July 15, 2010

Weekly Language Usage Tips: discreet or discrete & using italics/underlining

Posted in discreet/discrete, underlining and spacing, using italics at 8:00 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Discreet or discrete

We discussed this last year, but, recently, I read this sentence in a proposal:

These studies focus on training providers in discreet and specific diagnostic skills.

Oh dear.

Well, I suppose it’s good that doctors know how to be discreet, what with HIPAA regulations focusing on patient privacy and all.

But the problem is that’s not what the writer meant.

‘Discreet’ means circumspect or unobtrusive or judicious in maintaining privacy or keeping a secret.

The physician promised that she would be discreet and not tell the patient’s wife about the problem.

The detective maintained a discreet distance behind the person she suspected of being a thief.

‘Discrete’ means separate or distinct.

This recipe describes six discrete steps associated with making the ultimate Hot Fudge Sundae.

In this study, we are asking subjects to perform three discrete tasks that emphasize using their vision, sense of touch, and sense of smell, respectively.

These words can be problematic because they are homonyms, meaning that they sound alike but have different meanings. Another example of homonyms that I often see confused (and which is one of my pet peeves) is principal and principle. Remember, you cannot be a Principle Investigator (it hurts just writing it!) but you can be a principled Investigator, and, with a little luck (and a lot of hard work), you can be a Principal Investigator.

Making matters worse is that spell checkers can’t tell the difference, and even Word 2007 which boasts spell checkers that interpret the context (the blue squiggly line) does not distinguish between ‘discrete’ and ‘discreet.’

So it’s up to us to remember which is which. In our scientific writing, we almost always want to use ‘discrete’ and NOT ‘discreet.’

One way to remember this is to remember that in ‘discrete’ which means separate, the ‘e’s are separated from each other.

I read another memory trick: if someone is ‘indiscreet’ and tells your secret, you might shout ‘eek,’ and this will remind you that the two ‘e’s together are in ‘discreet.’

Hmm, I don’t know about you, but I am hoping not to shout ‘eek’ any time soon.

Tip 2: Using italics

A reader asked me to comment on when to use italics. I am happy to do so since it provides me with an opportunity to comment on my other pet peeve, underlining.

I consulted lots of references for this, including the APA and MLA Style Guides and several university style guides. So here goes:

In general, you should use italics for emphasis, for unfamiliar foreign words and phrases, and for technical terms followed by definitions.

Use italics for:

  • Emphasis that might otherwise be missed. Avoid italicizing a whole sentence for emphasis, and never italicize a whole passage. Use sparingly or the effect is lost;
  • Titles of books, newspapers, periodicals, proceedings of conferences;
  • Titles of long poems, plays, movies, newsletters, pamphlets, CDs, long musical compositions, radio and TV programs, operas, and works of art;
  • Names of species and varieties;
  • Novel or technical terms the first time the term is used;
  • Words and phrases in a foreign language the first time the word or phrase is used;
  • Letters used as statistical symbols or algebraic variables (e.g., t test);
  • A letter, word, or phrase referred to as such (e.g., the word homonym, the letter f); and for
  • Anchors of a scale (e.g., Ratings ranged from 1 (completely dissatisfied) to 5 (completely satisfied).

Don’t use italics for:

  • Foreign abbreviations and phrases common in English (e.g., et al., a priori, merci);
  • Chemical terms (e.g., H2O);
  • Trigonometric terms(e.g., sin);
  • Greek letters;
  • University course titles (e.g., Making the most of mentoring);
  • Titles of sections of books (e.g., preface, index);
  • Names of depositories, archives, manuscript collections (e.g., Cochrane Reviews); and
  • Letters used as abbreviations (e.g., myocardial infarction [MI]).

So, why did I bring up underlining earlier?

Simple. Older style books (not major style guides like APA which are kept up-to-date) indicate that in each of the cases listed, you can use either italics or underlining. This is wrong! Very, very wrong. Terribly wrong!

This rule and underlining, itself, are relics of the typewriter. In the olden days, we didn’t have an option to make something bold or italicizing something or changing the text size or color. The only option for showing emphasis in the not so good old days was to underline things. That’s not true anymore. We have these wonderful inventions of computers and word processors, and there is no need to ever use underlining again.

Underlining is ugly. Underlining cuts through the tails of the letters and punctuation marks making them harder to read. It has no positive aesthetic qualities.

Look at this: privacy.

Horrible in every way.

So I will leave you with this plea: STOP underlining, and NEVER do it again. PLEASE.

And thank you for listening.

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