August 22, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: can not or cannot & where does ‘also’ go?

Posted in can not/cannot, placement of also at 6:32 am by dlseltzer

Sighting:

A reader writes:

Subject: I really like this piece

Good for your weekly thing, Deb?

http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/entertainment/movies/Elmore-Leonards-10-Rules-of-Good-Writing.html

 Absolutely. Elmore Leonard was a great writer who died this week at the age of 87. His thoughts on writing are terrific. Check out the link. Better yet, check out the link on the site above that directs you to Leonard’s whole essay. It’s really good.

Tip 1: Cannot or can not?

A reader writes:

Can not or cannot? Are they the same?

We addressed this before, but it was back in 2009, so it’s probably time to look at the issue again. It’s simple, really (although you would never know it by the gazillions of opinions on the web). It’s ‘cannot.’ One word. While no one is going to kick you out on your fanny if you write ‘can not,’ the preferred way to write it is as one word, ‘cannot.’ If you can substitute ‘can’t,’ then you want ‘cannot.’

At first, I was going to share some of the funnier (read stranger) opinions, but I don’t want you to get misinformation in your heads. So instead, since this tip was answered so quickly, I’ll answer another question that I just received.

Tip 2: Where does ‘also’ go?

A reader writes:

I’m new on your English tips blog and I find it really amazing. Being a PhD student, it helps me a lot when writing the scientific articles.

Could you say something about where I should use ‘also’ in the following example (or as a general rule)?


It has also been speculated the poor instrument resolution for the slight variation.

The poor instrument resolution for the slight variation has also been speculated.



I intend to go with the second version. For me (non-native English speaker) both sound correct.

First, there is something missing from the reader’s sentences. We need to make a better connection between ‘the instrument resolution’ and ‘the slight variation’. I assume that the writer is saying that poor resolution is THE CAUSE of the slight variation. If that is the case, then we need to state it:


It has also been speculated that poor instrument resolution is the cause of the slight variation.

That poor instrument resolution is the cause of the slight variation has also been speculated.

[NOTE: I would also change the passive clause into an active clause (‘It has been speculated’ into ‘Researchers speculate,’ but that is not the focus of the reader’s question, so I don’t want to wander too far astray.]

I’m glad the reader thought they both sounded okay. That’s because they are both okay.  The good news is that we have some flexibility about where to place ‘also’ when we write.  We want to keep it near the verb it is modifying.

In general, the adverb, ‘also’ precedes the verb in the simple present and perfect tenses (e.g., they also ran to the store). In more complex sentences, it goes between the auxiliary verb and the main verb (e.g., he has also gone to school). When there are multiple auxiliary verbs, the adverb usually follows the first one (e.g., it has also been speculated).

We also want to keep the meaning clear, and the meaning can change depending on where we place ‘also.’

I also wanted to go with the group to the concert.

This seems to mean that other people wanted to go with the group to the concert and I did, too.

I wanted to go with the group to the concert, also.

 This seems to mean that I wanted to do other things with the group, but I also wanted to go with them to the concert.

Returning to the reader’s question, even though they are both technically correct, I would go with the first sentence: it is more straightforward and clearer than the second, but please forgo the passive voice.

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