Tomorrow morning it will be Thanksgiving Day. Of course I have pretty much no idea what this all means, but for sure nobody does any work. So I have been squeezing in some extra work tonight in a late night drifting kinda way, roaming around the ADS. I just found a fascinating paper. As I skimmed the abstract however, my teeth began to grind, as I came across the phrase “..we might expect these sources to be heavily extincted quasars..” Aaaggghh !!!! “Extinct” is an adjective. There is no verb “to extinct”, so things can’t be “extincted”. Yeah, I know “extinguished” isn’t quite right either, as it sounds like something wiped out rather than heavily reduced. But you can’t say “extincted”. There is no such word. You just have to find a different way to say it. Seeing it in print is even worse … what was the editor doing ? Of course I know I should relax; language evolves, often by just such incorrect extrapolations; and maybe enough people are using “extincted” now, in both astronomy and evolutionary studies, that it has become de facto a correct useage. Correct grammar (and spelling) is wotever the peepul say. But please … can I have this one just a bit longer ??
Anyhoo. Flame off. Your turn. Astro Pet Hates. Could be scientific, grammatical, or political, as long as there is a Connexion Astronomickal.
No astronomical connection there, but there is one I hate and yet have to live with every day – datumming the mechanisms. I’m sure it’s in our manuals, instructions and web pages but there’s no such verb and I always hate having to tell someone to “datum it”. They know what I mean though.
Well I think I’ll get use to extincted, since extinction in this context is a bit of scientific jargon, and we are a small enough community with good communications, so it could quickly become a verb. So you are an old fuddy duddy who needs to get into the 21st century. Nevertheless I bet you are also a trendy who uses magnitude as a property of objects, when originally it was a unit, measuring brightness: you can’t say what is the metre of the Sun and so shouldn’t say what is the apparent magnitude of the Sun, rather what is it’s brightness in apparent magnitudes. I’m sure there are some people who attend RAS meetings who flinch when they hear magnitude used incorrectly.
I do nevertheless have trouble with ‘comprises of’, seen frequently enough in astronomical papers.
One of the great things about the English language is its willingness to change, adapt and evolve. There is no official body dictating what we can do and the dictionary merely reports on accepted usage. The whole process is wonderfully democratic – or perhaps anarchic – and allows us to invent words on-the-spot. If a new word or usage can be understood, and people like it, it becomes the norm. To Delia something may sound odd, to boldy go may split infinitives, greengrocers use of apostrophe’s could be better, and I’m never confident about my use of commas. None of this really matters though as long as it is clear what is meant. To those that want the language to be fixed, I look forward to reading your next paper written in Shakespearean verse.
Having said all that, I do wince slightly when I see people write “the data is”. I know I have to get over that though.
*shudder* I feel your pain Andy. It’s not “jargon”, it’s just bad language. My pet hates come up more in talks than in written English: “this is how it looks like” (no. no. it’s wrong), “let’s discuss this offline” (that’s more irritating management speak than wrong I suppose), excessive use of “in terms of” (plain fugly).
The problem when working in a non-English speaking country is that people don’t understand idioms and expressions, and I end up talking the same pigeon English as they do. Aaagh!
Hi. I’ve been reading this blog for a few months now (since finding your knockabout comedy with Laurel Kornfeld).
One example I as an interested layman find genuinely confusing is the use of ‘photoevaporation’ in connection with molecular clouds. Given that the stuff being evaporated is already mostly a gas, what does it mean? Is there a phase change (ionisation?) or not? Or is it thermal escape? Light pressure? Or what?
There are lots of examples that set my teeth on edge in the popularisation of astronomy, mostly to do with anthropomorphisms, e.g. that a brown dwarf is a ‘failed’ star – no, it wasn’t trying to be anything, it just is what it is.
Turning to my Chambers dictionary, I find under the heading for extinct :
“- adj extincted ( Shakesp ) extinguished.”
If it is good enough for our immortal bard then it should be good enough for the extinguished professor. Sorry, distinguished. Or maybe distincted?
To quote the great Calvin, “verbing weirds the language.”
The one that sets my teeth on edge is abuse of the word “decimate” which means “to take or destroy the tenth part of”, i.e. to reduce by ten percent.
A recent STFC press release states “This reduction in PDRAs, whilst deeply regrettable, will not cause the decimation of physics departments as has been speculated in media reports ..”
Which is exactly wrong.
ESO press release language. You start off with bizarre metaphor – A claret-coloured cloud with a massive heart, say – mix in a few more, season with ‘crucial’, ‘unique’ and other important words, but make sure and include plenty of astro jargon just to make sure nobody really understands. As a daring finish, include a graph that no one who isn’t actually a coauthor will really appreciate.
*** telescoper wrote: The one that sets my teeth on edge is abuse of the word “decimate” which means “to take or destroy the tenth part of”, i.e. to reduce by ten percent. ***
Doctor Who boss Russell T Davies made a great reference to this in the Season Three finale when The Master ordered his forces to decimate the Earth’s population. The script left just enough time for some of us at home to start grumbling before adding the line: “Reduce them by one tenth.”
Sarah : that will be pidgin English rather than pigeon .. but I wouldn’t want to go through your comment with a fine toothcomb…
Telescoper : should have known you’d be more erudite than the rest …. yes, although most dictionaries have no entry for “extinct” as a verb, the bigger ones do, stating that it is an archaic form of the verb “extinguish”. not in use since the 16th century. This of course must be why people use “extincted” today : in fact they are the fuddie duddies, regretting these eighteenth century neologisms ?
Why invent a new word or revive a very old one when surely the phrase “heavily obscured quasars” conveys the meaning?
My pet hate is 3am in the morning on the 2nd night of an observing run when I sit there thinking “why the hell did I become an Astronomer?” while sitting watching the exposure time slowly counting down the seconds until I can get some sleep.
“Pigeon” and “pidgeon” are perfectly valid alternative forms of “pidgin” according to Chambers.
I don’t know if “extincted” carried on in America after it died out in England but I suspect it was reinvented by people who didn’t understand the relationship between the parts of the verb extinguish. It’s quite interesting to note that many things we think of as Americanisms are in fact constructions that were in common use in England in the 16th or 17th Century. The past participle “gotten” is an example.
Divergences in the evolution of language are really interesting. How is it that our word “eventually” means a different thing to the french eventuellement or the italian eventualmente? Likewise, I remember once on a trip to the USA being rather alarmed when it was announced that the plane would be landing “momentarily”.
Andy : Is “a fine toothcomb” your attempt to wind us up? (or wind up us as Churchill might have preferred).
My pet peeves… both common in meetings on the continent…
– Talks where the “bow” in “bow shock” is pronounced as in “bow and arrow”
– “Analysis” pronounced with the stress on the Y, giving you “anal-eye-sis”
I’m happy to be a source of comedy and entertainment for you. See, Andy, my comments actually draw traffic to your blog.
As for “astro pet hates,” well, you asked for it. There is no such thing in English as a “compound noun,” ala the IAU’s term “dwarf planet.” That is a noun modified by an adjective regardless of what the IAU says. A dwarf planet is a planet. In eight months, I expect the IAU to correct this egregious error or risk becoming irrelevant and ignored by virtually everyone.
I’m with Sarah on management speak, in particular the ‘discuss this offline’ comment.
I really, really hate that.
Once, when it was suggested that I discuss something ‘offline’, the questioner and I continued the conversation via email.
er..no such thing as a compound noun?
what about “car park”, “post office”, “fruit juice”, “printer cartridge”, “fish tank” or even “dwarf rhododendron”?
But I’ll grant you that a dwarf rhododendron is still a rhododendron.
If the IAU really cannot think of anything better to do in the intervening 8 months, it really would deserve to be ignored by virtually everyone.
A pet hate of mine is the use of the word “times” as a verb, as in “times it by five”, or “times both sides of the equation by x”. Seems almost universal among students these days, in the UK at least.
This can lead to such horrors as “timesing fractions”…
To Telescoper: The examples you give as “compound nouns” are still technically nouns modified by adjectives. Fruit juice is juice made from fruit (and yes, there is juice made not from fruit but from vegetables or from various chemicals); a printer cartridge is a specific type of cartridge designed for a printer; a fish tank is a “tank” for fish; a car park while it may not seem like a park in the traditional sense, is an open area (park or parking area) designed for cars (as opposed to bicycles or left as a preserve); a post office is an office for sending mail aka postage. Think of it; would you say fruit juice is not juice or a printer cartridge is not a cartridge? That’s what the IAU does in stating that a dwarf planet is not a planet.
The eight month reference specifically refers to the General Assembly in August. At that GA, if the IAU cannot or will not admit they messed up with the 2006 planet definition, they deserve to be ignored. It’s better to admit being wrong than to dig themselves a deeper hole.
Here is one more grammatical gripe related to astronomy: the term plutoids. The “oid” suffix means “like”; humanoid means like a human. By calling Pluto a plutoid is the IAU saying Pluto is like itself? What about the fact that plutoids are supposed to orbit beyond Neptune? That would mean that for the 20 years of its orbit during which Pluto comes within the orbit of Neptune, it temporarily stops being a plutoid.
We’re going digression unstable again. More pet hates please.
Kevin : yes, “obscured” does the trick nearly all the time; but unfortunately X-ray astronomers sometimes use it for absorption by gas whether or not there is any accompanying extinction by dust.
Galaxy Map looks pretty cool by the way !
From seminar/conference speakers on a very regular basis….. “So, how does the black hole/galaxy/star look like?”
“WHAT does it look like?” or “HOW does it look?” but please not both.
I know it’s a translation thing, but I still wince every time!
Pet peeve in grant/telescope applications: “constraining the parameters” or “significant new constraints.” This word in all its forms tells the reader essentially nothing, and almost always means that the applicants have not actually figured out whether they will answer any interesting question definitively.
Although its extensive use does simplify the assessment process considerably: just get the computer to count the number of times N that the letters “constrain” appear in each application, and rank them with the smallest value of N at the top.
How silly of me to think that “car”,”fruit”, “post”, “fish” and “printer” were nouns.
If we are doing annoying words, the most overused one must be “paradigm” which people just seem to use as a posher / cleverer-sounding version of “model” as far as I can tell.
In Philosophy of Science 1Ah we used to sing
“If Paradigms were half as nice
As models that Kuhn takes me too
Then who needs Paradigms
I’d rather have Kuhn”
You may now date me.
Andy: Good for you. This is nothing to do with becoming a Grumpy Old Man; or if it is, i was born as one. The great thing about English is that rules can’t help you: you just have to learn The Right Way To Do Things (alternatively, there are rules, but they have no logical connecting thread). In a way, it’s just about aesthetic sense: if someone says they don’t think Mozart is great art, you can pity them, but you can’t expect to convert them. Similarly, many astronomers seem forever excluded from the happy state in which English is a thing of beauty, and yet don’t know it. Examples that seem peculiarly bad in astronomy include:
* Confusion of “likely” and “probably”. “This theory is probably correct” is fine, but “This theory is likely correct” is ugly beyond belief. It should be “This theory is likely to be correct”. At least one never sees the complementary swap “This theory is probably to be correct”.
* Random hyphenation. Is it so hard to say “high-redshift galaxies are at high redshift”? Too often you get “these galaxies are at high-redshift”. Better no hyphen at all than one in a silly place.
Another pet hate: structured abstracts in Astronomy & Astrophysics, split into
Aims, Methods and Results.
They are clumsy, ugly and completely unnecessary. If a professional astronomer can’t write a short, concise paragraph to sum up their paper then, frankly, they should ask someone else to write it.
Bah, humbug etc…
pet hates – how about most EU-speak? management-speak with most of the meaning removed
(although I did like this phrase in an FP7 document: “surfacing the virtual landscape”)
In my view “extincted” is a perfectly acceptable extrapolation which is not ambiguous in astro context
the usage of “decimate” to mean (loosely) something more drastic than killing one in ten seems to be firmly acknowledged by all the on-line dictionaries I could be bothered to consult
erm, no offence Andy, but you are not really my type.
‘Management speak’ is creeping into our vocabulary and it makes me shiver. Something that I have found myself saying far too often recently is ‘going forward’. Grrr!
I also hate it when people say things like ‘we must tension A against B’ or ‘appropriating tensioning’. I do not care if it is correct usage, it just sounds poncy and lazy. Find a better way of saying it.
i wonder if some of the creep is to do with efforts to fit things like grant proposals within strictly defined limits. ‘Management speak’ often has the advantage of being brief even if it does sound vacuous…
Decimate does indeed tend to mean more than to reduce by 10% in modern usage, but its still somewhat unforgivable when someone claims that a reduction of 10% is not decimation. In a situation like that, use a better word.
Well, compared to the management-speak being forced down our throats by my university’s administration all this is pretty tame. I especially dislike the term ‘stakeholders’. Images of vampire-hunters… One of the worst examples was during a recent rebranding exercise where we were told that the ‘brand’ would be uniform across the university in order to “ensure a threaded journey for the stakeholders”. Gaaaah!!!
A bit recent and technical, but I really hate the newly-coined (by non-native speakers) term for a possible class of active galaxies which change their optical spectra from Seyfert 1 to Seyfert 2 or vice versa: these are described as “changing-look AGN” or to speak about a particular example: “the changed-look AGN …” – Yeuch!!!! I wonder if anyone has had the heart to tell them that this sounds awful to native speakers (at least to this native speaker!). I suppose it does the job but I wish there was a better term, as it’s pretty non-specific.
Hmm, or maybe it was their X-ray spectra. I told you it was non-specific…
So, what’s a better single word for “those who have a direct interest in a matter, so might reasonably expect to be consulted when decisions are being taken,” Phil?
In the instructions for some software that I recently wrote I was careless enough to instruct users to “orientate the phone”. I console myself with the thought that even if this is wrong, it’s standard enough in British English and I’ve only shown myself to be ill-educated to my American users, though this is pretty much all of them. Still, it was refreshing to get a complaint from a user about my grammar rather than because I’d crashed his phone.
Why is it necessary for the phone to be facing east?
So Peter how often do occidentate your phone ?
Not as often as I forget to take it with me.
But at least my orientation is not in doubt.
Mike, true, but also I don’t think it would have been so distracting in meaning to refer to ‘students and staff’ since that pretty much encompasses everyone. But what did people use before ‘stakeholder’ came into such general use? I think it used to be more specifically confined to business but as management-speak it has leaked out into the public sector and it sounds to me to be too impersonal when applied to something like a university. But that’s what management-speak does, it reduces all enterprises to the same dull-grey and businesslike status. And like newspeak, management-speak ends up changing the way people think about organisations so they *appear* to be the same, as if they really are, even when there are significant differences in ethos or purpose. Another recent pet hate is ‘fit for purpose’….thanks to John Reid for that one getting a bit too much of an airing.
Just as well — speaking into the earpiece and listening to the microphone is a recipe for disaster.
I think your argument cuts both ways, Phil — universities are businesses, and if we try and maintain the delusion that we do not have to operate within the same basic rules as any other business, we won’t be doing ourselves any favours. Equally, though, we have to keep fighting the good fight that all businesses should fight, to remind their administrators that administration is not the primary purpose of the enterprose.
Although I agree that universities need money to operate, our primary purpose is not to make money, but to teach and do research – a not too subtle difference between universities and other businesses. We do of course need to persuade whoever is funding universities (research councils, higher education funding councils, industry, etc) that we are worth funding and that what we do has value. I would, however, argue that the primary way to do this is to make sure that our teaching and research is done as well as we possibly can. What I believe is not considered is how we achieve this. Do we improve our teaching and research by putting more pressure on academics (as I suspect the current funding style will do), or by giving academics more freedom. I don’t know the answer to this, but I certainly feel that we may be allowing administrators to impose rules and regulations on academics that may actually hinder our ability to be good teachers and good researchers – rather than help – and hence ultimately make it more difficult for us to get the money we need to operate effectively.
Of course we should do our research and teaching as well as we can, just as Honda should make cars as well is it can and Sainsburys should sell cans of beans as well as it can. The fact that our motivation is somewhat different does not alter the fact that all of these enterprises (if you don’t like the word “business”) need to run in a fiscally and managerially competent manner.
The ultimate source of most of our funding is the public, and, sadly for some, gone are the days when one could simply put ones hand out and say “trust me, I’m an academic.” If you want public money, you need to demonstrate your competence to spend it, and that requires administration.
My main objection to university admininistration is not that it exists, but how second-rate it generally is. University administrators tend to competely lose sight of the fact that administration is a means not an end, and never do their accounting properly when figuring out the real cost of their latest brilliant idea in terms of the amount of time academics waste over it. Mind you, that seems to be true at all levels of academia — just take a look at the RAE, for example.
In some sense I agree with most of what you say, in particular the last paragraph about administrators not considering the real cost of their decisions. This was partly what I was aiming at. We spend public money and so should do so as wisely as possible. We therefore have to have an administration whose role it is to manage how we spend our money, but we shouldn’t spend so much on the administration (I include here the cost of academics doing things that are ultimately unnecessary) that it compromises our core functions. I hope this fits under the heading of Astro Pet Hates – it’s certainly becoming one of mine.
Getting back to astro pet hates…
I contend that there’s no such thing as the English language, nor any other language. There is only communication. If you communicate without errors, it’s right. If not, it’s wrong. Beyond that, there’s no such thing as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ grammar.
Nevertheless, when I examine a thesis, I correct every comma spice and every misplaced apostrophe and any other deviation from the conventions of Standard English. This isn’t because these things are wrong, but because the objective is clear communication. My astro pet hate is PhD or MSc theses with deviations from Standard English. I once had a thesis with over a hundred misuses of its/it’s.
This reminds me of a former astro-annoyance of mine. I used to be bothered about people with strident views on the possibility of exo-life. Surely with such little evidence to go on, one should be agnostic? But after a string of inaugural lectures on this topic at the Open University, I’ve changed my view. I contend that not only is there no life elsewhere in the Universe, there’s no life on Earth.
This is because people who try to define ‘life’ are chasing a shadow. There is no magic spark or quintessence separating the living from non-living; there is only complex organic chemistry. The argument over whether viruses are ‘alive’ is rendered pointless. And who knows what varieties of complex organic chemistry there could be elsewhere in this vast Universe?
Steve, my mum, who was the modern Mrs Malaprop, once said to me “Son, do you think there is Life somewhere else in this University ?”
Right. Prizes. Telescoper gets the prize for quickest use of dictionary. Mike Watson gets the spoilsport of the week prize. Steve “St Etienne” Warren gets the pedant of the year award. And, as usual, Laurel Kornfeld gets the Scary Obsession prize.
Scary obsession? This is what I get after a reader publicly acknowledged that my comments brought him to your blog??? How about some gratitude? 🙂
Too late for the prizes, but here are my two pet hates:
(i) People who use the phrase “cosmic variance” to describe any spatial sampling effect;
(ii) People who know that there is a confusion in the literature between Eddington bias and Malmquist bias, and, so, think they’d better reference Eddington (1913) to appear knowledgeable, even if they’re not really sure which they are dealing with in their own data.
Also too late for the prizes, but what has me regularly spitting blood, and plotting crippling 3am rejoinders, is the vile anacoluthon of ‘data are’. We’re speaking english, dammit, and ‘data’ is a mass noun. Hrumph.
The word “data” can be a plural noun or a mass noun depending on the context. I think if you refer to a specific set of measurements then it is clearly a plural noun, so “these data indicate” is right and “this data indicates” is wrong. If one measurement is important then it can be expressed as a “datum”, consistent with this form.
However, the phrase “we have very little data” seems perfectly reasonable to me, with “data” here standing for an unspecified and unbounded collection of entities like, e.g., “furniture”. In such cases is is clearly singular. Most dictionaries accept both usages as do most style guides.
If ‘data’ can be both a plural noun and a mass noun, then it’s unique in english as far as I can think.
Also, if ‘data’ were plural, then the question *’how many data do you have?’ could be answered with a pure number: not ’10 bytes’ or ’10 points’, just *’I have 10 data!’ That sounds _very_ weird to me, like someone speaking english as a foreign language.
I think there are many examples of nouns that can be either a mass noun or a count noun. “Whisky” can be a mass noun (there’s whisky in my glass) but it can also be a count noun (two whiskies please), but data is unusual because of the plural form of its count noun form in its use as a mass noun. But what about “media”?
I think the answer to your question would sound strange because it is a strange question to ask. “How much data do you have?” is much more likely to be what you want to know. This needs an answer with some measure attached because it is using “data” as a mass noun, the way you like it. But if you ask “how many data do you have” it simply means “how many givens do you have?”. The answer would then be simply a number as you say, but this seems to me to have a very limited range of applicability as the context implies detailed knowledge of the form of the data. In most uses I can think of the question would be “how much” rather than “how many”.
Ask a silly question,…
I think the whisky/whiskies example doesn’t work, because in the first case, you’re talking specifically about the liquid, and in the second case ‘whiskies’ is a metonymic reference to the _glass_ containing whisky, and thus refers to a different thing.
This of course links to your second paragraph, where you distinguish ‘data’ as the raw material of scientific enquiry and ‘data’ as ‘givens’ (as a past participle, this is probably how ‘data’ entered english). While I certainly agree with that example, I doubt that anyone would actually use ‘data’ to mean ‘givens’ in this way; certainly, if I saw it in someone’s draft paper I would come close to physically assaulting the author^W^W^W^W suggesting they reword this to something more straightforwardly intelligible.
I suspect Andy may be about to buzz us for deviation (from the point, that is). In case he does, I’ll point towards , which is the (admittedly slightly bad-tempered) result of a bit of three-in-the-morning frothing at the mouth. I do like a good hobbyhorse – tally ho!
All the best,
I don’t want to split hairs with you, otherwise I’ll be here until my hair goes grey.
…and we haven’t even started on angels/pinheads!
[…] Meanwhile, over on the e-astronomer, Andy Lawrence recently posted an item about the lamentable tendency of astronomers to abuse the English language. The focus of his venom […]
Hi Andy et al.,
My favourite gripe is the “inappropriate” use of quotation marks. And when I say “favourite” I do mean “favourite”, because even the most banal sentence or phrase can be rendered joyously absurd by the application of those little “scratch-marks”. A superb example was an awful “greasy spoon” cafe near Melbourne University which had “HOT” FOOD painted in two-foot high letters on the sign outside. (Although maybe they were just trying to be honest and had inadvertantly put the quotation marks around the wrong word.)
[…] contributing to a discussion on the e-astronomer, which subsequently evolved into an extended exercise in pedantry here, it struck me that many […]
The problem with ‘decimate’ is that people are looking for a suitable word to express a dramatic reduction of the poulation in question. In its original usage, the quantity was arguably less significant than the method of reduction – the killing of every tenth soldier in a Roman army unit. If the Romans had decided, say, to flog nine out of ten, instead of topping 10%, there’d be no problem. It’s all their fault.
Duncan – you’re a busy commenter last two days ! Welcome. Anyhoo, you are just right. Decimation was a pretty drastic process, and its that
drasticness drasticality drastickyhoodnastiness that sticks to the word in the mind. This is often how words evolve I think, by bundles of concepts attaching themselves and some clinging on better than others.
As Archimedes said: “Give me where I may type, and I shall comment on good blogs.”