January 13, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: neither/nor & regarding regards

Posted in neither/nor, regard/regards at 6:16 am by dlseltzer

Update on Gift Guide

When I put together the list of books, I forgot the best writing book of all. A colleague reminded me about the lovely and very funny book on writing, Bird by Bird: Some instructions on writing and life, by Anne Lamott. If you haven’t read it, you should; it’s really terrific. To give you a flavor of her writing, here is the explanation of why the book is called Bird by Bird.

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. [It] was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”

Warm and witty-and downright funny. It’s not intended for academic writers, but most any writer will gain by reading this book. Highly recommended.

I was also able to get one of the books that I mentioned that I would like to read. A colleague had recommended How to Write a Lot: A practical guide to productive academic writing, and I read that over the break. The book definitely has value, is clearly aimed at academic writers, and is written in a very readable style. There’s abundant humor, and the chapters on style are particularly appealing. For instance,

“Psychologists love bad words although they call them deficient or suboptimal instead of bad. Psychologists like writing about the existing literature. Is there a nonexistent literature that I should be reading and referencing? Any psychologist who reads articles should know that our professional journals are frighteningly real. Extant literature is a white-collar version of the same crime. Psychologists who write about a disconnect between two things have been disconnected from their dictionaries where they’ll find good words like difference, distinction, separation, and gap. And some individuals, when writing individual papers on various individual topics, refer to a person as an individual and to people as individuals. These people forget that individual is vague… Choose good words, like person and people. The abomination persons should remain the property of the small-town sheriff on the hunt for “a person or persons unknown.”

Ahh, a person (or individual) after my own heart. Folks who struggle with their writing will find this book helpful and a good read. Heeding his ideas will increase your writing productivity and, with any luck, improve your writing style. Fun and informative.

Okay, now on to the tips. There have been lots of questions raised and requests made lately, and I promise to get to all of them over time. But for today, let’s start with these.

Tip 1: Neither/nor

A reader writes:

I just wrote the following sentence in a letter of recommendation: “I have no knowledge of his reading speed and comprehension nor of his mathematical skills.”

My question is: is it proper to use “nor” without having first used “neither”? Should I have used “or” instead of “nor” in this sentence? I believe that the negative “no” at the beginning of the sentence is an adequate substitute, but I don’t know what the authorities say.

This question turns out to be rather interesting. Part of the answer is easy: despite having grown up learning that ‘nor’ is paired with ‘neither’ just as ‘or’ is paired with ‘either,’ ‘neither’ is not necessary as long as there is a preceding negative reference, and so, the reader is correct that the earlier ‘no’ suffices. However, that’s where the easy answer ends-there are some exceptions.

If the second negative reference is a noun, an adjective, or an adverb phrase, then you should use ‘or’ rather than ‘nor.’

The reader’s use of the prepositional phrase ‘of his mathematical skills’ allows him to correctly us ‘nor.’ However, if he had written the sentence differently and eliminated the preposition, he would have been left with the second negative reference being a noun, ‘skills,’ and he would have to have used the word ‘or.’

I have no knowledge of his reading speed and comprehension or his mathematical skills.

If the second negative reference is a verb phrase, then it’s a choice whether to use ‘or’ or ‘nor.’

I am not jumping on the band wagon nor watching from the sidelines.

I am not jumping on the band wagon or watching from the sidelines.

In these sentences, either ‘or’ or ‘nor’ is acceptable. You have to decide which sounds better to you. To me, the sentence with ‘or’ in it sounds better, so that’s the one I would use.

Then there is the whole issue of disjunctive conjunctions. Oh please! It’s enough to make my head explode.

The easiest thing to do is to always keep the words, ‘neither’ and ‘nor’ paired. The use of ‘nor’ with other negatives like ‘not’ and ‘no’ can lead you on the path to ruin if you are not careful.

I’m not going to worry about this nor am I going to think about it anymore.

Tip 2. Regarding regards

Shortly after the holiday break, I went to a talk where the speaker was talking about a study she had undertaken, and throughout the talk, she was prone to say, “In regards to x” and “With regards to Y.”

We’ve talked about it before (https://languagetips.wordpress.com/category/regardregards/), but this talk with its rampant esses made me groan anew, so I’ll tackle this beast for what I hope is the last time!

‘Regards’ with an ‘s’ means ‘best wishes’ or ‘in esteem.’ It does not mean ‘concerning,’ ‘regarding,’ or ‘considering.’ It should never, ever be used in your scientific talks or scientific writing. Why? Because when you use it in your research writing or presentations, you are using the wrong word! It means BEST WISHES.

What you want is ‘regard’ as in ‘in regard to,’ or you can use ‘regarding,’ ‘pertaining to,’ ‘in reference to,’ the always popular and simple ‘about’ or any of the many other perfectly good synonyms for ‘in regard to.’ Only, ‘in regards to’ is NOT one of them.

Now, before anyone jumps on me, I know about ‘as regards,’ but I think it is ugly, and I’m not going to go there.

Suffice it to say, the only time I ever want to see ‘regards’ in your work, is when you are closing a letter and writing ‘Best regards.’ Better yet is if I never see it at all.

If I sound tough, it’s because I am trying to make an impression, here.

Is it working?

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