Monthly Archives: November 2011

Links: The Faintest Ink

Every other week, this space is devoted to a discussion of things (articles, news items, or blog posts) that I have recently found interesting. I choose things that are connected—sometimes closely, sometimes only tangentially—to academic writing. Responding to other people’s ideas allows me to clarify my own thoughts and to draw your attention to other approaches to the issues central to this blog.

Most of my links posts come from the range of links that I archive during my daily reading. But this one instead comes from something that came up in class and that was then reinforced by some comments in my Twitter feed. In my thesis writing course, we were recently talking about the perils of not writing ideas down when first they strike. In fact, I was stressing the importance of doing more than just jotting down an idea. In most cases, we need to elaborate on the idea so that it may be useful to us later; that is, we need to explain how that idea might play out or why it might ultimately matter or how it relates to our own work. It can be a pain to stop whatever else we are doing when inspiration strikes, but I have learned that finding an old idea without any elaboration is usually a baffling experience. It seems to be human nature to imagine that our future selves will have tremendous recall especially concerning matters that are clear to our current selves. Do you ever find these sort of cryptic notes in your files? ‘This connects to an earlier idea expressed by the second speaker in the fourth panel: it’s a dichotomy’. I made that up, obviously, but have a look at your own conference notes. Chances are, they are full of obscurity (this?), references requiring context (second speaker? fourth panel?) and words that fail to convey any enduring meaning (dichotomy?). It can be a painful experience to find one of these inexplicable notes. Imagine yourself triumphantly concluding ‘it’s a dichotomy!’ and obviously thinking that this was a valuable insight. And maybe it was, but now you’ll never know.

While I was reflecting on this issue, I saw a tweet from @RohanMaitzen that summed this phenomenon up nicely: “Now, if I could only remember why the word ‘superfluity’ seemed so important to my Eugenides review that I got out of bed to write it down.” She later tweeted that she had remembered the significance of superfluity, so her story has a happy ending. Shortly thereafter, I saw the following tweet from @thesiswhisperer: “I had 3 great ideas for my new workshop ‘If the CV is dead, what should I do?’ but was at gym and didn’t write it down. damn.” (I’m not sure how her story turned out, although I have every confidence that her CV workshop was great.) I even encountered a discussion of this phenomenon on Mad Men. In Season Three, there was an episode called ‘The Color Blue’ in which Paul woke up—hungover and still at the office—remembering that he had had a great idea for a campaign but with no memory of what it had been and, more significantly, with no written notes. Peggy encouraged him to tell Don the truth, and he reluctantly agreed, expecting a full measure of Draper scorn. But Don surprised him: he wasn’t scornful, he was sympathetic. The only explanation for this unexpected burst of human kindness is that even Don Draper understands that ideas get forgotten if they aren’t written down. The Chinese proverb that Paul quotes in despair is the perfect expression of this idea: ‘The faintest ink is better than the best memory.’

So, unless you have been granted a freakishly good memory, make it your basic assumption that you won’t remember later what seems obvious to you now. Write it all down with an eye to your future self: make sure that you note whatever you will need in order to work with this idea in a week or a month or however long it is likely to be before you’ll have a chance to return to this idea.

Finally, some related links. Here is a helpful blog post from The Thesis Whisperer with some guidance on how to use a notebook effectively during your graduate study. The ProfHacker blog recently addressed how to make notes on the go. If you are more likely to take notes on a computer or mobile device, here is an overview of Evernote, also from the ProfHacker blog. And if all else fails, maybe the post-it watch will help you when sudden inspiration strikes.

Commas and Coordinating Conjunctions

I am going to start this discussion of commas by showing a simple pattern of comma use:

Some educators believe in using inductive methods in the classroom, and others maintain that a ‘top-down’ approach is more effective.

In this compound sentence, the comma separates the two independent clauses, indicating that we must read each one separately; the ‘and’ following a comma tells us that the next word (in this case, ‘others’) is the beginning of a new independent clause. The crucial issue here is the presence of a coordinating conjunction. A coordinating conjunction is strong enough to join two independent clauses with only a comma. There are seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, so, or, nor, for, yet. Only those seven words can give us the compound-sentence-with-comma pattern found in the above example. I have listed them in a way that approximately reflects the frequency of their appearance in this capacity. Obviously, these are words with many other roles to play in our writing, but I am speaking here of their use as coordinating conjunctions. We use ‘and’ and ‘but’ all the time; we use ‘so’ and ‘or’ often; and we rarely (outside of literary writing) use ‘nor’, ‘for’, and ‘yet’. We can also write them in a different order so as to get a mnemonic: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. The resulting FANBOYS, despite being a somewhat silly word—I confess to having spent a fair amount of time rearranging those seven letters in an attempt to find a more dignified term—is a handy way to check if a sentence can be punctuated as a compound sentence.

Now that we understand this simple pattern of comma use in compound sentences, we can look at some related comma errors.

One such error is the comma splice: the placement of two independent clauses together with a comma and NO conjunction whatsoever. Here is an example:

The simulation of physical systems is a crucial part of scientific discovery, experience shows that conducting this simulation precisely and efficiently is essential.

This type of error—which is relatively rare—can be easily fixed in a number of ways, including the simple addition of ‘and’ before ‘experience':

The simulation of physical systems is a crucial part of scientific discovery, and experience shows that conducting this simulation precisely and efficiently is essential.

What if we had attempted to correct this sentence by replacing the comma with an ‘and’? Note the ambiguity of a compound sentence without the comma:

The simulation of physical systems is a crucial part of scientific discovery and experience shows that conducting this simulation precisely and efficiently is essential.

Here it would be easy to read ‘scientific discovery and experience’ as a single phrase and thus miss the true structure of the sentence. Remembering that we always need a comma before a coordinating conjunction in a compound sentence will save us from this potential ambiguity.

Lastly, I would like to look at a related comma error that is very common: the practice of using commas to separate independent sentences joined by conjunctive adverbs (e.g., however, therefore, accordingly, finally, instead, nevertheless, specifically, thus) or transitional expressions (e.g., equally important, for example, in fact, on the contrary, on the other hand). Compare these two sentences:

Low levels of ROS are used in redox signalling reactions that are essential for cellular homeostasis, but high levels of ROS initiate an intracellular response that leads to oxidative stress.

Low levels of ROS are used in redox signalling reactions that are essential for cellular homeostasis, however high levels of ROS initiate an intracellular response that leads to oxidative stress.

The first sentence is correct, but the second one is not. Here is a corrected version of the second sentence:

Low levels of ROS are used in redox signalling reactions that are essential for cellular homeostasis; however, high levels of ROS initiate an intracellular response that leads to oxidative stress.*

In order to understand this distinction, we have to see the difference between ‘but’ and ‘however’. This distinction can seem opaque since the two terms have a similar meaning. However, we now know that ‘but’ is a coordinating conjunction, which means that it is strong enough to connect two independent clauses. Other words or phrases—such as conjunctive adverbs or transitional expressions—will fail at this particular task. Knowing that only coordinating conjunctions work in this sentence pattern and being able to remember the seven coordinating conjunctions (hence the value of the mnemonic, however lame) will allow you to avoid this particular type of comma error.

Let’s look at a final example of this type of error:

The design process of a UAV starts with a pre-specified mission agenda, consequently, following conventional design methods will lead to an airplane that is only suited to achieving the primary mission.

If you find that sort of sentence in your own writing, you can do one of three things:

1. Use a semicolon.

The design process of a UAV starts with a pre-specified mission agenda; consequently, following conventional design methods will lead to an airplane that is only suited to achieving the primary mission.

This is by far the easiest and most effective solution. The semicolon probably best reflects the close relationship that the original sentence was trying to create.

2. Use a coordinating conjunction to preserve the original sentence pattern.

The design process of a UAV starts with a pre-specified mission agenda, and following conventional design methods will lead to an airplane that is only suited to achieving the primary mission.

This solution is grammatically correct but may not retain the original meaning. In this case, for instance, replacing ‘consequently’ with ‘and’ is a clear alteration of the original meaning.

3. Use a period.

The design process of a UAV starts with a pre-specified mission agenda. Consequently, following conventional design methods will lead to an airplane that is only suited to achieving the primary mission.

This is probably the least effective solution. Although it is grammatically correct, it does not express the close relationship between the two parts of the sentence. In general, replacing these sort of commas with periods can lead to unnecessarily short sentences and thus choppiness.

In sum, understanding the proper use of coordinating conjunctions will allow you to construct correct compound sentences and will allow you to avoid problems with comma use preceding conjunctive adverbs and transitional expressions.

The next comma post will look at how commas are used as a way to cope with long sentences.

* Comma use after introductory elements will be discussed in a future post.

Links: Punctuating, Footnoting, Trying

Every other week, this space is devoted to a discussion of things (articles, news items, or blog posts) that I have recently found interesting. I choose things that are connected—sometimes closely, sometimes only tangentially—to academic writing. Responding to other people’s ideas allows me to clarify my own thoughts and to draw your attention to other approaches to the issues central to this blog.

Here is something from the Wall Street Journal on the future of punctuation. In this article, Henry Hitchings argues that punctuation usage has never been stable; to my way of thinking, such historical perspective is always more useful than lamentations for a prelapsarian state of linguistic consistency. But what I was particularly interested in was his suggestion that the current trend in punctuation is toward the representation of spoken English. He uses the dash as the ultimate grammatical expression of the way spoken sentences flow into one another. The semicolon, by contrast, isn’t something that we can render in speech: it is entirely an aspect of writing. If you do not regularly use the semicolon, consider whether this has anything to do with the way that you punctuate your sentences according to the patterns of spoken language. (On a related note, here is something fun from The New Yorker’s book blog on the interrobang and other non-standard punctuation marks.)

Here is something from Alexandra Horowitz in the New York Times on the future of the footnote. Horowitz concludes with the following spirited defense of digression: “Surely the purpose of a book is not to present a methodically linear narrative, never wavering from its course, with no superfluous commentary set off by commas. In my mind, footnotes are simply another punctuative style: a subspecies of parenthesis that tells the reader: ‘I’ve got something else here you might like! (Read it later.)’ What better thing? You get to follow the slipstreams in the author’s thinking at your own leisure.” What is fascinating to me is her matter-of-fact tone. She doesn’t appear to think that what she is saying could be considered controversial; instead she throws out the whole idea of linearity with an apparent lack of compunction. A footnote becomes another species of punctuation, another way of indicating that we have things to say that cannot be expected to fit into a linear narrative. Despite my background in academic philosophy—where the footnote is treated with the greatest respect—I was still surprised to hear such a wholehearted abandonment of linearity. (This is an important issue for me since ‘methodically linear’ may very well be what gets written on my tombstone.) Not that I am arguing against the footnote, of course, but I am suggesting that writers have to be responsible for the effect that their interruptions may have on the reader. We all need to develop an awareness of how others may read us in order to make useful decisions about how to interrupt ourselves, be it with parentheses, commas, dashes, or even footnotes.

Lastly, here is something from The Writing Resource blog on the use of ‘try and’; in this post, Erin Brenner gives a good historical and stylistic explanation, concluding that this usage is fine. I found this helpful since I’ve always wondered if the formulation was unacceptably colloquial. The Professor is In blog recently spoke about a related topic, characterizing the use of ‘try’ as an excess of academic caution. That caution, as we all know, is something that can be particularly strong in graduate students. I think there is also a simpler explanation for the use of ‘try': we use the language of anticipation early in the writing process. When we are drafting a paper, it is easy to write, ‘In this paper, I try to show …’. For most of us, it is harder to write in a first draft, ‘In this paper, I show …’. By the end, however, we have inevitably shown something, even if not exactly the thing we had ‘tried’ to show. We ultimately need to remove the language that indicates an aspirational state of mind. There are places in which the language of ‘trying’ is perfectly accurate, of course, but it is still a good idea to watch for unnecessary uses of this formulation. Since this turn of phrase so often reflects our state of mind as we begin a piece of writing, it can often be removed once we have actually done what we set out to do. By making that change, we offer the reader the most developed version of our prose rather than an earlier, more provisional version.