s a sickness.) And in the case of Oliver Kamm’s Accidence Will Happen: The non-pedantic guide to English usage, I’m also biased: he quotes my blog and thanks me in the acknowledgements for reviewing an early draft.

For what it’s worth, I really do like the book. Kamm’s view, in brief, is that standards are set by general usage and not by rule-mongers who think they know better, and obeying those sticklers is liable to bog you and your writing down with needless superstitions. He also says that Standard English is important but not intrinsically better or more correct than other dialects. Half the book addresses typical stickler arguments and half gives guidance on specific points.

Rather than review the book, I’m going to respond to a critical review of it.

Roger Lewis in the Times (paywall) says:

Any educated person used to know the difference between appraise and apprise, credence and credibility, enormity and magnitude. Those of us who were Mixed Infants in the Sixties would never say bored of, as the correct form is bored with, nor confuse different to with different from. We were aware by the age of seven that you’d be hanged not hung for capital crimes.

Kamm thinks a lot of this is bunkum.

Such rules are “just preferences”, and language should be left to its own devices — which is like saying that the destruction of the countryside ought to be allowed to proceed unchecked, as to halt such developments is to try to prevent an evolutionary inevitability.

Lewis’s timing is badly off. The roads and buildings he opposes were put there long ago; his position, in effect, is that map-makers should refuse to include them.

On matters of historical fact it’s wise to check the evidence. All of Lewis’s supposed errors are old, and their status as errors is mostly debatable.

To Lewis and his fellow pedants, “appraise” means evaluate and “apprise” means inform, and woe betide any modern illiterate who mixes them up; any educated person used to know the difference. Except that the earliest uses of “apprise” in the Oxford English Dictionary – from 1400 – meant to evaluate. It only started to be used for informing in 1694. Only a dozen years later, “appraise” (which had been about evaluating since 1424) started being used for informing. So the two words have a double history. That said, nowadays the disparaged usages are not that common, and Kamm agrees that we should avoid them. But this is on grounds of usage, not some mythical ancient decree.

“Credence”, the pedants say, means acceptance as true; it cannot mean “credibility”. The OED, though, lists a definition of “credence” as “the quality of being believed or believable; the likelihood of being true; plausibility, credibility”. This dates back to 1450. So this is one of many words with more than one meaning, and Kamm says confusion is in practice unlikely. The same is true of Lewis’s next bogeyman…

“Enormity”, according to the pedants, means great wickedness and not great size. The approved usage dates back to 1477 in the OED, but also around that time the word was used to mean an abnormality or a divergence from the normal standard, with no moral judgement necessarily involved. This makes sense when you think about the “norm” part of the word. So, while the approved usage means against the norm of morality, from 1792 the word was also being used to mean exceeding the norm in size. (Also, as Kamm notes, the earliest uses of “enormous” and “enormousness” had nothing to do with size but meant transgressing moral norms.)

“Bored of” is allegedly wrong while “bored with” and “bored by” are right. It’s true that usage has historically favoured the latter two, but this is changing. “Bored of” is still less common in print, but it’s growing. In speech and online, it’s clearly standard. The Glowbe corpus of web usage find “bored of” to be more common on UK-based sites than “bored by” or “bored with”. And there’s no logic to the complaint anyway, says Kamm: we all accept “tired of” and “wearied of”.

“Different to” and “different from” I’ve dealt with before. Both are well-established and both are fine, as Kamm agrees.

I would actually go along with a couple of Lewis’s points – but not because of any immutable rules from some vague point in the past. I try to favour or avoid certain usages based on today’s usage and attitudes (which may depend on the audience). When he says “What activates my own pedantry isn’t futile nostalgia for an ideal classical epoch but a real fear of reverting to linguistic barbarism,” he is kidding himself as well as being hyperbolic. Abolishing sticklers’ pseudo-rules wouldn’t just leave English in excellent shape; it would leave English pretty much as it already is.

One other complaint Lewis makes is:

Kamm can be the revolutionary favouring diversity while flaunting (not flouting) a professional knowledge of dangling modifiers – he can do all this because he operates from a superior base of intellectual assurance. … He can say “errors” represent “flux” and that standards are not falling, because he knows in the first place these various conventions of grammar when he chooses to break them.

Similar points come up in John Rentoul’s and Simon Heffer’s recent discussions with Kamm.

I’m sceptical. Yes, it may be a bit tricky for some people to get their heads round the various distinctions that masquerade as matters of right and wrong. But I think most people can grasp that, for instance, the wrongness of “I ain’t done nothing” depends on context while the wrongness of “I anything not have doen” doesn’t.

It’s a common riposte to people like Kamm that they write in flawless Standard English while arguing that other forms of English are fine too. But Kamm makes it crystal clear that Standard English is vital to know; he just wants it taught without the disparagement of other dialects. He also wants it taught without time being wasted on the loose collection of pseudo-rules and superstitions that are followed by a minority of Standard English speakers.

On this point he practises what he preaches.

In the first few pages of the introduction to his book, he breaks several of these pseudo-rules: he ends sentences with prepositions, he uses “like” (not “such as”) to introduce an example, he treats “none” as plural, he uses “if” where sticklers would demand “whether” and he begins sentences with conjunctions.

The result is good prose. Those rules define not Standard English but a minority taste that imagines itself to be law.

An interesting comparison is Heffer’s book Simply English, which is uncompromising (albeit ill-informed and quirky) in insisting on such rules. Take this line from his introduction:

I am bemused that we should be asked to tolerate someone saying ‘he has flaunted all the rules’ when but for a moment of ignorance they could just as easily say ‘he has flouted all the rules’.

“Someone saying” is a fused participle, a construction that later in the book Heffer condemns as clumsy and confusing. Following his own rule, he should have written “someone’s saying”.

Also in that sentence is a singular “they”, which he elsewhere calls “unacceptable”. Following his own rule, he should have written “he” (because “the male should be taken to include the female”).

Heffer flouts the very rules he flaunts; they take pride of place in his opinions but have a weaker hold over his actual usage. This is not a sign of his illiteracy, though: the sentence is good Standard English. It’s a sign that these rules have been artificially grafted on to the language and don’t really belong there.

If even the most determined professional stickler can’t keep usages like these out of his carefully written book on correct usage, it’s a sign that those usages are correct and the rules against them are bogus.

The exorcism of bogus rules is the purpose of Kamm’s book, and I commend it.

A ridiculously brief, outrageously selective and painfully simplified history of Standard English

Standard English is one of many dialects of English. It’s the dialect that public affairs, the media and administration overwhelmingly use, and is the one most associated with education, prestige and power. Here I’m looking at Standard British English, but many of the points apply in other English-speaking countries.

Standard English dominates public life but not private conversation: only a minority of English speakers (largely defined by class) use it with friends and family, although far more switch into it when the occasion demands. It’s important to be able to do this, because Standard English opens so many doors in life.

Because of its status, many people think of it as ‘proper’ or ‘correct’ English, and scorn those who speak other varieties. But as well as being rude, this is mistaken. If you say ‘I seen them books but I didn’t buy none’ in the company of other people who talk that kind of dialect, that’s fine. If you say it in a job interview at the BBC, you may have a problem. Your error is one of judgement, though, not grammar.

Non-standard dialects are perfectly ‘correct’ – on their own terms. In fact, they’re mostly the same as Standard, but of course what we notice is the differences. And where they differ, they do so according to their own rules – not a lax application of Standard rules, as snobs like to imagine.

For example:

  • Standard uses the possessive ‘my’ and ‘your’ to form the reflexive pronouns ‘myself’ and yourself’, but not the possessive ‘his’ and their’ to form ‘hisself’ and ‘theirselves’. Other dialects have a regular system that does use the possessives consistently this way.
  • Standard doesn’t allow multiple negation – ‘I didn’t want none’ – but most other dialects do (along with some other languages, but je ne sais pas how many).
  • Some dialects make much more use of flat adverbs (without the ‘-ly’) than Standard, such as ‘they talked real slow’.
  • Standard has varied verb endings – ‘you like’ but ‘she likes’ etc. – while other dialects may use the same form, whether ‘likes’ or ‘like’, across the board.
  • Some dialects use singular noun forms for plurals after a number – ‘they walked five mile’. Standard doesn’t, although it does something similar in constructions like ‘a five-mile walk’.
  • Standard has lost the old distinction between singular ‘thou’ and plural ‘you’, while some dialects maintain it. Others have developed new distinctions, using ‘you’ for singular but ‘youse’ or similar for plural.
  • Irregular verbs may differ in the past and perfect tenses. Standard says ‘I spoke’ but ‘I have spoken’ while Tyneside English says ‘I spoke’ and ‘I have spoke’. On the other hand, Standard says ‘I got’ and ‘I have got’ while Tyneside says ‘I got’ but ‘I getten’ (a relative of the old ‘gotten’, which still thrives in the US).

So in some cases Standard English draws more distinctions than other dialects, in other cases fewer. Some of its conventions are more consistent and some less consistent.

It also isn’t the same thing as formal language. Standard English can range from ‘The consequences of further inaction would be somewhat vexing’ to ‘You’d better get your skates on or I’ll be pretty pissed off’. Standard can be casual, idiomatic and obscene. That said, the situations in which it’s used are more likely to be formal.

The linguists’ label ‘Standard’ reflects status, not quality – and that status is the result of historical accident. So let’s race through a millennium or so… Continue reading

A fairy tale

Simon Heffer has written a historical fantasy:

heffer fairytale

This story needs, shall we say, a little clarification. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin… Continue reading

A test of grammar

The magazine Management Today recently published a grammar quiz and a list of tips by my friend Andrew Ingram (who runs Better Business Writing) and me. As MT’s readers are probably a bit less fascinated by this stuff than my blog’s readers are, here I’m reproducing the questions with a more extended discussion of what they mean.

The questions

1) “They decided to quickly recommend hiring her.”
Would you move the word “quickly” to somewhere else in the sentence?

2) “This was a collaboration between the London, Birmingham and Manchester offices.”
Would you change “between” to “among”?

3) “None of the people in that meeting are your friends.”
Would you change “are your friends” to “is your friend”?

4) “You can leave your coats and bags in our cloakroom downstairs.”
Would you change “can” to “may”?

5) “We have so much data that it will take a few weeks to analyse.”
Would you treat “data” as a plural?

6) “Someone older than me would expect to have been promoted by now.”
Would you change “than me” to “than I”?

7) “You’ll never guess who we’ve just recruited.”
Would you change “who” to “whom”?

8) “Anna and Bill wondered which of them would get through all their emails first.”
Would you alter “their” used this way?

How did you do? Continue reading

The whale fail

mwdeu2Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage is a great book. It’s a hefty, well-researched, non-dogmatic guide to usage debates past and present, and I rely on it a lot.

But there’s a typo on the front cover.

A bit embarrassing to get the name of the book (and the publisher) wrong, so prominently. And it is wrong: on the dust jacket and the inside pages, the hyphen is there.

This reminds me of another book with a hyphen problem: Moby-Dick.

Yes, Herman Melville’s book is called Moby-Dick, with a hyphen. But the whale in the book is called Moby Dick, without one.

Moby-DickNo one knows exactly why this happened. Melville changed the title (from The Whale) at a late stage in production, and perhaps a message got garbled or someone at the publisher’s put a typo on the title page of the first edition. Whatever the cause, the hyphen stuck.

My own theory is that the hyphen that should be on the cover of MWDEU fell through a freak wormhole in the fabric of spacetime and landed on the front of Moby-Dick.

Scraping the sky, raking the moon, tall tales and horseplay

Here are three facts that, taken together, have puzzled me for a while:

  1. Skyscrapers are so called because they are such tall buildings that they scrape the sky.
  2. Scraping is a kind of movement.
  3. Buildings do not move.

So what the hell’s going on?

The answer is that “skyscraper” had earlier meanings, more associated with movement. The OED’s first record of “skyscraper” to mean a tall building is from 1883. But its previous uses had included:

  • a ball hit high into the air (from 1866)
  • a tall man (from 1857)
  • a tall hat or bonnet (from 1800).

But the most common early use of the word seems to have been nautical, meaning a particular kind of sail placed at the very top of a tall mast:

Sky-scrapers. These sails are triangular… The foot spreads half of the royal yards (1794)

Four vessels hove in sight…with…royals and skyscrapers set (1797)

There were studding-sails set aloft and alow; royals, sky-scrapers, and moon-rakers (1803)

James Bond fans take note! Although it turns out that “moonraker” is older and ruder, dating back to 1767 as a term for the natives of Wiltshire. Apparently these witless bumpkins, seeing the moon reflected in a pond, would mistake it for a block of cheese and use rakes to get at it.

But the first known use of “skyscraper” is the name of a racehorse born in 1786. Skyscraper, owned by the fifth Duke of Bedford, won the Epsom Derby in 1789. He was the foal of a racer called Highflyer and later sired another called Skyrocket – all very tall and very fast.

Skyscraper seems to have passed into legend, because by 1826, his name was being used as a general term for a tall horse.

So, from equestrianism and seafaring, “skyscraper” became a byword for something tall. Then, in the late 19th century, when buildings were starting to shoot upwards in American cities, it came easily to mind.

Finally, there’s a more figurative use, to mean a tall tale:

My yarn won’t come so well after your sky-scrapers of love. (1840)

Aren’t words fun?

“Publicly” and “publically”

From time to time I see “publically” in copy. I’ve even caught myself typing it once or twice. It’s widely regarded as a mistake (although some dictionaries now list it as a variant spelling).

But the approved spelling, “publicly”, is a unique oddity. It’s the only adverb ending in “–icly” formed from an adjective that ends in “–ic”. Compare:

  • hectic – hectically
  • tragic – tragically
  • archaic – archaically
  • cryptic – cryptically
  • idiotic – idiotically

And so on. But “public” alone bucks the trend to become “publicly”.

At least, it does most of the time. In the GloWbE corpus (a record of language used on web pages archived in 2012), “publically” is about 6% as common as “publicly”. In the Google Books records, it’s below 1%.

People who write “publically” – whether through momentary carelessness or because they think that’s how it’s spelt – may be mistaken but they’re not stupid. They’re promoting regularity in the language. They’re like children who say “runned” and “buyed” and “bringed” because they’ve worked out the rule for forming past-tense verbs but haven’t realised that there are exceptions.

We get taught about these exceptions, though: there are over 100 irregular verbs, most well-known. But there’s only one “publicly”, so people are less aware of it as an issue and it appears in adult usage far more than over-regularised verbs.

I don’t know why “publicly” is unique, but Pam Peters notes that several adjectives have both “–ic” and “–ical” forms. Some of these pairs have pretty much the same meaning:

  • botanic/botanical
  • geometric/geometrical
  • monarchic/monarchical
  • poetic/poetical
  • rhythmic/rhythmical

Some are subtly different in meaning:

  • comic/comical
  • electric/electrical
  • lyric/lyrical

Others are more significantly different:

  • economic/economical
  • historic/historical
  • politic/political

Peters connects this to the adverb situation:

The parity of adjectives in -ic and -ical helps to explain why the adverbs for both types end in -ically. So, for example, the adverbs for organic and tragic are organically and tragically. Even though the -ical forms of the adjectives have long since disappeared, their ghosts appear in the adverbs. The effect is there even for adjectives which never had a counterpart ending in -ical. So barbaric, basic, civic, drastic and others become barbarically, basically etc., and it’s as if -ally is the adverbial ending for them. This has become the general rule for all adjectives ending in -ic except public, whose adverb is still normally publicly.

This is interesting, but it doesn’t tell us why the adverb forms settled as “–ically” rather than “–icly”.

So I looked at the OED historical citations for the 16 bullet-pointed examples above, and found that for 12 of them, the “–ical” form of the adjective pre-dated the “–ic”. This kind of suggests that, if these pairs were interchangeable at the time (1400s–1600s in most of these cases), the “–ical” forms may have been better established and so had a dominant position when it came to forming adverbs. Hence the “–ically” convention.


But this doesn’t tell us why “publicly” now stands alone. It did appear earlier than most of the other adverbs above; the OED’s first “public” is in 1394 and “publicly” 1534. So maybe it had managed to dig in by the time the “–ically” convention was blossoming? The OED has a couple of “publical”s (one in 1450, one in 1898) but they’re clearly rogue; “public” has always been the only accepted form of the adjective, and this fact may have pushed people towards “publicly”. (“Publically” doesn’t appear until 1797.)

A scrap of support for this theory comes from the fact that “publicly” hasn’t always stood alone. The now-dead “franticly”, which Peters mentions, used to be common. The OED’s first “frantic” was in 1390, “franticly” in 1549 and “frantically” in 1749; it has no record of “frantical”. The situation is very like that of “public” and its derivatives, except that “publicly” has managed to survive regularisation.

So far, at least.

Cock stars and unparliamentary language

mordauntThe Mail on Sunday reports that Penny Mordaunt MP used the word “cock” in Parliament as the result of a bet.

The alleged newspaper describes how she crafted a speech about poultry, supporting ”the cause of hen and cock welfare”.

Or, as they put it:

Communities Minister Penny Mordaunt said ‘c**k’ six times

I’ve often doubted the point of using asterisks for swearwords. The word still makes its journey from the writer’s head to the reader’s. The communication happens as normal because the intent is clear.

I suppose the usual reason is to protect any young children who might see it – but I wonder whether that really works.

In this case, writing “c**k” instead of “cock” seems doubly silly, and not just because it’s a fairly mild swearword. (You’ll note that they didn’t put “c***” – that is, they printed enough to make the word perfectly clear.)

The whole point of Mordaunt’s speech, and of any such innuendo, is that the word used is nominally innocent: a cock is a male bird. Nobody would censor that. But the Mail has decided that, because of Mordaunt’s secret intent while saying it, it cannot be printed.

So here, the Mail has judged that intent is reason to censor a word, but to do so in a way that leaves that intent clear. Daft.

In passing, I note that the article begins: “A female Tory Minister…” The Mail still thinks it necessary to point out that a woman doing a Proper Job is a woman, as if her name and the huge photo of her aren’t enough to make that clear. That, rather than a minor piece of parliamentary childishness or any amount of cockery, is what dismays me.

Physician, explain thyself: science English vs lay English

Doctors and scientists may be brilliant in their fields but some may not be great at communicating their knowledge to the rest of us. This is obviously important when doctors are explaining things to their patients, as it is when research scientists are seeking to engage the public with their work. To succeed, the experts need to tailor their language to a lay audience.

There’s a lot of good advice you can get on how to tell engaging stories about science, and on how to apply principles of clarity and coherence to scientific prose. But, like Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction, what strikes me most is the little differences between lay English and the English of biomedical science.

I’m going to talk you through a few of the things that I notice again and again as a copyeditor. Biomedical science is my patch, but some of these points will apply to any expert who wants to address an audience of outsiders.


Specialist terms are great among specialists, but they can make an outsider’s brain shut down. Everyone knows this, but specialists often underestimate how niche their own jargon is. If you and all your colleagues use a word every day for years, it becomes familiar and obvious. But that doesn’t mean knowledge of it has spread more widely.

For example:

  • A study in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine found that 79% of adult patients in a US hospital emergency department didn’t know that “hemorrhage” was bleeding; 38% didn’t know that “sutures” were stitches; 78% didn’t know that a “fractured” bone is a broken bone (sorry to say, nor did I!).
  • In the UK, the Wellcome Trust Monitor survey of the public found that 48% of adults felt they had a good understanding of the term “DNA” and another 37% some understanding. But only 12% felt they had a good understanding of “human genome” and 14% some understanding; 19% had heard of it but didn’t understand it and 52% had never heard of it.

Steven Pinker writes insightfully about this “curse of knowledge” and how to overcome it. The best trick is to show your writing to an outsider and see what puzzles them. Failing that, you should try to distance yourself from your writing when you review it, and err on the side of caution.

Unless part of your aim is to educate people about specialist terms, avoid them where you can by substituting general descriptions (“parts of a cell with specialised functions” instead of “organelles”) or common names, if they exist (“white blood cell” instead of “leukocyte”). Where you need to use them, introduce them with short, straightforward definitions – and then use them consistently.

The more terms you introduce, the more the reader will struggle – even if you explain each one clearly, newly learned words are harder to keep in mind than old, familiar ones.

I do not think it means what you think it means

Jargon can bewilder people, but they do at least know it when they see it. Potentially more confusing is when everyday words, used in well-known ways by most of us, are used in subtly or completely different ways by scientists (whether across the board or just in certain fields).

For example, in the context of communicating climate science, a paper in Physics Today lists several such words, including:

  • Scientists use “theory” to mean an explanatory framework, but the public use it to mean a hunch or speculation.
  • Scientists use “uncertainty” to mean the range of an estimate, but the public use it to mean ignorance.
  • Scientists use “positive trend” to mean an increase and “positive feedback” to mean a vicious circle, but the public use “positive” to mean good.

In the same vein, a report by the Royal College of General Practitioners cautions that while doctors use “chronic” to mean persistent, patients may think it means severe.

And a few that I’ve come across recently:

  • Scientists may use “determine” to mean influence, but it’s commonly understood to imply more complete control.
  • Scientists use “significant” to mean they’re confident an observation isn’t just chance, but it’s commonly understood to mean important or telling.
  • Scientists may use “fraction” to mean a part, but it commonly has a connotation of being a small part.
  • Scientists and doctors may use “insult” to mean biological damage or injury, but, as the common phrase suggests, insult and injury are widely understood to be different.
  • Doctors often use “trauma” to mean physical damage, but it’s commonly used psychologically.
  • Scientists use “factor” in several specific ways, but to most people it’s vaguer, normally meaning an aspect of a situation that contributes to something happening.
  • Biologists often use “fate” to describe the result of a cell’s development. I like the poetry of this, but for most of us, the word has strong connotations of inevitability and death.
  • Biologists use “analogous” to mean having the same function but a different evolutionary origin; ordinarily, it just means similar to.
  • Scientists may use “predict” to mean give information about or indicate, without the predicted thing necessarily being in the future – the word’s normal meaning. This might make sense from the perspective of a scientist who has yet to examine the predicted thing, but that can confuse lay readers.

Speaking of perspective…

Points of view

Scientists writing about their research in journals rightly take a scientist’s perspective. And science writers who want to tell a story about a scientist’s work can sensibly do the same, although in a different way.

But when the focus is on the subject matter of the science rather than the process of doing it, and when the audience is general, some verbal habits can carry over from journals in little ways – turns of phrase that make prose a bit harder for a lay reader to get into.

For instance, people with a medical condition might be called “patients” or even “cases”.

Being a patient is a limited role rather than an identity. For doctors, who see us in their professional capacity, we definitely are their patients. And we accept that. But after we go home or back to work, that role recedes. To be a patient is typically to be receiving treatment; just having a condition doesn’t quite cut it.

And “cases” is reasonable from an epidemiological point of view, but maybe not if those cases are your readers.

Then there are a few words that shift the perspective from the subject matter to the observations of the people working on it. Writing about “a child showing symptoms of flu” puts the reader in the shoes of the doctor to whom these symptoms were shown. Likewise “presenting” and “displaying”. If you’re writing about what the doctor saw and did, that’s fine. If not, try just “a child with symptoms of flu”.

In with the in crowd

Prepositions are slippery little suckers. These are the words that show relationships between things: on, in, near, under, about, before, during, of, from, to, by…

There are only a couple of hundred prepositions in English, which means they each tend to accumulate a lot of uses. The OED lists 63 definitions of “on”, not counting the archaic or obsolete ones. Which uses go with which prepositions is often arbitrary, and people speaking a second language can easily slip up (French “sur” doesn’t neatly match those 63 English “on”s).

I’ve noticed that in biomedical English, some of the preposition use is different from that in lay English. The biggest difference is with “in”.

I come across descriptions of treatments working in (not for) patients, studies in (not of or on) mosquitoes, drugs used in (not on or for or against) hypertension, bacteria that are deadly in (not to) mice…

Why is this? I think it may be perspective again. If you’re a scientist examining something (a patient, a mosquito, hypertension, a mouse), it may be natural to think of that thing as a container – figuratively or literally – of observable phenomena. So things happen in it. Maybe.

But to laypeople, this sort of language is unusual. It’s a small but distinct sign that a piece of writing isn’t meant for us. And if it is meant for us, that sign is a mistake.

In a similar vein, there are some differences in how articles are used.

Doctors and medical scientists often write things like “prospects for recovery after stroke” while most lay people would say “prospects for recovery after a stroke”. Likewise, compare “damage to visual cortex” and “damage to the visual cortex” (assuming that “visual cortex” isn’t too jargony).


I hope some of this might be helpful. If you have any thoughts on things I could add or change, please let me know in the comments.

Update: I want to stress that while I’ve focused on science and medicine, the problems of insiders talking to outsiders can pop up anywhere. The social sciences, humanities and arts have their own ways of using language. So do people in pretty much any line of work: rocket scientists and brain surgeons, managers and politicians, plumbers and hairdressers.

Has a mechanic ever told you what was wrong with your car while you nodded along dumbly and reached for your wallet?

For any organisation you might you work in, you and your colleagues will know more about it, and probably talk about it differently, than people who don’t (or new starters).

Even socially, if you tell someone an anecdote about a person or situation they don’t know, you may need to fill in some of the background for them to understand it properly.

And I suppose even language bloggers might use too much editing or linguistics jargon from time to time. Sorry about that…


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