Welcome to our February 2016 newsletter: The beauty of language

Pet language peeves? We all have them. If you write about science or you edit someone else’s science writing, it’s easy to become jaded by the familiar hum-drum of involving key stakeholders, monitoring impacts and ensuring outcomes.

Sometimes you might feel like the battle has already been lost. But let’s not give up. Let’s not be complicit. Let’s forge on through the fog, shining our light, adding colour here, clarity there—simply by choosing good words.

Let’s show people the beauty of language.

We’d love your feedback via Facebook, Twitter or email.

Regards from the @EconnectTeam,

Jenni Metcalfe, Mary O’Callaghan (newsletter editor), Sarah Cole (on maternity leave), Jane IlsleyJay Nagle-Runciman and Melina Gillespie.


An impactful event

By Mary O’Callaghan

“Welcome to this event—which is indeed an event—unlike a weather event”, beganDon Watson at the launch of his new book, Worst words: A compendium of contemporary cant, gibberish and jargon.

It used to just rain, he said, but now we get a rainfall event. The wind used to blow but now we get a wind event. We come into this world now in a birth event, he partly joked.

From events, he progressed to impacts. The word ‘impact’ implies a collision, he said, yet this one word is used to refer to everything from asteroids to dandruff. Hot weather events are impacting bats, he said.

We laughed as we tried to visualise ‘impacted bats’. But, for this audience of language lovers, it was more a strangled sadly-this-is-my-world-you’re-describing whimper than a that’s-bloody-hilarious guffaw.

Why, he asked, with so many words to choose from, do we continually trot out words such as ‘event’ and ‘impact’? (Mind you, he didn’t stop at these two).

And “everyone is complicit, like Stalin’s Russia”, he said. “We don’t see language as worth defending.” A pair of gauntlets laid at our feet.

The stars must have been perfectly aligned that night, because the next morning I was asked to write a story about… extreme weather events and their impact on animals. Was someone having me on? No!

Paris, truffles and extreme weather – it’s all relative’, published by CSIRO on theirECOS blog, is my attempt at not being complicit, at defending the language.

I confess to using the word ‘event’ twice, as did the scientist quoted—in our defence, scientists need to count ‘weather events’ so that they can identify trends, so I get that a stormy weekend might comprise 3 storm events. But wherever this didn’t matter, instead of ‘event’ I wrote ‘extreme weather’, ‘dry weather’, ‘dry spells’ or ‘dry periods’.

One way to cut through abstract language and elicit strong verbs and nouns is to ask for examples. Here are some questions I asked to explore what constitutes an ‘extreme weather event’ for an animal and what the ‘impact’ on the animal might be:

  • Question: “Is there a species whose extreme weather limits we know?”
  • Answer: “… flying foxes… three days over 40 degrees and they fall out of the trees, dead.”
  • Question: “Can you give me an example of a species going beyond its normal range?”
  • Answer: “A small skink might exist within the 10–20 metres around it. It can go under a leaf or into a clump of grass looking for the microclimate that suits it.”

Strong nouns (days, flying foxes, trees, skink, leaf, clump) and strong verbs (fall) are music to my ears. They add colour, interest and lightness to our writing, making it easier for the reader to understand, and more enjoyable to read.

And the thing I love about scientists is that they never tire of questions—in fact, the more questions I ask, the more enthusiastic they seem to get. So I’ve learnt to keep on digging until I get what I need.

Words that paint pictures

By Jenni Metcalfe

Words that paint pictures in my mind resonate with me long after I have read them.

How many pictures come to mind when you read this:

“The strategic framework for action provides an overarching, national platform to guide future XXX policy and planning in Australia. It sets out key priority areas and five essential domains for innovation and reform to create an integrated, high-performing YYYY workforce.”

Source: Australian government department (name protected to hide the guilty)

Sentences like this leave me struggling to understand what the author means. I can’t visualise anything. My eyes glaze over and my head hurts.

With frameworks, arches and platforms, are they building a train station?

And all this talk of ‘stakeholders’. What are they? Activists storming our streets with placards strapped to sharp metal stakes? Carnivores who like a good barbeque?

‘Key’ is another weasel word that abounds. I mean, what are non-key priorities?


So, how could our nameless government department rewrite the sentences above to paint pictures?

Here are a few tips:

  • Illustrate abstract concepts, such as ‘strategic plan’, with examples (e.g. With our new plan, all Australian truck drivers will be able to connect to GPS in their cabs).
  • Avoid using words that mean nothing or add nothing, such as ‘framework’ and ‘overarching’. Use concrete terms (e.g. ‘bringing policymakers, scientists and farmers together to come up with ways of adapting to the changing climate in the Mallee farmlands of western Victoria’).
  • Delete words that don’t add anything (e.g. ‘key priority areas’ could be replaced with simply ‘our priorities’).
  • Be as specific as possible (e.g. Instead of saying ‘key priority areas’, list the names of the areas so we know what they are and can visualise them).
  • Delete all instances of ‘key’ and see if anyone notices. Failing that, try replacing it with ‘important’.

Academic journals accentuate the positive

By Melina Gillespie

Spectacular. Inspiring. Amazing. These are not words we’re used to seeing in academic journals.

Yet, a recent study has shown that exaggerated positive language is on the rise in medical papers.

Since 1980, the use of positive words in the abstracts of published medical articles has increased from 2% to 17.5%, the study found.

The positive words most often used in the abstracts studied were ‘robust’ ‘novel’, ‘innovative’ and ‘unprecedented’, but adjectives like ‘astonishing’, ‘bright’ and ‘remarkable’ were also found.

Dry, jargon-heavy text abounds in many scientific papers, and any form of exaggeration is rare; if anything, there’s a lack of commitment.

What is driving this change in the way scientists write? Are they trying to attract more readers by using more colourful language?

Or is the ‘publish or perish’ culture of science influencing their choice of words—a belief, perhaps, that more positive results increase the chance of publication and funding?

Making scientific articles easier and more enjoyable to read has to be a good thing, as long as the language doesn’t influence the way people perceive the results.

Don’t leave your participles dangling

By Jay Nagle-Runciman

‘Based on’ is possibly the most common term in scientific papers. It bugs me.

Not just because it’s overused. But because often it’s used incorrectly, creating what grammarians call a ‘dangling participle’.

A participle is a verb that acts on the subject noun of the sentence.

If a participle is at the start of a sentence, it must refer to the subject.

Let’s look at some examples:

  • Based on exhaustive testing, children cannot control the wind as they suppose.’ Are children based on your exhaustive tests?
  • Based on our findings, ancient pygmies probably were more virile.’ Are pygmies based on your findings?

3 tips for avoiding dangling participles, from the Council of Science Editors:

  • Use the present form of the participle: ‘Basing their conclusion on exhaustive testing, researchers found that children cannot control the wind.’
  • Use the noun form of the verb: ‘On the basis of our findings, ancient pygmiesprobably were more virile.’
  • Don’t start the sentence with a verb.

For more on participles, check out the classic tome The elements of style, and the more contemporary Council of Science Editor’s online style guide.

Quote of the month

“Malcolm Turnbull has shown us how much we’ve missed language. But will people vote for a Prime Minister who speaks in whole sentences?”

Don Watson, at the Brisbane launch of his latest book, Worst words: A compendium of contemporary cant, gibberish and jargon, 2015