May 19, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: track or tract & parentheses within parentheses

Posted in parentheses, track or tract at 8:58 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Track or tract

Both tips today come from a grant proposal I am working on. First, I came across this sentence:

We currently have e-visits for both  acute (e.g., upper respiratory track infection) and chronic (e.g., diabetes) medical conditions.

Oops. This provides me an opportunity to have another discussion of track versus tract.  What the author meant is this:

We currently have e-visits for both  acute (e.g., upper respiratory tract infection) and chronic (e.g., diabetes) medical conditions.

These two words are commonly confused, but they really could not be more different. Track has lots of meanings as a noun but, most frequently, means path or road.

Tract also has several meanings but most often, it refers to a piece of land, or in science or medicine, it refers to a system of organs that work together to perform a specific function such as digestion.

The upper respiratory tract refers to the system of organs, so tract rather than track is the correct word.

A rule of thumb might be this: if the sentence is about part of the anatomy, the correct word to use is tract; if the sentence is about a course or a pathway, the word you are probably looking for is track.

And, in academia, you are on your career pathway, so you might be on the tenure track (not tract).

Tip 2 : Parentheses within parentheses

This is the sentence that inspired my second tip (slightly changed for reasons of privacy):

Alpine University collaborators will consult when needed and work with us to plan future studies (one of our core faculty (Professor Jones) has a joint appointment with Alpine University).

 Parentheses within parentheses are often hard to follow, so the custom is to use square brackets within parentheses. The sentence would, thus, read:

Alpine University collaborators will consult when needed and work with us to plan future studies (one of our core faculty [Professor Jones] has a joint appointment with Alpine University).

Square brackets should be used sparingly, but they should be used to distinguish internal parentheses from external parentheses.

NOTE: According to Garner, this does not hold in reference to the legal profession, so if you are in that lofty profession, feel free to use parentheses anywhere you like!

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