October 20, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: the evolution of language & formal vs. informal writing

Posted in evolution of language, formal/informal writing at 6:49 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: More on ‘change out’ and the evolution of language

I evidently touched a nerve, last week, when I indicated that I had no problem with the use of ‘change out’ to mean ‘replace.’

One reader wrote:

I understand why “changing out” may be more specific than “changing” in the example that was given, but what in the heck is wrong with “replacing”?

Another suggested:

Maybe “exchanging”?

Still another ranted:

It seems to me that “replace” works perfectly well with a furnace or anything else that “needs changing out.”  We only need new words when they are more descriptive than the old words. Otherwise, they obfuscate. (is that still a word?)

The evolution of language is such an ugly thing to observe. Sportscasters and computer gear heads are the biggest culprits, IMHO (that will be a word soon), followed by political pundits. “Physicality” drives me crazy. I’m sure that some dumb football coach created it down in the swamplands of Louisiana, but it never should have made the airwaves. Or maybe it’s really a word. “Impact player” seems to be redundant when you’re talking about football. If you aren’t an impact player, you’d better get off the field.

 Where did “boot up” come from? What was wrong with “start.”  Or was it necessary in the early days of computers to give the damn things a kick in the rear?

Some people get so cranky!

First of all, I think ‘exchange’ or ‘replace’ are fine substitutes for ‘change out.’ What I am saying is that I see nothing wrong with using ‘change out’ as an alternative in informal contexts (more on informal versus formal writing later). As I have said many times, language is constantly evolving—some of the changes we like, and some we don’t. That doesn’t mean it isn’t changing, or it shouldn’t change. I’m sure you know that one of the changes I don’t like is the use of ‘impact’ as a verb. As a result, I don’t use it that way—I keep it as a noun, but I don’t correct your writing when you write that ‘something impacts something’ (oh, it makes me cringe), I don’t say anything because I understand that language evolves, and there is nothing to be done about it.

You need to chill, readers.

Finally, to the ranter. Yes, obfuscate is still a word. Words sometimes go out of use, but they rarely disappear altogether (and obfuscate is still in wide use). And I don’t think new words necessarily obscure the meaning of what one is saying. Do we ‘need’ the new words? We probably don’t need new synonyms of existing words, but the reality is the language changes, and it is going to keep changing regardless of what anyone does. And I disagree that the evolution of language is ugly to observe—on the contrary, I think it is fascinating (well, I am writing the wlut, aren’t I?). I won’t comment on the football remarks, because football is not really my thing, but I will note that the word, ‘physicality,’ has been around since about 1600, so it is unlikely that it came from Louisiana. I also think the ‘boot’  or ‘reboot’ is more expressive than ‘start’ to describe the process of turning on a computer, and it is also a fine example of jargon related to the computer field.

Sheesh, relax already. If you don’t like a new word, don’t use it.

Tip 2: Formal versus informal writing

A reader writes:

First, thanks again for writing your excellent blog.

Second, I read this sentence—“I am with the latter group; I think we should stay away from these formations in our formal scientific writing”— one that you have written over and over again on a variety of topics— and thought “why?”  Scientific writing needs to be precise and clear, but why assume that it should be formal? While the pragmatic answer, that those who could give one money are more likely to do so if one writes formally, certainly has its merits, I see no theoretical advantage to this formality.  There are many famous scientists (I think of Feynman as one obvious choice) who, via their style, tried to strip science of this formality as they felt that traditional stuffy formalism got in the way of doing good work.  So is there a good reason for writing formally beyond the pragmatic one?  If one plans to swap out one gene for another in a plasmid why not simply say so?  So long as it is clear, why should we frown upon that formulation?

I think the issue, here, is what I consider ‘formal and informal writing’ to mean. And the most important piece of information I want to impart is this: formal does not mean dry. Formal does not mean complicated. Formal does not mean pretentious. Formal does not mean using a passive voice. Formal does not mean writing in the third person. Formal does not mean writing complex sentences and using complex words. When I think of formal writing, I think of writing for an audience with knowledge of the topic that is the focus of the writing. I think of formal writing as writing on a scientific topic both objectively and accurately. I think of formal writing as writing that convincingly demonstrates evidence. In formal writing, I still aim for precision; I still aim for clarity; and I still aim for grace.

Informal writing, to me, means communication among friends or colleagues, using colloquialisms to paint a picture, and using contractions to reinforce the casual air of the writing. Informal writing is more conversational and personal. This blog is an example of informal writing.

I think that Feynman did not eschew formality per se; he avoided overly processed writing, using three-bit words, and obfuscation (see, I told you it was still in use) through the use of sentences of endless complexity. He wrote in a straight forward manner and, thus, communicated effectively. But it was still formal writing.

As to the question, “if one plans to swap out one gene for another in a plasmid, why not simply say so?” My first reaction was that the writing lacks grace.  Actually, that was my second and third reaction as well. Writing, even scientific writing, can be beautiful. When done well, there is a poetry, a rhythm that flows with the words. That is what we are striving for, and ‘swap out’ just doesn’t do it for me.

Finally, to get back to the writer’s pragmatic reason for formal writing, to increase the probability of receiving research funding, well, that’s true, too.

[NOTE: If this is a topic that interests you, I would urge you to check out Chapter 2 of Goodman and Edwards’s Medical Writing: A prescription for clarity. The chapter is called “The Malaise of Medical Manuscripts.” See About Language Tips for the complete reference.]

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