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Writing

On dinosaurs, widows and badly named pubs

By Sarah Holper, guest blogger 

The first dinosaur fossil ever found was named ‘Scrotum humanum’, owing to its resemblance to a petrified scrotum. Some thought it was a Roman war elephant’s thigh, or that of a biblical giant. It was, in fact, a Megalosaur’s femur.

Some cultural relativism ought to be applied to this laughable blunder. Before dinosaurs were known to science, giants and dragons were the natural explanations for impossibly hefty unearthed bones. Presumably with much eye rolling, biologist Richard Owen suggested that these bones belonged to an extinct group of reptiles. He coined the name ‘dinosaur’ in 1841, Latinised from the Greek ‘deinos’ meaning ‘terrible’ and ‘saurus’ meaning ‘lizard’. Incidentally, the word ‘dire’ stems from the same terrible root.

On terrible roots, let’s exhume some dismaying English artefacts. According to 1500s mindsets, a woman after her husband’s death became a dusty fossilised relict. Alas, our word ‘relict’ is from the Latin ‘relicta’ meaning ‘widow’. Further abandonment-flavoured words like ‘relinquish’ and ‘derelict’ derive from the Latin verb form ‘relinquere’ – to leave behind. Before deserting this etymological tangent, a dip into maritime lingo. ‘Derelict’, now synonymous with a state of neglect, technically refers to cargo irretrievably sunk at sea. Accidentally lost but still floating cargo is flotsam (both ‘f’ words are from the Germanic ‘floter’, meaning ‘to float’). Jetsam is cargo deliberately thrown (‘jettisoned’, from the same Old French root ‘getaison’, meaning ‘a throwing’) overboard to stabilise a ship in crisis. Hence ‘flotsam and jetsam’ has become a phrase to describe miscellaneous worthless trash (much like a widow in the 16th century, apparently).

Far from flotsam and jetsam is fossilised tree resin. Not only can it fossilise other creatures in a gloopy tomb, it can form a fossil per se: amber. Amber has a curious quality of acquiring an electric charge when rubbed with certain materials. Some 1640s amber-rubbing escapades led polymath Sir Thomas Browne to dub this attractive property ‘electric’. The leap from ‘amber’ to ‘electric’? Our old friend Latin, in which amber is called ‘electrum’.

Finally, an alphabetical fossil. Old English was written in runes. Christian missionaries arriving in the 9th century soon imposed not only their religion on the Anglo-Saxons, but the Latin alphabet too. The rune ‘thorn’, pronounced ‘th’, looked most similar to the Latin ‘Y’. Thus ‘Y’ took thorn’s place as the ‘th’-sounding symbol, while thorn was jettisoned into an alphabetical mass grave.

It follows then that pseudo-historical venues named ‘Ye Olde’ so-and-so ought to be pronounced ‘the old’, not ‘ye old’. A world-view flipping bombshell, I know. Now you know how the benighted masses felt when their ‘dragons and giants’ turned out to be dinosaurs.

Writing with style

To communicate clearly and well, writing should be grammatical and consistent. Sloppy writing makes an audience work harder to understand the message; it is also likely to make them wonder whether the author should be relied upon in the first place.

No matter what your topic – from astronomy to zirconium – following writing conventions will help your communication.

Thankfully, the kind folk at Biotext (http://www.biotext.com.au ), a leading Australian science communication company, have devoted countless hours to compiling the Australian manual of scientific style (AMOSS). They describe it as a ‘key resource for the Australian scientific and communications community. It brings together a wealth of information on scientific writing, style and design, to support the presentation of clear and correct scientific communication.’

So here are AMOSS’s answers to 10 style and grammar questions frequently asked by writers.

  1. Ten or 10?

‘Use numerals (digits) to express all quantities – whether small or large – in running text.’

  1. Fertilize or fertilise, etc.?
    ‘In Australia, we use ise and yse endings, not ize or –yze’.
  1. Should I put a space between the number and the unit?
    ‘Separate an alphabetic symbol from a number with a space. A nonalphabetic symbol is usually closed up to the number.’ So, you write 4 g and 28 mm, but 25% and refer to an angle of 45°. You also write ‘25 °C’.
  1. ‘sulfur or sulphur?
    ‘The element name is sulfur (lower case, except when starting a sentence).’ Compounds of sulfur, such as sulfuric acid, take the ‘f’.
  1. How do I describe the time?
    12:01 pm, for example
  1. What about year spans?
    ‘1998–99, not 1998/99’
  1. e.g. or eg?
    ‘eg’, and thus ‘ie’ and ‘etc’
  1. When do I use a semi-colon?
    ‘To link two closely related clauses that could otherwise be separate sentences. We submitted the paper to Virology; this was more appropriate for the topic than Cell.’
  1. Single or double quotation marks?
    Single, ‘smart’ quotation marks (‘ ’) are used.
  1. Do I use a semi-colon to end each bullet point in a list that starts with a sentence?
    ‘Use lower case for the first word and punctuate only with a full stop at the end of the list.’

What are your style and grammar questions?

 

How to create a blog that everyone will truly love

This blog is competing for your attention with more than 152 million others. Nearly 173,000 blogs are added to the Internet ever day. There are now four more than when you started reading this. That’s according to the Journal of Applied Communications.

With all that competition, what can you do to make your blog stand out?

My measure of a good blog is whether it provokes me into action: to change my behaviour, to do something new at work, to read a book or an article. I’m also a sucker for a new computing tip or shortcut.

Roberts & Evans (2015) recommend a ‘What; So what; Now what’ approach for blogs. This entails starting with a discussion about the topic. It’s pretty clear that this one you’re reading is a blog on blogs. Your investment in reading it will be rewarded (I’m hoping ) with tips for writing better blogs.

We need a compelling first sentence to capture readily distracted readers. Is my first line good enough? Well, it got you this far.

We’re now well into the ‘so what’ part. This is the new development, or in my case, the inside info on steps to blogging fame.

The Internet serves up almost as much advice on blogging as there are blogs themselves. While not based on rigorous science, most make good sense:

  • Blog regularly
  • Write about things you’re good at
  • Include a catchy headline
  • Use hyperlinks and lists
  • Use lots of keywords
  • Be concise
  • Be accurate, informative and timely
  • Engage people, such as by asking questions

Noah Kagan has applied some science to the subject. He has analysed almost 1 million blogs and their headlines. He concludes that posts with lists are huge (tick for this blog), use ‘you’ and ‘your’ frequently (tick), use promising words like ‘how to’ (tick), and use emotional words in your (tick) headline (tick).

In fact, crafting that headline took me almost as long as writing the blog itself. I did it using a formula. The theory is that to attract interest, a headline needs to connect emotionally. So it should include powerful words that invoke feelings. According to the headline analyser, my headline rates highly for intellectual impact words.

Has my headline worked? I’ll tell you in a future blog, where I will explore further the science and art of headline writing.

Oh, yes. I almost forgot to address that last bullet point above. So, what words in a headline attract your interest?

 

Reference

Roberts, O. & J. Evans (2015) Tackling structure and format–the ‘great unknown’ in professional blogging. Journal of Applied Communications,  99(2). Available at http://journalofappliedcommunications.org/images/stories/issues/2015/jac_v99_n2_final.pdf. Accessed on 11 January 2016.