March 20, 2014

Weekly Language Usage Tips: May and might and underlining

Posted in may or might, underlining and spacing at 6:44 am by dlseltzer

A reader writes:

So, I was recently reviewing a manuscript, in which I came across: 

“Although objective endpoints were obtained for the efficacy, safety and pharmacokinetic data, the tolerability results may have been biased by the fact that neither the subjects nor the investigators were blinded.” (my emphasis)

I thought that “may” should have been “might,” but I’ll be darned if I can say a. why, or b. whether I’m right.

Care to comment?

Of course I will comment. The difference between ‘may’ and ‘might’ is fading away these days, but in some worlds, the distinction remains, so it’s worth knowing. Both ‘may’ and ‘might’ suggest possibility. This is the distinction: ‘may’ suggests that something is more probable than doubtful, and ‘might’ suggests that something is more doubtful than probable. (‘May’ also means to give permission, but that is in another context and is not pertinent, here.) So whether to use ‘may’ or ‘might’ in the reader’s sentence depends on the writer’s belief about the likelihood of something happening. Since the writer used may, he or she is implying that results were probably biased. If the writer had used ‘might,’ he or she would have been suggesting that the results probably were not biased. But, as I said, the difference between ‘might’ and ‘may’ is waning and eventually, I bet, will disappear all together.

Okay, we still have a little space. Can you turn your attention to the word that was emphasized in the reader’s email? How did the reader emphasize the word? By italicizing it and underlining it. Why? Are both necessary? Wouldn’t the italics have been enough? This brings me to my second pet peeve (the first is spelling principal investigator principle investigator). But this is a close second. STOP UNDERLINING. I KNOW I AM SHOUTING, BUT I AM TRYING TO GET YOU TO LISTEN. STOP UNDERLINING!

Here is my lecture. Underlining is a relic of the manual typewriter. For you kids who haven’t seen one, ask your parents about it. On the typewriter, you couldn’t change type and manipulate your formatting like we can these days. There was no bold, no italics, no range of font sizes, no colors to show emphasis. The only way to show emphasis was to underline things.

But now, we are lucky, there are tons of ways to show prominence, including the use of bold, italics, etc. We don’t need to underline words. Why not underline? Simple. It’s ugly and hard to read, and it is not just me saying that: it is the whole design and publishing world. Pick up a book, any book, and if it was professionally printed, I bet you will not find any underlining it. NONE. Go ahead and try it.

I just looked back at some old WLUTs and saw that I had addressed this issue before—twice, most recently in 2010 and before that, in 2008. I said the same thing I am saying now—and I even used many of the same words. NEVER UNDERLINE. It is so uncool.

I feel better.


1 Comment »

  1. ObsessiveTruthSeeker said,

    Thanks again for writing about underlining.

    These days, I’m observing a new trend in the social media. Especially in twitter, there’s neither the possibility of italics nor underlining. Using uppercase letters is considered shouting. So, how can one emphasize a particular word? Simple! Use asterisks before and after the word. Given the rapid inroads that social media is making in our lives, asterisking *might* become a trend in mainstream writing too.

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