May 1, 2008

Weekly Language Usage Tips: simplicity, justification, and serifs

Posted in justification, serif vs. san serif, simplicity at 8:48 pm by dlseltzer

Alan Meisel’s keen eyes caught another problematic Post-Gazette headline:

State closes Fayette County cave to hone in on killer bat fungus

Sunday, April 27, 2008

By Don Hopey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

From Encarta.com

“Word Usage: hone in or home in?

Avoid using the incorrect hone in. Hone is a transitive verb meaning “sharpen” (hone a blade) or, in a figurative sense, “perfect or refine” (I honed my ideas before publishing them). It is the verb home, generally intransitive, whose meanings include “return home accurately,” that makes sense with the particle /in/: He homed in on his opponent’s weaknesses.”

Thanks for pointing this out, Alan. It’s a good catch and a good tip: one “homes” in on something not “hones” in.

Today’s tips are a result of reviewing proposals the last few days.

Tip 1: Simplicity brings clarity

The best writing is writing that is clear. Simple writing is often clear writing. Convoluted, wordy, polysyllabic writing often does more to obfuscate than to illuminate.

Take, for example, this sentence found in a proposal in progress (key words have been changed to protect the writer):

“Studies suggest that many patients may also experience additional motivation during the housebound period to consider and initiate certain health behavioral changes.”

When writing and reviewing, it is often useful to think: What is the simplest way to say this? There are often much simpler and more straightforward ways to state things. Almost all of our writing could be improved if simplified. If you were explaining your study out loud, how would you phrase the sentence above? Maybe, something like this:

“Studies suggest that housebound patients may be motivated to consider and initiate health behavioral changes.”

The sentence could be further simplified by eliminating either “consider” or “initiate” but I did not want to alter the writer’s meaning. (I debated with myself whether or not to eliminate the word “certain” and whether or not it changed the sentence’s meaning.)

So simplify, but be sure that you have retained the meaning you want to convey.

Tip 2: There is no good justification for justification and say yes to serif.

I was reading a proposal just this morning that was typed in a sans serif type and had justified margins. I did not get very far.

When writing a grant proposal, manuscript, or any long document, “left justify” your writing. This leaves a ragged edge on the right but it is this ragged edge that makes the text easier to read. The ragged edge pulls the reader’s eyes from line to line much like a serif pulls the reader’s eyes from word to word (see below). In completely justified text, there are no clues to help the reader follow the line. While it may look neater from a distance, it is much more difficult to read.

Example: Growth in patient care has been extensive in all divisions, in outpatient and inpatient activities, in consultations and in outreach activities. Growth in patient care fuels our teaching programs and helps us sustain one of our major missions. The Department’s growth in patient care, of course, is very important for UPMC since it leads to admissions, downstream revenues and a greater market share. UPMC’s support has been instrumental in enabling us to be so successful in building the clinical programs. We monitor faculty productivity regularly, and it is clear that we have one of the most productive faculty when we compare ourselves to other Departments nationally.

Example: Growth in patient care has been extensive in all divisions, in outpatient and inpatient activities, in consultations and in outreach activities. Growth in patient care fuels our teaching programs and helps us sustain one of our major missions. The Department’s growth in patient care, of course, is very important for UPMC since it leads to admissions, downstream revenues and a greater market share. UPMC’s support has been instrumental in enabling us to be so successful in building the clinical programs. We monitor faculty productivity regularly, and it is clear that we have one of the most productive faculty when we compare ourselves to other Departments nationally.

The same reasoning holds true for the use of serif type versus sans serif type. Times New Roman is an example of a serif type. Serif type has small fine lines on the top and bottom of each letter. These lines are called serifs. Sans means without, so sans serif means without serifs. Arial is an example of sans serif type. The serifs, the fine lines at the top and bottom of letters, help to pull the reader along from letter to letter and word to word. In long documents, serif type is much easier to read, and sans serif should be saved for section titles and headers.

Two caveats: 1) I am talking about readability rather than legibility, and 2) I am referring to written documents and not web sites.


1 Comment »

  1. ora said,

    gee- I thought the confusion in the headline was the killer bat fungus (which does killer refer to, bat or fungus?) and wouldn’t you know, I have recently switched to fully justified Arial for my grants


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