Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Often Constrained

A common minor writing problem is the misuse of 'time' words like while, when, and often. Often is often used to indicate commonly or typically or in most/many cases, but often implies time and the other words don't.

In fact, I saw an example in a New York Times op-ed essay this week: ".. they are often elderly." Are these people elderly on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, or for certain hours of the day?

This is not the worst writing error in the world. If someone uses often to mean commonly, the reader knows what the writer intended to say.

(Mis)use of constrain is of a similar order of magnitude minor error. If you say that you (or your data) constrained something, everyone will know that you mean that you measured or determined something or that you have reduced the number of reasonable interpretations by figuring something out. Technically, however, constrain means to compel, confine, restrain, inhibit, or limit by force (physical force or more conceptual force). Even if you have wrestled (metaphorically) with your equipment, data, or graduate students to get a result, it is unlikely that you have constrained anything.

When I edit a manuscript written by someone else, my first priority is to make the text understandable. The extent of my editing depends of course on circumstance -- what is my role in this manuscript (editor, co-author, reviewer, advisor)?, is it better to provide advice rather than major edits (e.g., for someone who can learn from a general comment and make the necessary corrections)? does the author need help writing in English? have I edited this document before? how much caffeine have I had today?

In situations in which it is required or appropriate for me to be an active editor, I make corrections of minor things like often and constrain in manuscripts that need the most and the least editing, and I don't bother to make such minor corrections in manuscripts that need a medium amount of editing.

Why the worst and the best and not the middling manuscripts?

The worst manuscripts (in terms of writing, not content) need total rewriting, so I fix everything. The entire effort can take a lot of time, but it doesn't require additional time to fix the trivial problems.

The best manuscripts are a pleasure to read and edit. If, however, I see something not-quite-right, I can't help but fix it. I think writing/editing is the only thing for which I have some perfectionist tendencies, but I'm probably not the one to ask about that.

Manuscripts that require an intermediate level of editing are those for which I don't need to rewrite many many sentences and paragraphs and pages, but they may require a substantial amount of fixing of writing errors such as lack of subject-verb agreement, inconsistent verb tense use, misplaced modifiers, vague or ambiguous wording, lack of topic sentences at the beginning of paragraphs, or lack of parallelism of items in a list, like I just did in this list. If I have to fix things at that level, I let the minor problems slide as long as the meaning of the text is clear.

Some of my colleagues and students would probably disagree with this assessment -- they would likely say that I comment on everything, no matter how minor -- and in some cases that is true (but not as often as they may think).


Anonymous said...

love your blog

you're so smart

Anonymous said...

I have probably been guilty of these mistakes "often". No one has ever corrected me. Now I will be sure to "constrain" myself to use them properly.

Anonymous said...

The usages you describe may once have been erroneous, but I don't think that can be legitimately said to be true any more. For instance, the definition of often is:

1. Many times; frequently: He visits his parents as often as he can.
2. In many cases.

It doesn't seem that those definitions constrain the usage of "often" to cases related to time.

In any event, one of the great things about English (at least imho), is that there isn't a central authority which defines the validity of word usage in the way that L'Acadimie Francaise does for French. Basically, if the usage is common and understood, it's de facto correct (though some usages may carry additional--possibly undesired--information about the writer/speaker).

A case can be made that using the word "often" to connote something related to time is better writing, but it would be a stylistic case, rather than one which relies on rules. If someone were making that case, I'd make sure to point out that the second sentence of your post scans just fine, despite using "often" to mean frequently ;-)

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with you in the often example. If it had said: (s)he is often elderly, then it's definitely wrong. But because it says they, it can be talking about a probabilistic/statistical sample, and then the word often meaning frequency (yes, related to time, though not necessarily to one running at the same rate as your clock) is correct, isn't it? It's just like those games in which they have this dark container with balls inside and you stick you hand, pick one and see if you win. Often, contestants get one without a prize. I am not a native english speaker, but is that really wrong?

The one with constrain is harder, since you don't really say what the sentence said. However, I can see people writing that a lot in Physics papers. Maybe the data put an upper/lower boundary on a particular property of something. Say the emission line of an atom, could you say it is constrained to the infrared section of the EM spectrum?

Anonymous said...

I have edited manuscripts on which I am the corresponding/senior author that are so abysmally written, it literally causes me physical pain to wrangle with them. Sometimes the writing is so bad, it actually causes a net decrease in the amount of meaning present in the universe, like it's anti-matter of meaning.

Anonymous said...

It has been a great struggle in my own writing to replace "While" with "Whereas," as appropriate. I often still catch myself "while-ing" away in the original manuscript while proofreading, though...

Pagan Topologist said...

There are so very many of these. 'Impact' is not a synonym for 'affect' for example. Writing 'then' when one means 'than' is really annoying, too. Some people shorten words to complete gibberish, in my opinion. For example, there is no such thing as 'tinnitis,' although there is a condition called 'tintinnitis.'

Anonymous said...

That's not a good example of lack of parallelism, though it is a poorly written sentence for other reasons.

Isis the Scientist said...

My pet gramamtical peeves include use of the words "males and females." These are adjectives and I dislike the fact that they have weaseled their way into positions as nouns. Also, use to the word "gender" when we mean "sex" because we are afraid to say "sex" and use of the word "level" when we mean "concentration." I have been known to return papers to students when they being sentences with "Previous studies have shown that..."

sandy shoes said...

Sure, sure, erroneous uses of some words are eventually so common as to be accepted. That's how "unique" has come to mean merely "unusual," and not, in fact, unique. But "de facto correct" or not, it's not great writing. When I'm editing, I change these things.

Who was it said that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug? Or something.

Impact. Bah!

Anonymous said...

Good God!
"Often" and "commonly" can be translated as the same word in Russian. Of course, other words with more specific meaning exist but there is one which includes both.

Things are even worse for "constraint" and "restriction" - it's just one word in Russian with no synonyms.

I think it can be the case for other languages too.
Many non-native English speakers just can't tell the difference.

Anonymous said...

Years ago I received training to work as an editor in the campus writing center. They told us to always choose two or three things to focus on at a time, and ignore everything else. Importantly, this was a teaching context. The idea being that if you return a manuscript dripping in red ink, the student tends to lose track of any specific advice and just walks away with a general feeling of discouragement. We tried to keep things manageable for the students.

Amusingly, when the center director returned a paper to one of us that was covered in red ink, we were to take it as a sign that she considered us to be excellent writers and capable of handling heavy criticism.

Anonymous said...

Sure, sure, erroneous uses of some words are eventually so common as to be accepted. That's how "unique" has come to mean merely "unusual," and not, in fact, unique. But "de facto correct" or not, it's not great writing.

I agree completely, and the phrase "very unique" scorches my ears. But it's not wrong in the same way that lack of subject-verb agreement would be, and hence a question of style rather than correctness.

Style is important but it's ultimately subjective (though certainly in-bounds for what an editor or referee of a manuscript would want to consider/correct).

Anonymous said...

The NY Times is notorious for it's poor editing. I find grammar and semantic errors in articles almost daily.

The misused expression I hate the most - which has become so commonly misused that it is now considered legitimate - is "begs the question" in, She so routinely finds grammar errors in the NY Times that it begs the question, "Should the editors all be required to take a course in remedial English?".

-former philosophy major

Anonymous said...

The shift in the meaning of constraint has happened for a more involved reason - because "constraint" in a more generalised sense became a term of art in areas like "constraint solving" and a good many uses are intentional allusions to that. Doesn't it just suck when jargon uses become more commonplace than the originals?

Anonymous said...

anon 4:02, you wrote:"The NY Times is notorious for it's poor editing."
Shouldn't it be "The NY Times is notorious for its poor editing." though? It's=it is; its= pronoun

Very common mistake in the US. Drives me nuts. Same with principle investigator instead of principal (I saw that one even on an agency's forms!)

Anonymous said...

I'm editing student papers right now and running into this issue. The papers were handed in electronically so it's very easy to make changes myself. I'm trying to do that only for small things and to comment about the less trivial problems with their writing, but it's difficult. It does, however, make me feel like I may not be entirely useless as an editor. Typically I have a lot of trouble editing my own work and am in awe of my advisor's ability in this area, even though I know I'm a decent writer.

laura johnson said...

As a graduate student currently finishing up my dissertation, I feel like the most important thing an editor can do is provide meaning for an edit and provide at least some positive encouragement. The nit picky details will differ by person, but don't mean anything without proper explanation!

Anonymous said...

Slightly unrelated, but I'd love to hear
the views of FSP and other regular readers of her blog on this.

One of my manuscripts has just been returned from a journal for some technical revision.

On the writing/usage front, one referee report says:
there are some spell error like "specialisation", "initialise",
"standardise", which should be "specialization", "initialize",
"standardize". Check and fix them with spell-checker.

Another referee says:
Would you mind using American English such as "flavor",
"toward" (instead of "towards"), "finalized", "standardized"
etc. so as to keep the articles in the journal uniform?

I find this in bad taste. The paper is not inconsistent in spelling - it consistently uses European spelling. It has been submitted to an American journal, but it is not yet accepted. If, despite the technical revisions, it is not found acceptable by this journal, we may well decide to send it to an European journal. So asking us to change over from European to American (or the other way around) seems premature and uncalled for. In any case, this would be the task of the editors, not the referees, right?

Perhaps I should mention, at least the first referee found the paper acceptable. The second referee has given an overall recommendation of Reject. At least the first referee found the paper acceptable.

Often I make mistakes like the ones FSP has written about. But this *often* seems correct to me!


Anonymous said...

Standardization of spelling to American versus UK style will be done by copy editors once a paper is accepted. It is a waste of fucking time for peer reviewers to worry about this.

However, it is also lazy and poor form on the part of the authors to not spell correctly for the style standards of the journal the paper is being submitted too.

Anonymous said...

I don't think there's any ground whatsoever for the silly idea that 'often' implies time. And the idea that 'male' and 'female' aren't nouns is, frankly, absurd.

I'm very surprised to see scientists insisting on somewhat bizarre, groundless rules. You don't get to make these things up! Try doing some research. For instance, the OED gives a citation from Paradise Lost for the nominal use of 'male':

"Whence of guests he makes them slaves Inhospitably, and kills thir infant Males."

And there's a citation from 1382, and one from Mary Wollstonecraft, one from Swift, one from E. M. Forster. We're supposed to believe that these writers don't know the proper use of the word 'male'? None of them? Come on.

And on 'often', here's an OED citation from Willa Cather:

"There is often a good deal of the child left in people who have had to grow up too soon."

That's the usage that FSP decries. But what does the *evidence* tell us here? Are we just supposed to believe FSP, rather than Willa Cather?

Some people actually make a living making up rules of grammar or diction and insisting that other people are defective for not following them. But I expect real scientists to know better.

Female Science Professor said...

I had a feeling my main point would get lost in the details of my examples.

I still maintain, however, that saying that someone is 'often elderly' and the scientific equivalent of this phrase, is incorrect.

Anonymous said...

It's obviously wrong to say of a particular person that she is often elderly. But the expression "... they are often elderly" is fine. Compare:

"Minute area cracks are sometimes produced by the contraction; they are often more or less straight but in other cases a very perfect system of rounded fissures arises." (That's from the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on 'Obsidian'.)

That, I suppose, is true even though there are no particular area cracks that are sometimes straight and other times rounded.

I think this is something you were taught and have internalized, which is fine, but I think you are wrong when you say that other people's usage is mistaken. (Similarly for 'while', by the way.)

To put it succinctly: just because E. B. White says something doesn't mean it's true.

Unknown said...

Maybe it's a difference of field, but I generally see "constrain" used correctly: "These observations constrain the space of possible orbital parameters." Even where there's no explicit space of parameters, good observations constrain the space of theories that can be correct (say by forcing the neutron star's mass and radius to lie on or near a particular curve). Other observations might give nice tidy numbers with small uncertainties which are consistent with all the available theories - so the observations fail to do much constraining. (For example, most of the existing observational upper limits on the gravitational waves passing the earth are so high that they do not constrain any class of potential sources. The first ones that do have just started to emerge.)