English grammar in US - reply

J. E. Runyon jrunyon at NYBG.ORG
Thu Jun 27 10:58:21 CDT 1996

     I was going to sit back and observe passively, but I now think I'll
     pipe up as the resident editor/nonscientist on this list. By way of
     introduction: I edit botanical journals and monographs. My background
     is literature and writing, but as I go along I'm accumulating little
     bits of scientific knowledge and big bits of admiration for what
     scientists do.

     As far as double negatives are concerned, I agree with Gena, who said:

     <<If some one says "it don't make no difference"--you understand
     exactly what they mean.>>

     In oral expression I would. And if someone wrote that, I would chalk
     it up to bad grammar and correct it as "It makes no difference."
     HOWEVER, if someone wrote "It doesn't make no difference" or "It
     doesn't not make a difference" (note the singular, not plural, verb in
     both of those--from which I would infer that bad grammar is not the
     problem), I would probably construe it as "It makes a difference to
     some degree" and then query the author to be specific about what
     degree of difference it does make.

     Double negatives have their place--for example, "It is not uncommon to
     find individuals of this species above 3500 meters." I take that to
     mean that it's not the norm, but neither is it so rare as to be not
     worth mentioning.

     Kudos to Gena for her elegant nutshell statement:

     <<Written language requires more precision because it cannot be
     supplemented by gesture, intonation and perception of audience
     reaction (allowing correction in case one is not understood).>>

     Exactly. I am always surprised when I hear the nonchalance with which
     scientists (not on this list, of course <g>) regard good writing as a
     luxury. It is no more a luxury than is knowledge of what the food
     chain is, how a bill becomes a law, what psychological effects the
     death of a loved one typically causes, or how an electrical current
     works. That is to say, although knowledge of concepts from other
     disciplines is not essential to survival, it can help make one's
     existence easier on occasion, less perplexing, and less insular. While
     knowing how to write well won't make a study per se succeed or fail,
     it *can* make the dissemination of the results succeed or fail. If a
     scientist is doing what she thinks is good science, I can't imagine
     why she wouldn't want as many people as possible (whether the audience
     is colleagues or laymen) to understand it and integrate it into their
     respective scientific worldviews. From where I sit, good writing is as
     important to science as sound methodology is.

     Jerry Bricker then wrote:

     <<I think it is groovy, cool, far out, radical, and narly how we all
     bend language to suit our needs.>>

     Indeed. That's one of the ways we establish our individual identities
     _and_ one of the ways in which we create art. He goes on to describe

     <<one European country in recent years that has established laws
     requiring a certain level of cultural material sold within its borders
     to be generated by its own artists.  The view is that the evil
     American media machine is destroying that country's cultural

     Well . . . as much as I love American pop culture, I do see it
     destroying the discrete cultural identities of various places. There's
     a fine line between cultural diaspora enhancing a "foreign" culture
     and cultural imperialism obliterating that same culture. The country
     Jerry refers to has done with culture the same thing that America,
     Japan, et al. do with appliances, cars, clothing, and other things of
     the economy. And aren't money and culture often bound together?
     America isn't exporting culture simply as a heartfelt gift--undeniably
     there is economic incentive behind it. But this is way off topic
     (sorry), so I'll bring it back to the language issue. Jerry goes on to

     <<The strength of a democracy comes from free exchange of thoughts and
     freedom from repression. . . . I may be reading too much into the
     comments, . . . but it seems to me that several people would like to
     tie up and burn at the stake anyone who uses "their" language in a
     manner in which "they" don't approve.>>

     Yes, Jerry may be reading too much into it. All we're discussing is
     whether good writing is necessary for the transmission of scientific
     information and knowledge. I'm saying Yes, absolutely, yes, yes, yes.
     If one wants to convey the results of taxonomic research in haiku or
     without verbs or without ever using the letter "E" in his paper, he
     should be prepared to be dismissed by most colleagues. As a poet, I
     believe that language *is* cool and groovy, but I also realize that
     the key to expressing ideas and research results is clear and
     proficient use of written language, be it English, Tamil, Japanese, or

     Joy E. Runyon
     Scientific Publications, The New York Botanical Garden
     <I don't speak for my employers, and they return the favor>

     "Even a superb writer needs a good editor;
     a merely good writer needs a superb editor."
                                --Dan Wilson

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