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Want to brush up on your Latin before your trip to Latin America? Funny question, right? No one uses Latin anymore! But interestingly, we still use Latin expressions. For example, the abbreviations e.g. (exempli gratia) and i.e. (id est) are abbreviations for Latin terms that are often confused.

For example, a student writes the following sentence:

                        Mass transport is dictated by how quickly a substance (i.e., water) can
                        adsorb and desorb from the electron double layer (EDL) interface.
Because i.e. was used, the reader understands that water is the only substance the writer is referring to--not oil, or alcohol, or any other substance. If on the other hand, the writer wanted the reader to understand that a variety of substances, including water are possible, then he/she would choose e.g. Think of i.e. as meaning "in other words," or "that is to say," and e.g. as meaning "for example."

Here are two more examples.

                        Critics (i.e., Prince William and Prince Harry) say that Camilla Parker
                        Bowles packs the stylistic punch of Yorkshire pudding.

This sentence indicates the specific critics are Prince William and Prince Harry.
                        Critics (e.g., Prince William and Prince Harry) say that Camilla Parker
                        Bowles packs the stylistic punch of Yorkshire pudding.
This sentence indicates two critics are Prince William and Prince Harry, but there are more critics. These are provided as examples of the pool of critics. (Aside: I think of the two sentences, this second one is more valid.)

Notice the use of a comma after i.e. and e.g. in the sentences. This is recommended by most style guides, including the Chicago Manual of Style.

Apostrophe Song

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One of the most common grammatical errors is the apostrophe. Eileen Thorpe even wrote this song about it to help clarify when to use it.

Apostrophe (Oh Christmas Tree)
by Eileen Thorpe

Apostrophe, apostrophe
You drive me oh so batty.
Apostrophe, apostrophe
Your overuse is a travesty.
Some people just can't get enough
They must think you're hot stuff
Apostrophe, apostrophe
Some rules to avoid catastrophe.

It's hers and theirs and yours and its
when you want to possess a bit
And when you need to pluralize,
You don't need to apostrophize.
And what of words that end in esess?
An apostrophe will only make a mess's.

I wonder why you so confuse
I'm sure you're tired of this abuse.
Apostrophe, apostrophe
You drive me oh so batty.

The apostrophe (') is used to show contractions, to show plural forms, and to show possession (ownership). Most people use the apostrophe correctly when forming contractions and showing plural forms. The problems usually occur when showing possession.

Here's a quick review:
1. Singular nouns usually show the possessive case with 's (a manager's office).
2. Singular nouns ending in s may form the possessive by adding either an apostrophe alone or 's. The latter is preferred, and is the one you should adopt (a waitress's uniform or a seamstress's alteration).
3. Note this exception: singular proper nouns that already have two "s" sounds at the end add only an apostrophe (an example using a name: Moses' or Jesus').
4. Plural nouns ending in s add only an apostrophe to form the possessive (the students' papers, the Joneses' house).
5. Plural nouns not ending in s add the apostrophe and s (the children's room).
6. With word groups and compound nouns, add the 's to the last noun (my son-in-law's) to show possession.
7. To show individual possession with a pair of nouns, use the possessive with both (Mary's and John's presentations).
8. To show joint possession with a pair of nouns, use the possessive with only the latter (Mary and John's presentation).
9. Apostrophes also indicate missing letters: can't.
10. Sometimes apostrophes indicate the plural of letters, numbers, and words: mind your p's and q's.
11. Apostrophes show possession but some personal pronouns, like "hers" and "its," have the possession built-in.
12. A word about plurals: Hyphenated compounds are pluralized on the noun portion (editors-in-chief, sons-in-law). Plural possessive compound expressions are usually more clearly expressed with a prepositional phrase (presentations of the editors-in-chief).

It can be tricky, but to figure out if something should be possessive, try to express it as an "of" clause. For example, Mary's book is the book of Mary. If you have this meaning, you know it should be in the possessive form.

If you see a mistake out there like the one I found with this city grocery store, send me the photo. I'd love to hear from you.

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Because it's the week of love--Valentine's Day was Monday--let's have some fun with these two words: only and love. Watch what happens to the meaning of a sentence when you move ONLY around.

ONLY I love you!
No one else loves you. Not even your mum!

I ONLY love you! 
In other words, I don't like you, hate you, or feel confused by you. My emotion is only love toward you.

I love ONLY you!
I don't love anyone else. I don't even love my mum.

Notice that ONLY is a modifier in this sentence.  Modifiers are adjectives or adverbs that limit the meaning.  The placement of ONLY can change the meaning of the sentence, so it's important to pay careful attention to it for clarity. It's best to place ONLY immediately before what it limits (or modifies). If anyone ever told you that you have a misplaced modifier, it's probably because you didn't put the modifier immediately before the noun or verb you wanted to limit.
Now use this little grammar lesson to improve your love life! 

Seattle 6.jpgIt's always important to give proper credit by citing your sources. Generally, in academic writing you will be following the author and date format inside parentheses. Yet you may have already introduced the source, and want to refer to it again in another sentence later in your paper. You can use what's known as a verb of attribution to connect the source material to the statement. Below are common verbs of attribution.

                         acknowledge, add, admit, advise, agree, allow, analyze, assert,

                         believe,  charge, claim, comment, compare, concede, conclude,

                         consider, contend, criticize, declare, describe, disagree, discuss,

                         dispute, emphasize, endorse, explain, express, find, grant, illustrate,

                         insist, interpret, list, maintain, note, object, offer, point out, reason,

                         refute, reject, reply, report, respond, reveal, see, show, speculate,

                         state, suggest, suppose, think, write

These verbs are also useful for non-academic citing. Think about it: magazines and newspapers use sources, but you never see them inside parentheses. Here's an example from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on January 14, 2011.

Fruit flies show how to simplify computer nets
By David Templeton,

And you thought the fruit fly was just a pesky little insect that likes rotten apples.                           

Actually the fly, or at least its nervous system, has inspired a better way to organize and operate computer networks, especially wireless sensor networks.

Ziv Bar-Joseph, a computational biologist at Carnegie Mellon University, was studying the fly when it struck him that its nervous system of hairlike structures that allow it to feel and see was not only doing what computer networks try to do but did it more simply.

A study by Dr. Bar-Joseph and five co-authors, published today in the journal Science, reveals that the fly's nervous system serves as an efficient model for organizing numerous cells to operate in unison to accomplish prescribed tasks. The group used that knowledge to write a computer algorithm, or program, to better operate computer networks.

Read more:


Notice the bibliographic information of the article written by Dr. Ziv Bar-Joseph is given, but it's within the text of the article, and it doesn't include the actual name of the article in Science. However, a reader with an interest could go and find the specific article in a library if he/she wanted to. And what better library could you got to than the Seattle Public Library. Hence the photo I took during my trip to the AMS Conference last week. (It's all about the photo!)

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Grab your sunscreen, your books, your blanket--and the correct lie/lay verb and catch some rays on the Hub Lawn.

But what is correct? Should you say, "I'm going to lay out in the sun," or "I'm laying out"?

Or should you say, "I'm going to lie out in the sun," or "I'm lying out today"?

I bring this up because recently it was a discussion in my house. Recall to lay means to put or place, and to lie means to rest or recline. Therefore the correct expression, although not used often, is "I'm going to lie out in the sun," or "I'm lying out today." According to the youngest family member in my household, "everyone says 'I'm laying out,'" and to say otherwise, "sounds stupid."
I won't argue that this verb causes a lot of confusion. Perhaps it's because the present tense of to lay is the same as the past tense of to lie. Here's a table with the correct forms of the verb.

Verb        Present        Past        Present Participle    Past Participle
to lay         lay               laid             laying                          laid
to lie          lie                lay              lying                            lain

The substitution method is the best way to select the correct verb when choosing between lie/lay. If you mean to put or to place, use lay. If you mean to rest or to recline, use lie. If you're good with direct objects, know that to lay requires an object to complete the meaning and to lie does not require one. If you heard someone say, "she don't know nothing," you would recognize it as being incorrect. To the educated ear saying, "I'm laying out today," sounds just as bad as "she don't know nothing."

Communication occurs only if the audience understands the message in the way you, as the writer intended--but how can you tell if your reader is likely to understand? 

Gobbledygook and bafflegab abound in technical writing. As scientists, it's easy to think that the job of writing technically clear and easily understood prose isn't as important as possessing the know-how to get the job done. Yet scientists spend a lot of time communicating (some studies suggest that at least 30 percent of each day), and often have to write to a variety of audiences including other scientists, co-workers (some who may not have technical backgrounds), researchers, policy makers, and others.

Consider report writing. Your primary audience is often the managerial decision-makers, but you also must include the secondary audience of production personnel, and maybe even a tertiary audience of marketing employees. Outside of your organization, you may also be engaged in writing persuasive messages to gain support and funding for your work. It's easy to see how crucial the ability to write clearly and forcefully helps improve your productivity.

Because you're often faced with how to tailor a message to a specific audience without compromising the quality of the technical information, it would be nice to be able to gauge just how readable your document is. It's tough not to assume that your reader is as familiar as you are with your material.  So how do you measure how easy or difficult your message is to read? This is the purpose of scientific readability formulas.

And there are many! For example, there is the Dale-Chall, the New Dale-Chall, the Flesch-Kincaid, the SPACHE, and these are only a few. Some are available online for purchase and can be downloaded to your computer. Each is designed to analyze the words and sentences in your document and produce a readability score.
There's also an easy one that you don't have to purchase, can use easily, and provides you with a quick assessment of your document. It was designed by Robert Gunning, and is found in The Technique of Clear Writing.  It's often referred to as the Fog index. Here's how to calculate it:

The Gunning Fog Index (or FOG) Readability Formula

Step 1: Take a sample passage of at least 100-words and count the number of exact words and sentences.

Step 2: Divide the total number of words in the sample by the number of sentences to arrive at the Average Sentence Length (ASL).

Step 3: Count the number of words of three or more syllables that are NOT (i) proper nouns, (ii) combinations of easy words or hyphenated words, or (iii) two-syllable verbs made into three with -es and -ed endings.

Step 4: Divide this number by the number or words in the sample passage. For example, 25 long words divided by 100 words gives you 25 Percent Hard Words (PHW).

Step 5: Add the ASL from Step 2 and the PHW from Step 4.

Step 6: Multiply the result by 0.4.

The mathematical formula is:

Grade Level = 0.4 (ASL + PHW)


ASL = Average Sentence Length (i.e., number of words divided by the number of sentences)

PHW = Percentage of Hard Words

The FOG gives a snap-shot look at your document's readability. For general readership, and those who are not technically inclined, the ideal score for readability is a FOG of 7 or 8. (The numbers correspond to grade level; here, it refers to the seventh or eighth grade.) Anything above 12 is considered difficult for many people to read. For instance, academic papers average around 15-20; magazines, like Time, Newsweek, and the Wall Street Journal average around 11; and many small town newspapers average around 6 to 8.
The FOG reportedly has an 80 percent correct outcome. Yet many limitations to readability formulas exist, and human judgment should override simplistic views provided by flawed quantitative results. Shorter and simpler sentences, for instance, reduce the Fog index but may not actually make the document more understandable. If you compute the index and find an outcome incompatible with your intended audience, go back and review your word choice and sentence construction. However, be careful not to write just to the index. In other words, contemplate the delicate balance, and look for ways to revise toward a style that is more agreeable to your reader.

Of course, because you're scientist, after you revise it, you'll want to measure it again!
By the way, can you guess what the FOG is for this article?

(ANSWER: 9.0)

1. Gunning, Robert. 1968. The Technique of Clear Writing, pp.38-39. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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