A zoo of Latinistic abbreviations have crept into academic English: ‘e.g.’, ‘i.e.’, ‘cf.’, ‘viz.’, ‘ibid.’, ‘op. cit.’, ‘n.b.’, ‘et al.’

They are frequently mispunctuated. Most commonly sighted are ‘eg.’, ‘ibid’, ‘et. al.’, even ‘et. al’. They are frequently misused: ‘cf.’ to mean ‘see’; ‘e.g.’ to mean ‘i.e.’ But none of that matters, as they should all be generally avoided.

Several have English equivalents that are everywhere superior: ‘for example’ or ‘for instance’ for ‘e.g.’; ‘that is’ for ‘i.e.’; ‘compare’ for ‘cf.’; ‘note that’ for ‘n.b.’; ‘namely’ for ‘viz.’ The specialized abbreviation ‘et al.’ should be restricted to the technical use in shortening lists of authors in a reference. ‘N.b.’ can be dropped, since you typically want your reader to “note” pretty much everything in your paper. Those used for back-reference to citations, ‘ibid.’ and ‘op. cit.’, ought to die an unapologetic death given the use of a reasonable citation style, viz., author-date.

I have an inordinate fondness for ‘viz.’ Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.

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Why the serial comma helps, and why it’s not sufficient

I came across the following perfect example of the importance of the serial comma, in a ProPublica article describing a problematic data leak:

The story prompted a leak investigation. The FBI sought to obtain my phone records and those of Jane Perlez, the Times bureau chief in Indonesia and my wife.

Under the serial comma convention, the phrase “Jane Perlez, the Times bureau chief in Indonesia and my wife” describes a single person under three descriptions — a proper name, a professional post, and a personal connection. With the extra comma, “Jane Perlez, the Times bureau chief in Indonesia, and my wife” would describe three distinct people.

Unfortunately, since it’s not clear whether ProPublica always follows the serial comma convention, the version without the extra comma is ambiguous. (I even looked for a ProPublica style guide that might clarify their house style on the matter.) For that reason, when I first read the sentence, I actually could not easily determine whether the one referent or three referent interpretation was intended. The solution for the careful writer: Always use the Harvard comma where appropriate, and in cases such as the above, rephrase the sentence to disambiguate:

The FBI sought to obtain my phone records and those of Jane Perlez, who is the Times bureau chief in Indonesia and my wife.

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When copy editors make things worse

“Besides getting more data, faster, we also now use much more sophisticated learning algorithms. For instance, algorithms based on logistic regression and that support vector machines can reduce by half the amount of spam that evades filtering, compared to Naive Bayes.” (Emphasis added.)

— Joshua Goodman, Gordon V. Cormack, and David Heckerman. 2007. Spam and the ongoing battle for the inbox. Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery, volume 50, number 2, page 27.

[Update 4 June 2011: I’ve commented further on the benefits and pitfalls of copyediting, with discussion of this example, here.]

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Running on parentheticals

A common source of run-on sentences is the inclusion of a parenthetical full sentence at the end of another sentence, for instance,

This is an example (there may be others).

This construction is always wrong. Separate the two sentences, as

This is an example. (There may be others.)

or coordinate or subordinate the two, as

This is an example (though there may be others).


This is an example (and there may be others).

The following is not correct:

This is an example (however, there may be others).

“However” is an adverb, not a subordinating conjunction.

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MS Word defects

Writers using MS Word tend to make certain standard errors in their typesetting. For instance, they use hyphens instead of em-dashes (ctrl-alt-hyphen or option-shift-hyphen). Mathematical typesetting is especially bad. There is essentially no way to typeset mathematics well in MS Word. The best solution: LaTeX.

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For a while, I’ve been meaning to comment on the “that”/”which” controversy, the claim that “which” should not be used with restrictive relative clauses, nor “that” for nonrestrictive. From a linguistic point of view, it seems clear that this view is descriptively barren. Geoff Pullum provides a convincing and entertaining argument on Language Log, based on the sentence “The key point, that all the popular reports missed, is that FOXP2 is a transcription factor…”. The rarity of sentences like these, in which “that” is used for a nonrestrictive relative clause, leads Pullum to refer to it as “ivory-billed”.

I suppose, and am happy to stipulate for the purposes of discussion, that the use of “which” for restrictive relative clauses and “that” for nonrestrictive (or supplemental, as Pullum prefers) is grammatical. Nonetheless, the overwhelming preponderance of occurrences of “which” for nonrestrictive clauses means that the use of “that” in that context is much more likely to give pause to the reader, a kind of cognitive setback. For that reason, a charitable writer (and shouldn’t we all strive to be one of those?) ought to use “which” for nonrestrictive relative clauses — not because it is “wrong” to use “that”, or ungrammatical, but because the use of “that” is likely to be jarring to a significant fraction of one’s readers. (And I don’t only mean the Fowler-type prescriptivist readers, though I suppose there’s no reason to be jarring them needlessly either.) An excellent point of evidence is the fact that Pullum had to ask the author directly which meaning he had intended in the ivory-billed sentence; had he used a “which”, no clarification would have been needed.

In the particular case of the sentence quoted above, there is no concomitant advantage to using “that” over “which” that would compensate for the negative effect of jarring or confusing the reader. Thus, its use should be prescriptively deprecated. (This issue of compensation allows me to avoid proscriptions against splitting infinitives or dangling prepositions, the slavish following of which leads to circumlocutions and semantic errors. Avoiding these negative effects clearly compensates for the oh so very slight jarring effect on some small fraction of true-believing Fowlerians.) By a similar argument, the use of “which” for restrictive relatives should be deprecated as well in formal writing.

What I am arguing is that even though the language does not enforce the distinction between nonrestrictive and restrictive in terms of “which” versus “that” (and commas versus none), respectively, there is still a good reason to write as if it did. There was nothing wrong in the quoted sentence even under the intended interpretation, just something infelicitous.

Am I trying to have my cake and eat it too? To be able to rail prescriptively while keeping my linguistic descriptivist moral stance? Yes.

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Three styles for writing a paper

Different people have different styles for overall organization of a technical paper. There is the “continental” style, in which one states the solution with as little introduction or motivation as possible, sometimes not even saying what the problem was. Papers in this style tend to start like this: “Consider a seven-dimensional manifold Q, and define its hyper-diagonal as the ….” This style is designed to convince the reader that the author is very smart; how else could he or she have come up with the answer out of the blue? Readers will have no clue as to whether you are right or not without incredible efforts in close reading of the paper, but at least they’ll think you’re a genius.

Of course, the author didn’t come up with the solution out of the blue. There was a whole history of false starts, wrong attempts, near misses, redefinitions of the problem. The “historical” style involves recapitulating all of this history in chronological order. “First I tried this. That didn’t work because of this, so I tried this other way. That turned out to be stupid. Then I tried this other way….” This is much better, because a careful reader can probably follow the line of reasoning that the author went through, and use this as motivation. But the reader will probably think you are a bit addle-headed. Why would you even think of trying half the stuff you talked about?

The ideal style is the “rational reconstruction” style. In this style, you don’t present the actual history that you went through, but rather an idealized history that perfectly motivates each step in the solution. “We consider the problem of XXX. The obvious thing to try is X. But such-and-such a pithy example shows that that fails miserably. Nonetheless, the example points the way naturally to solution Y. This works better, except for such-and-such an obscure case. We patch solution Y to handle this case, forming solution Z. Voila.” Of course, the author doesn’t tell you that he came up with solution Y before solution X, which only occurred to him after he came up with solution Z, and he skips solutions AB, and C because, in retrospect, they are nowhere on the natural path to Z, even though at the time he was completely convinced they were on the right track. The goal in pursuing the rational reconstruction style is not to convince the reader that you are brilliant (or addle-headed for that matter) but that your solution is trivial. It takes a certain strength of character to take that as one’s goal. But the advantage of the reader thinking your solution is trivial or obvious is that it necessarily comes along with the notion that you are correct.

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James Pryor’s Guidelines

I’ve just discovered James Pryor’s “Guidelines on Writing a Philosophy Paper”. Despite the ostensible limited goal of the guidelines, they are much more broadly applicable than just to philosophy papers. I especially like the characterization of readers as “lazy, stupid, and mean”.

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Running on howevers

People seem to fall prey to adverbials like “however” and “rather” seducing them into running on sentences.

This type of approach has been used in previous models, however, the presented algorithm adopts a different foundation.

But these words are not conjunctions, subordinating or otherwise. They are adverbs, like “on the other hand” or “unfortunately”. The following is, presumably, clearly infelicitous.

This type of approach has been used in previous models, unfortunately, the presented algorithm adopts a different foundation.

By the same token, so is the sentence with “however”. It is easily corrected:

This type of approach has been used in previous models; however, the presented algorithm adopts a different foundation.


This type of approach has been used in previous models. The presented algorithm, however, adopts a different foundation.

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In email, neatness counts

Email messages should be treated as personal letters. You wouldn’t write a handwritten letter with misspellings, would you? Or a typewritten letter in which you didn’t bother to use the shift key? Then you shouldn’t do that in an email. Doing so implies to many readers that you don’t respect them enough to bother with such “niceties”.

On a related topic, by convention, words in all caps in email messages are to be read as if the author were shouting them. This is typically not the intended interpretation. According to RFC 1855:

Use symbols for emphasis. That *is* what I meant. Use underscores for underlining. _War and Peace_ is my favorite book.

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