Some miscellaneous notes about writing

Words and Phrases (with a focus on science-y stuff) – Correct and Incorrect Usage:
(‘Usage’ is, I think, badly over-used where ‘use’ is perfectly adequate – but this is maybe a place where it is the correct word…)

1. ‘Species’ is both singular and plural when referring to a type of organism (‘specie’ is coinage)

2. ‘Data’ and ‘media’ are both plural.  A single bit of information is a datum.  One mode of communication is a medium.  ‘Hypothesis’ is singular; the plural form is ‘hypotheses’.  The plural of ‘octopus’ is hotly debated; there is an argument that it is ‘octopodes’, but I will not be upset if you use octopi or octopuses.   I may be a pedant, but there are limits…

3. References are ‘cited’, not ‘sited’.  A site is a location (or ‘site’ can be a verb meaning to place something in a location.  Neither is to be confused with ‘sighted’ (although you might sight a site, or cite a sighting).

4. When something catches your fancy (a nice archaic term…), your interest is ‘piqued’ not ‘peaked’ (at least when referring to the thing that caught and stimulated your interest initially).

5. And, of course, ‘affect’ and ‘effect’: ‘affect’ is usually a verb meaning ‘to influence’ (“Temperature affects germination rate.”). ‘Effect’ is most commonly a noun (“Temperature has an effect on germination.”). But both can play the other part of speech in particular circumstances. ‘Affect’ as a noun means ‘appearance’ or ‘physical manifestation of mood’ (“His affect suggested suppressed anger.”).  ‘Effect’ as verb means ‘to bring into being’ (“The threat effected a change in her behavior.”)

6. Don’t say ‘based off of’; use 'based on' where you are referring to a basis for something (prepositions are tricky things; think carefully about which makes most sense or gives greatest efficiency of statement).

7. ‘Accurate’ and ‘precise’ do not mean the same thing.  Accuracy concerns the correctness of a measurement; precision refers to the degree of refinement of the measurement.  “It was 2.0 cm long”, and “it was 2.003 cm long” report measurements of differing precision, but we know nothing about their accuracy.

8. ‘Predate’ is something you do with a check or a letter when you want the recipient to think you wrote it earlier than you actually did.  It is not what lions due to wildebeests.  They ‘prey on’ them.

 9. ‘Less’ is for quantity or amount of something that doesn’t come in discrete units (and 'discreet' means something else). If the thing you’re reporting comes in quanta, say ‘fewer’.  You might have less light, but fewer leaves. Confusingly, ‘more’ works as the opposite in either case, but ‘much’ is to ‘less’ as ‘many’ is to ‘fewer’.

 10. The whole thing ‘comprises’ its parts; all of the parts, together, ‘compose’ the whole thing.  These two words are very frequently confused.  The project comprised four sections; the study was composed of four sections.  “The study was comprised of four sections,” means what?

 11. ‘Which’ and ‘that’ are also often confused, and are among the trickiest of such word pairs.  If the phrase being introduced simply gives more information about something that’s already fully specified (and often feels like it should be set off by commas), you should probably use ‘which’ (and the phrase is usually optional).  If the phrase in question provides information that’s essential to the meaning of the sentence or specification of the subject, ‘that’ is likely more appropriate. 

 12. Subjunctive mode is probably dying, but I like it. ‘If’ statements (implied or explicit) should use the subjunctive ‘were’ rather than ‘was’ (“If climate were to change in the predicted manner…”).

 13. ‘i.e.’ means ‘that is’ (literally, id est) and precedes an explanation or clarification; ‘e.g.’ means ‘for example’ (exemplia gratia)  and is followed by an example(!).  Or maybe better, avoid confusing the two by not using them at all and writing ‘that is’ or ‘for example’.

 14. ‘Hopefully’ means ‘full of hope’, not ‘I hope that…’.  “Hopefully, it will rain tomorrow,” means, literally, the weather will be full of hope when it rains tomorrow.  “I hope it rains tomorrow” is what you probably mean.

 15. ‘Enormity’ does not mean ‘something that’s enormous’ or ‘the quality of being enormous’.  It’s a noun that means something that is monstrous, evil, outrageous. 

 16. ‘Thus’ and ‘therefore’ are unnecessary more often than not. Therefore, think twice about using them.

 17. ‘Alot’ is NOT A WORD. Allot is a word, but it means something else. ‘A lot,’ meaning many, is TWO words.

 18. If you start a list with ‘for example,’ do not end it with ‘etc.’ or ‘and so on’. ‘For example’ already implies that the list is incomplete.

 19. Some of the basic rules – the grammar -- of scientific (Latin) names:

-          The Latin (Linnaean) ‘binomial’ – the combined genus and species names – should always be italicized.  Homo sapiens.

-          The Genus name should be capitalized (Homo) but the species name (specific epithet) is not (sapiens)

-          Names of higher taxonomic entities (families, orders, phyla, etc.) are capitalized, but no italicized.

 20. A point is moot if it’s no longer relevant or of little consequence; it’s not mute (although ‘mute point’ sort of seems like it could have that meaning…)

 21. ‘Theory’ and ‘hypothesis’ can be confusing terms in science.  Don’t get hung up on the distinction; they are essentially equivalent.  If you want to differentiate, think of a ‘theory’ as a hypothesis (or, often, a body of linked hypotheses) that has been around for a while and has been extensively tested.  But it’s still really just a hypothesis, if one that we place relatively more confidence in.  (And, yes, it’s okay to end a sentence with a preposition if that’s what works best…)

22. Their, they're, there. Plural possive, contraction of  'they are', location -- in that order. PAY ATTENTION TO HOMONYMS, and don't let your autocomplete function make you look silly

More General Things:

 Use passive voice only when it’s the only logical way to say what you mean; active voice is easier to read and is usually less awkward and less ambiguous. “Don't use the passive voice,” is better than “The passive voice should not be used.”

             Use first-person voice when appropriate (when you are talking about something you did, thought, decided).  The notion that scientific writing should be in third-person is out-dated and espoused mostly by primary and secondary science teachers.  Most professional journals now strongly encourage first-person, and they should, because it’s easier to read and more engaging.

 Keep related words together; otherwise, modifiers can be ambiguous. “He found only two mistakes.” is better than “He only found two mistakes.” (‘Only’ is one of the most commonly misplaced words in this context.  James Thurber pointed out that, “He only died last week,” means that that’s ALL he did last week.  That might be true, but the intent was probably to convey that, “He died only last week.”)

Verb-subject agreement can be tricky when you have multiple subjects in a sentence. “The abundance and distribution of organisms constitutes the principle subject of ecology,” is grammatically wrong.  Figure it out!

Be careful about unspecified pronouns.  If you start a sentence with a vague ‘it’ or ‘this’ (“This reduces biodiversity.”), I am likely to use my ‘unclear antecedent’ stamp.

            When do you hyphenate two words to make one?  My rule is, if you find yourself using a noun to modify another word (noun or adjective, usually), you're probably missing a hyphen: e.g., "Could San Francisco also be susceptible to liquefaction induced landslides?" seems clumsy because liquefaction is a noun modifying an adjective.  Use "liquefaction-induced" so that it's clear that what's being modified is 'landslides'.

            Apostrophes seem to be misused with increasing frequency. Do NOT use them to make plurals, despite their frequent abuse in this respect on signs.. Apostrophes (not apostrophe's) indicate either possessive form OR a contraction. An apostrophe followed by an 's' creates a singular possessive; for a plural ending in s, just put the apostrophe after the s.  "The student's grammar was excellent," might, I hope, apply to you individually. "The students' grammar was excellent," would be appropriate in the (unlikely?) case that you all used apostrophes correctly.  "Grammatical usage by the students was excellent," would mean the same thing (with no apostrophe), even though it sounds a bit stilted.  The EXCEPTION: the possessive of "it" is "its" (no apostrophe), because "it's" is a contraction of "it is".

            It’s easy to use more words than required.  If they don’t add to meaning or make the sentence easier to read, simplify (unless you are too taken with the rhetorical effect of your florid prose; just be cautious about letting elegant phrasing turn into turgidity…).  Typical examples of usages with superfluous words:
- “The reason he did it is because...” =  “He did it because...”
- “The flower is colored blue.” = “The flower is blue.” (Unless you need to be clear that you don’t mean it smelled blue.)     
- “a multiple number of factors” = “multiple factors”
- “whether or not” = (usually) “whether”
- “is indicative of” = “indicates”
- frequently, prepositional phrases can be collapsed: “I plan to study the fields of biology and chemistry” = “I plan to study biology and chemistry.”
- be cautious about ‘that’ as a conjunction; it’s often a path to unnecessary wordiness: “The ‘ecological niche’ is a concept that integrates ideas about competition and natural selection.” = “The ‘ecological niche’ concept integrates ideas about competition and natural selection.”

And so on.  Keep it simple.