Quashing Qualifiers.

One thing that annoys me in my work as an editor of (primarily academic) books is the propensity of academics to insert qualifiers that have no apparent function but to weaken prose; I assume they arise from a primal “cover your ass” instinct, and I delete them unless they seem justified. I’ve just run across a beautiful example in the latest New Yorker,in Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Chase” (called in the online version “The Race for a Zika Vaccine”), which begins with the kind of collar-grabbing anecdote so beloved of journalists: “On a Saturday morning in April of 2014, Nenad Macesic, a thirty-one-year-old doctor-in-training, received an urgent phone call from the emergency room of Austin Hospital, just outside Melbourne, Australia.” (As I side note, I would dearly love to know how to pronounce Macesic; it’s from Serbo-Croatian Maćešić/Маћешић, roughly “MAH-che-sheech,” but that may not have much to do with how an Australian bearing the name would say it; why can’t the New Yorker do what the NY Times does and add a parenthetical pronunciation guide?) Macesic learns that the woman in the emergency room has the then obscure Zika virus and starts paying attention to it:

In mid-July, 2015, there was more disturbing news. Forty-nine cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome—a neurological condition, marked by flaccid paralysis, that can be associated with an aberrant immune response to a virus—were reported in Brazil, echoing a sharp increase in the syndrome which was noticed in Polynesia during the Zika outbreak there. Zika had also begun to move through Cape Verde and Colombia. Macesic recalled tracking it on ProMED—“following Zika around the globe had become my small addiction,” he told me. “But the most devastating complication, the one that virtually no one had really anticipated, was still to come.”

The complication, of course, was microcephaly, which is why people are terrified of mosquitoes now, but what I want to focus on here is the phrase “virtually no one had really anticipated” (objectionable qualifiers highlighted). I find it hard to believe that there were people who did anticipate it, since it seems unprecedented and I have heard no reports of any such prediction; as far as I can see, there is no reason not to say “the one that no one had anticipated” except that Macesic is afraid of a gotcha: “Actually, Pete the Prognosticator anticipated that back in 2012!” But all the qualifiers do is turn the surrounding text to mush. Please, people, I know you like to be accurate, but save the qualifiers for when they do a necessary and useful job.

Comments

  1. I’ll bet his patients want to call him “Dr. McKessick.” In fact I’m virtually sure they really do.

  2. I find that I regularly have to weed out of my own prose qualifiers like probably and tend to…, I believe that…, and usually. As I use them, they are usually justified, but their meaning is understood implicitly anyway, and they end up clogging the prose.
    I’d like to think that these qualifiers of the scholarly-to-a-fault are in a different class from the inferior, common journalistic virtually, extremely, etc.

  3. I’ve often voiced my distaste for the sort of encrusted usage pronouncements that get passed down by high school teachers, but I am sympathetic to the one about avoiding hedges. When a writer describes something as “almost absurd” or “almost poignant”, it’s hard for me not to yell, “For God’s sake, commit to it!”

    @Y: In my writing I do find that I overuse “I think”. Sure, we don’t want to imply that our opinions are absolute truth, but at some point we have to step back and acknowledge, I’m writing it – of course I think it.

  4. There is what may be an Austrian version of the name: Mateschitz. Pour la petite histoire Dietrich of that name is the co-founder of the Red Bull drink company and said to be worth $12.2 billion. He is a power in the Formula 1 autoracing and general spectacular/extreme sports worlds. Perhaps the name was originally Serbo-Croat and was Austrianized at some point ? The pronunciation I have heard (from broadcasters and F1 insiders, not from him) is May-te-schitz.

  5. While working for Reuters Health, I learned that qualifiers in medical news are an outright necessity. In most forms of journalism, you never want to see a headline with may in it: we want to know what happened or what will happen, not what may have happened or may happen. But when talking about new treatments for cancer, you don’t say that they help elderly patients avoid nausea, but that they may help them avoid it. Anything unhedged is unsafe. So it becomes a habit that is then extended to matters like this.

  6. Lazar: exactly.

  7. I think it can be said that such qualifiers may, in many cases, be generally eligible to a reconsideration, and perhaps an eventual removal.

    Doing this is Japanese is even more fun. “I think that’s wrong” is too strong; instead one can say something like “Such a point of view exists, of course. Speaking of which, I think it could also possibly be the case that [your opinion here] is perhaps conceivable.”

  8. DJ Leslie says:

    I share your desire to quash ineffective qualifiers in writing. Before we accuse Dr Macesic of engaging in cover-your-ass cowardice however, keep in mind the context: this was recorded speech. It is unfair to criticize speakers for not holding to the standards of good writing. I’d be more concerned if Mukherjee copy-edited his spoken quotes.

    It took a while, but I managed to find a counter-example, in which Masesic’s quoted speech is slightly cleaner than the journalist’s formal writing. N.B., these statements do not appear together.

    Mukherjee: Macesic didn’t expect to encounter it again—at least, not anytime soon.

    Masesic: “When I wrote my medical quiz in 2014, I had not imagined seeing another case of Zika for quite a while, but here it was again,” he told me.

    Yeah, I know. Not very striking, but the best I could do.

  9. gwenllian says:

    There is what may be an Austrian version of the name: Mateschitz. Pour la petite histoire Dietrich of that name is the co-founder of the Red Bull drink company and said to be worth $12.2 billion. He is a power in the Formula 1 autoracing and general spectacular/extreme sports worlds. Perhaps the name was originally Serbo-Croat and was Austrianized at some point ?

    This was originally Matešić, a different name.

  10. keep in mind the context: this was recorded speech. It is unfair to criticize speakers for not holding to the standards of good writing.

    Oh, sure, and I’m not so much criticizing Macesic as saying “Here’s a good example (in recorded speech) of the sort of thing I try to edit out of academic prose.”

  11. My uncle, a mathematician, once got an article back from an editor with every every “if and only if” in the proof changed, alternately, to “if” and “only if”.

  12. Bwa-ha-ha-ha. iff is mildly annoying, but useful.

  13. The hedges in discussions of medical matters are often important, but they still tend to get overdone. When there is good scientific evidence that treatment X reduces the risk of condition Y, you will often see it phrased as:

    Treatment X may reduce the risk of Y,

    or even,

    It is possible that X may reduce the risk of Y.

    I think this comes from a combination of not wanting to make too strong a statement, combined a poor understanding of causative probability.

  14. Brett, I guess, part of the problem is that treatment X may affect different people differently. So that X may indeed reduce the risk of Y for most people (or for most people likely to try X), but the relationship is not universal.

  15. Right, but you can phrase it without going to the extreme of “X may reduce the risk of Y” (which sounds like it implies “possibly, in some rare cases, but probably not”). Why not just add a footnote spelling out that X may affect different people differently?

  16. “The Good Wife” made great fodder of this by having a judge who insisted all arguments be made explicitly in the lawyers’ opinions. What starts out as a bit of funny hazing for bewildered lawyers arguing before her for the first time turns into hilarious satire as lawyers who’ve had to change strategies three or four times to win fraught, important cases end up punctuating the most byzantine, jargon-filled sentences imaginable with, “in my opinion.” Great fucking show.

    I’m actually in the minority here, though. And yes, I think that “actually” makes it a better sentence; it makes the turn more pronounced and the sentence as a whole more idiomatic. Not that I think there’s a huge gap of opinion anywhere in this thread: we would all agree that modifiers can be used both well and poorly, and one should aim to use them well. Obviously. To take Y’s sentence, though — “As I use them, they are usually justified, but their meaning is understood implicitly anyway, and they end up clogging the prose” — if that “usually” were removed, as the strikethrough (which I don’t know how to replicate) playfully indicated should be done upon rewrite, either the meaning would change to something ominous or, to my ear, it would sound a bit haughty. It’s a tricky business, figuring out what will be implicit to whom. And there’s obviously more to writing anyway than conveying information, whether explicit or implicit. Even setting aside the obviously useful things modifiers can indicate in a sentence, a harmless albeit vacuous one could help its rhythm, among other things to which I’ve already alluded. It’s like, you know, remove all the funny looking marks and you’d have yourself one thoroughly unclogged piece of sheet music.

  17. Strikethroughs are written using <del> and </del> to enclose them.

    Headlines can’t have footnotes.

  18. I used <strike>.

  19. @D.O.: I think that’s exactly the kind of argument that the journalists are think of, but I aver that it is incorrect. Whenever you are talking about a probabilistic risk, you have already encompassed the fact that the effects will be somewhat different for different people. That is, literally, the purpose of talking about risk in this context.

  20. Brett, I’m not sure. There are different levels of probability, so to say. For example, we are all at risk of stroke. That is, it is possible that sooner or later each of us will have stroke. But, of course, not all of us will actually have it. So everyone has individual risk. Now, say aspirin reduces this risk for many people, but not for everybody. This means that for each individual person aspirin may reduce the risk of stroke.

    As for the expression, I am not at all versed in the medical literature, but the phrase seem to have reached the level of stock phrases and is simply a weaker version of X reduces the risk of Y without specifics of what exactly is less known. I just pointed out that it is not outright meaningless.

  21. …what I want to focus on here is the phrase “virtually no one had really anticipated” (objectionable qualifiers highlighted). I find it hard to believe that there were people who did anticipate it, since it seems unprecedented and I have heard no reports of any such prediction; as far as I can see, there is no reason not to say “the one that no one had anticipated” except that Macesic is afraid of a gotcha: “Actually, Pete the Prognosticator anticipated that back in 2012!” But all the qualifiers do is turn the surrounding text to mush. Please, people, I know you like to be accurate, but save the qualifiers for when they do a necessary and useful job.

    LH: I think you undermine your argument here by saying ‘as far as I can see, there is no reason not to say “the one that no one had anticipated” except that Macesic is afraid of a gotcha:

    Surely that is exactly the point of the qualifiers (though I think he could have phrased it better); someone may indeed have foreseen this somewhere in the vast medical literature, so they do indeed ‘do a necessary and useful job’.

    The most difficult stories I ever had to handle in nearly 50 years of journalism were medical stories – most hacks who are not specialized medical journalists shy away from them.

  22. LH: I think you undermine your argument here by saying ‘as far as I can see, there is no reason not to say “the one that no one had anticipated” except that Macesic is afraid of a gotcha:

    Surely that is exactly the point of the qualifiers

    Of course it’s the point of the qualifiers; how does that undermine my argument? If you think the bare existence of a possibility mandates the use of qualifiers, we’ll have to agree to disagree, but I hope you live by your own theories and consistently say things like “The sun will very likely come up in the east tomorrow” and “I think I’m hungry now, although the feeling could be the result of some other phenomenon than needing an intake of food.”

  23. Here’s a thought. Are there any languages with obligatory evidential marking which are used for technical writing? Quechua, maybe? I wonder what the feel is of such writing. Do drug ads in Quechua hedge everything with indirect evidence marking?

    Ed: Bulgarian, *reportedly*, has evidential marking, and is certainly used for scientific, technical and medical writing.

  24. @D.O.: That is exactly the kind of reasoning that I mean, and I believe that it is erroneous. There is no probability for real, single-occurrence events. Either they happen or they do not. Probability is only meaningful in this context as an ensemble average—what happens when you have a large body of apparently equivalent individuals. If the fraction of individuals in a given pool for which Y occurs decreases when they have treatment X, then X has decreased the change of Y. No further hedging is necessary or meaningful.

  25. Another example of what I’m complaining about is the word “quite,” routinely tossed in as a meaningless qualifier in phrases like “has been quite purposely fixed in a particular form.” Can anyone seriously maintain that anything is lost when I delete it?

  26. I don’t think that’s meaningless at all: it is emphatic, as in quite finished or (in the negative) not quite dead. Here it is saying that though you might think the form a mere accident, I am telling you this is not so: it was intentional. I certainly do think (as opposed to merely “I think”) that you lose something when you take it out.

  27. Trust me, if you’d spent as much time editing this crap as I have you’d be aware that it is in fact just meaningless verbiage, though it’s kind of you to pretend that all these authors are Flauberts and Prousts in disguise.

  28. Brett, this is not a place to debate the foundations of probability and I simply register my disagreement here.

    has been quite purposely fixed in a particular form.
    If it is in scientific writing, then the only possible place for such emphasis is polemic. If some one is claiming that whatever form something or other has taken is accidental, you are justified in saying that it “has been quite purposely fixed”.

  29. No more am I. And yet I’ve been known to include a qualifier or two that it would distress me more than somewhat (as the Master of the Present Tense had it) to find you deleting from my prose.

    You’re saying that context is all, and that the context makes clear this quite is an excrescence, and I can’t argue against that, not having seen the context.

    ObIrrelevant: I see in Wikipedia that the Master’s mortal remains were most illegally scattered by a Gooney Bird over Broadway; a Gooney Bird, moreover, flown by none other than Captain Eddie the Rick. Very appropriate.

  30. Do drug ads in Quechua hedge everything with indirect evidence marking?

    For better or for worse, the languages that get used for such public purposes are generally not evidential-marking languages. They are usually of the “categorical statement” ilk.

    One area where English is careful about marking the concept of tentativeness is in law, where “alleged” is a must in reporting of legal matters, so much so that it sometimes seems overused. I can’t think of any examples, but “the knife used in the alleged stabbing” sounds like something that a journalist might use.

  31. Indeed. It is one thing to say that John Doe is the alleged killer, but another to speak of the alleged killing of Richard Roe: if Roe is dead by homicide, there is no “alleged” about it.

  32. I find it hard to believe that there were people who did anticipate it …

    Another possibility is that Macesic, being somewhat familiar with the field and probably having read a bit more of the literature than you or I have, did know of someone or someones who had anticipated it in some weak fashion. (Arguments from personal incredulity notwithstanding.)

    People who complain about misleading and sloppy science journalism often contrast the careful hedging that scientists tend to use in their own writing with the more dramatic, clear-cut pronouncements that get made by journalists (e.g., “Scientists discover gene for X!”) — or, very often, by press releases that get uncritically taken up by journalists.
    (http://www.bmj.com/content/349/bmj.g7015)
    Given the choice between slightly clotted but accurate discussions and clearer, more dramatic, but potentially misleading discussions — especially when it comes to things like medicine — well, I do have a slight preference for accuracy over vividness and zip.

    (There’s also the case of the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake, where several seismologists were convicted of manslaughter for allegedly giving false assurances that a devastating earthquake could not take place following a swarm of smaller earthquakes, leading to some people not leaving their homes when the big earthquake came and dying as a result. In fact, the scientists had been careful to say that such an earthquake, while unlikely, could not be ruled out; only the one who was a government official went ahead and assured the public at a press conference that they were safe, without using any of those messy qualifiers. He was the only one whose conviction was not later overturned.)

  33. Can anyone seriously maintain that anything is lost when I delete it?

    No more than anything would be lost if you delete “very” whenever you see it, I suppose.

  34. There is no probability for real, single-occurrence events. Either they happen or they do not. Probability is only meaningful in this context as an ensemble average …

    So if I’m going to play a single round of Russian roulette, and it’s agreed no one else will do it, regardless of what happens, then it’s meaningless to say (before I spin the cylinder and pull the trigger) that the probability of my shooting myself is 1 in 6?

  35. Another possibility is that Macesic, being somewhat familiar with the field and probably having read a bit more of the literature than you or I have, did know of someone or someones who had anticipated it in some weak fashion.

    OK, I agree that’s a possibility, but the article gives no hint of it; you’d think Mukherjee would have followed up if that were the case.

    I do have a slight preference for accuracy over vividness and zip.

    Me too! If I had been editing the New Yorker piece, I’d have told Mukherjee to ask Macesic what he meant by it, so I could either delete or expand as the case might be.

    No more than anything would be lost if you delete “very” whenever you see it, I suppose.

    Like John Cowan, you have a laudable desire to assume the best of authors. I can only assure you both that the use of “quite” is an academic tic that very frequently adds nothing to a sentence but verbiage. I should sentence you both to read a few thousand pages of the stuff I have to wade through, but I am a merciful Hat.

  36. First of all, thanks, John — about the strikethrough. At this rate I’ll be writing code in literally no time.

    No more than anything would be lost if you delete “very” whenever you see it, I suppose.

    Oh, c’mon. Anyone who’s ever had a hard-ass boss or parent knows the difference between angry and very angry. And though quite finished is indeed different from finished, as anyone who’s written many drafts of something can attest, there’s no difference at all between doing something purposely and quite purposely, purposely being an adverbial intensifier itself. Hat’s was a damned good example; he shouldn’t have to issue assurances that something he just showed us exists.

  37. Oh, c’mon. Anyone who’s ever had a hard-ass boss or parent knows the difference between angry and very angry.

    I’m pretty sure that was Peter’s point. But I’m afraid I also delete “very” when I feel it adds nothing. I am a just editor, but a cruel one.

  38. It’s only his point if you ignore the rest of the paragraph, unless I’ve mistaken the ins and outs of the thread, in which case apologies — to you and Peter. As I understood it, Hat provided a good example of a pointless modifier and (rhetorically?) asked if anybody could maintain that something would be lost when he deleted it. Peter then answered, “No more than anything would be lost if you delete “very” whenever you see it, I suppose [emphasis mine].” That’s seems like a totally misguided response to me, and not at all the point I was trying to make. I didn’t think I had to add that very is often useless, as well as useful. Any modifier can be useful or useless, depending on how its used — should go without saying, no? But when Hat adduced an obviously useless example of another modifier culled from a particular type of writing in which he said such usages were rife — Another example of what I’m complaining about is the word “quite,” routinely tossed in as a meaningless qualifier in phrases like “has been quite purposely fixed in a particular form.” Can anyone seriously maintain that anything is lost when I delete it? — Peter answered by saying that this particular loss would be somehow equivalent to a blanket deletion of the common (and thus often useful) modifier very. I don’t see how I can be said to have repeated Peter’s point, unless of course I totally missed it.

    I also delete “very” when I feel it adds nothing.

    Not only should you in all prose, but I imagine very to be more commonly vacuous in academic prose than other writing.

  39. Oh, the vacuity I’ve seen…

  40. The punctuation to my earlier comment could have been better. I’d now write it,

    No more than anything would be lost if you delete “very” whenever you see it, I suppose.

    Oh, c’mon. Anyone who’s ever had a hard-ass boss or parent knows the difference between angry and very angry, but though quite finished is also different from finished — as anyone who’s written many drafts of something can attest — there’s no difference at all between doing something purposely and quite purposely, purposely being an adverbial intensifier itself. Hat’s was a damned good example, in other words; he shouldn’t have to issue assurances in the face of inapt generalizations — assurances, that is, that something he just showed us exists.

    For fuck’s sake, we’re talking about modifiers here! It’s bad enough that our elected representatives must vote a simple aye nor nay for bills amended into complexity, if not outright cross-purposes: are we really taking absolute positions on parts of speech? One can, in fact, appreciate Hat’s frustration without damning all modifiers to hell. Perhaps it’s me, I have been gone a while. Fuck it, Monday, we’ll do participles. For or against, none of this nuance bullshit. We’ll have a straight up or down vote, and if hear one person utter the word context I’ll enter an emergency motion to start nominating commenters for whip!

  41. “Probability is only meaningful in this context as an ensemble average—what happens when you have a large body of apparently equivalent individuals.”

    Foundations of probability aside, the practical problem in medical reporting is that people will not read “X reduces Y by 15% +/- 5%” as an ensemble statement, they’ll read it as a universally qualified statement, applying to them individually. Even if you sit them down and tell them that’s not a logically possible reading.

    So even if “X reduces Y by 15% +/- 5% over population P” is known with certainty, adding a qualifier is a crude way to get across the idea that X may repeatably not do that at all for you, a member of population P. It also covers the point the reader may not be a member of the population sampled from.

    And frankly, given the replicability of medical research, any single study should absolutely be slathered in qualifiers.

  42. Exactly. A result of “our 95% confidence interval corresponds to a decrease of 2 to 12 percent” counts as significant but does warrant the qualifier ‘may,’ since there is no guarantee that a repetition of the experiment will show a decrease, or even that the consolidation of the present results with a larger sample will do so.

  43. Trond Engen says:

    Wouldn’t Turkish be a language with obligatory evidential marking used for scientific writing? But I could imagine that scientific writing is so heavily influenced by Western traditions that the standard hedgings are translationese.

  44. Unnecessary qualifiers? Sometimes people write entire sentences or even books that are unnecessary.

  45. jamessal —

    Hat is correct in divining my intent.

    I was objecting to what seemed to me Hat’s more-or-less blanket condemnation of the word “quite” itself (“Another example of what I’m complaining about is the word “quite,” routinely tossed in as a meaningless qualifier …”). Since I think “quite” has a specific meaning, and since I use it in my own scientific writing with that meaning,(*) claiming that it’s “routinely meaningless” — and by implication should be removed most of the time you see it — struck me as a bit peevish and over-the-top.

    I was in fact anticipating the idea that, as Hat suggests, sometimes one should delete “very”. I just think that “quite” is similar, in that it’s not “routinely meaningless”.

    (So, if you want to be precise about it, I was objecting to the first part of Hat’s statement, not necessarily to the specific example he offered in the second part. I also don’t think “purposely” is an intensifier, as you claim, so your argument about how it’s wrong to use “quite” in that particular phrase doesn’t really work, but that’s neither here nor there.)

    (*) I don’t seem to find writers “routinely” misusing it in what I read, either. However, it’s possible that the prose Hat is editing comes from a somewhat different scholarly/literary culture than what I routinely read. So maybe I would agree that “quite” is overused or misused in what he’s used to reading…

  46. I don’t seem to find writers “routinely” misusing it in what I read, either.

    That’s because the text you read has been edited! Believe me, you don’t want to see how the sausage is made.

  47. That’s because the text you read has been edited! Believe me, you don’t want to see how the sausage is made.

    The text I read hasn’t been edited nearly as much as you might think. For one thing, a lot of what I read is, increasingly, the authors’ original text, posted to the arXiv in PDF form. The only “editing” that may have happened is what the referee(s) might have suggested during the peer-reviewing process, and most referees don’t bother with that sort of thing.

    And the general standards for editing scientific prose — at least in astronomy — are fairly limited. There is, I think, more effort put into correcting non-nativisms in the English (since so much scientific writing is done by non-native speakers) rather than finer/fussier stylistic issues.

    (It used to be the case that the copy-editors for the two main American astronomy journals would relentlessly turn all instances of “which” into “that”, but since the publisher was changed from University of Chicago Press to IOP Press, that has thankfully declined.)

  48. Another annoying qualifier is “perhaps,” used to sap “the best,” “the most,” “the first,” etc. of all meaning:

    “The Perseids are perhaps the most stunning meteor shower in the world.” http://www.geek.com/science/the-perseids-is-the-most-stunning-meteor-shower-in-the-world-1667303/

    “In Livingston parish—perhaps the hardest-hit place in the state …” http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2016/08/uncovered

    Or how about this delightfully dreadful example:

    Who can forget that fellow rapper Kanye West, who currently stars in the brand’s Fall ad campaign, is perhaps the most prominent member of the Balmain army, having himself donned an equally embellished jean jacket at this year’s Met Gala?
    http://www.vogue.com/13468284/frank-ocean-balmain-couture-nikes-blonde-kanye-west-tyrone-lebon-giuseppe-zanotti/

  49. PS – as someone who makes a living writes legal briefs – which are often subject to strict page limitations – I have learned that 10% of any draft is water, which can easily be squeezed out; that another 10% is fat, which you can work off with effort; and that after that, you have to start cutting muscle and bone.

  50. There is a specific phrase involving “perhaps” that I have used in a number of scientific papers: “It is perhaps unsurprising that….” This is used to introduce facts that may seem obvious in retrospect, once the reader has a clear understanding of what I am describing. At the same time, it avoids insulting a reader who had not yet grasped the point. It also helps avoid arguments with referees about whether particular points are obvious or not.

  51. One of the more pernicious words in mathematics (and related) writing is obvious. There are countless examples where things obvious to the author are not obvious at all to the reader or, even better, simply wrong. As they say ‘Obvious’ is the most dangerous word in mathematics. It would be hilarious if mathematicians decided to use perhaps obvious instead.

  52. Just ran across another phrase that makes my hackles rise and makes me reach for my red pen (or rather, the edit function): “as such.” I would say it’s used appropriately perhaps one out of every twenty or thirty times; otherwise it’s a tic that needs to be deleted or reworded (I just changed it to “so that”).

  53. Hat: Why not “and so”?

    D.O.: Professor writes down “A, B, C, therefore D”. Student says he doesn’t see it. Professor says “It’s obvious!” Student continues to complain. Professor says, “Let me do it by another method”, looks at it for a while, says “Yes, I was right, it is obvious!”

    (Feynman said that when a mathematician says a theorem is trivial, he means it has a proof.)

  54. Hat: Why not “and so”?

    Context. It’s amazing how many different and better ways there are to replace that stupid phrase. (I wish I knew when and why it caught on.)

  55. (So, if you want to be precise about it, I was objecting to the first part of Hat’s statement, not necessarily to the specific example he offered in the second part. I also don’t think “purposely” is an intensifier, as you claim, so your argument about how it’s wrong to use “quite” in that particular phrase doesn’t really work, but that’s neither here nor there.)

    I don’t think we’re so far apart, but I can’t help responding to this parenthetical nitty-gritty. You speak of precision but then address matters purely essential to your thinking and your argument. To be specific, you took a precise question of Hat’s and gave it a precise answer — and it was precisely that back and forth to which I responded. I did include that caveat that I very well could have lost the ins and outs of the threads, making a precise response to a precise back-and-forth less of a contribution than I’d hoped; and — given the essentials of your argument and the way Hat responded to it — that seems to have been the case.

    As for my argument not holding water, that’s only if you read intensifier in its technical sense, which isn’t what I intended. Granted, considering the LH crowd and how easily the technical sense of the word folds into the phrase I used, I can see how that would be misleading. I should have either said intensifying adverb or, ironically, used a modifier such as something of a before the phrase that caused trouble. None of that undermines my argument, however. To do something purposely is to do it with more attention or energy, i.e., with more intensity, than to merely do it, possibly distractedly or willy-nilly. In other words, purposely is an adverb that, because it has inherent intensifying qualities, rarely benefits from intensifiers — used here in the technical linguistic sense. I’m sure some sentences could be dredged from which you would lose something by deleting quite before purposely — context indeed being everything in language — but Hat’s certainly wasn’t one of them.

    All that said, returning to my missing the ins and outs, my intervention seems to have proved less a help than a hindrance. And for that I apologize.

  56. “The Perseids are perhaps the most stunning meteor shower in the world.” http://www.geek.com/science/the-perseids-is-the-most-stunning-meteor-shower-in-the-world-1667303/

    “In Livingston parish—perhaps the hardest-hit place in the state …” http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2016/08/uncovered

    For the first, I couldn’t agree more: if the author is at all versed in meteor showers and thinks those the most stunning, stating it as if it’s a fact is less like jumping off a cliff than a raised garden. For the second, though, is it the use of a modifier at all or specifically the dandyish perhaps that raised your ire? Making explicit the limits of one’s knowledge when talking about flood victims seems reasonable enough, no?

  57. To do something purposely is to do it with more attention or energy, i.e., with more intensity, than to merely do it, possibly distractedly or willy-nilly.

    I don’t think so, no. For me at least, do purposely is synonymous with do intentionally, which does not exclude doing something distractedly, that is, without attention. It does exclude doing it willy-nilly, however.

  58. I always thought purposely had stronger connotations than intentionally, but even so, if you were to describe someone doing something both intentionally and distractedly, wouldn’t you feel obliged to throw in an albeit, or something of the like, in most cases?

  59. There is a certain class of theorems that mathematicians would call “obvious,” but, in contrast, there are “deep” theorems, which might be simple to understand but require real skill to prove (at least the first time around). For example, the fundamental theorem of algebra is not at all “obvious.” As originally formulated, it states that every polynomial with real coefficients can be factored into a product of linear and quadratic terms. It is arguably obvious that this problem can be solved by proving that every polynomial with complex coefficients has a complex root, but proving that last part is never obvious. To prove it requires either great ingenuity or a lot of development of the theory of complex variables; the latter method makes it not so difficult to prove for a professional mathematician, but it is still generally recognized as non-obvious. (Also, somewhat interestingly, it is not possible to prove the fundamental theorem of algebra using only algebra. Some analysis. such as the statement that the complex numbers are complete, is also required.)

  60. languagehat said:
    As I side note, I would dearly love to know how to pronounce Macesic; it’s from Serbo-Croatian Maćešić/Маћешић, roughly “MAH-che-sheech,” but that may not have much to do with how an Australian bearing the name would say it.

    If this doctor is Croatian, there is lots of information about how his surname is pronounced in Croatian. However, the same surnames (ie. spelled in the same way) are not uncommonly pronounced differently in Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian and Montenegrin languages, or rather on the territory of those states.

    “Croatian Surnames” by Šimunović and the Croatian Encyclopedic Dictionary both derive Maćešić from the word maćeha (stepmother). The Croatian Encyclopedic Dictionary provides statistics as well: there are 410 families with the surname Maćešić in Croatia, with the highest number living in Vojnić. The pronunciation is Mȁćešić [ˈmat͡ɕeʃit͡ɕ] in Croatian, with a short falling accent on the “a”.

    Australian pronunciation of Maćešić:
    The pronunciation of the surname Maćešić would depend on whether a “typical” Australian (let’s say one of Anglo-Irish ancestry) would have heard the good doctor pronounce his surname or whether the Australian would make an attempt to pronounce it as written. Australians tend to be very accommodating, and if the doctor insists on pronouncing his surname the same as in Croatian, then the pronunciation would be something similar to [ˈmat͡ɕeʃit͡ɕ], with, perhaps the substitution of t͡ɕ by t͡ʃ and e by ə or iː. On the other hand, when confronted by “Maćešić” in writing, Australians tend to disregard the accents on the letters, and the result would be something like [məˈkiːzɪk], or someone with a particularly Australian sense of humour might even say “Doctor Make Sick”.

    The fact that the surname does not end “ich” suggests that the doctor belongs to the more recent immigration into Australia when the pressure to assimilate was not as great. As a consequence the immigrants did not feel the need to re-spell their names to make them easier for Anglophones to pronounce. A case in point is the Sumich family (Sumić [ˈsumit͡ɕ] in Croatian) who re-spelled their surname as Sumich [ˈsʉːmit͡ʃ ] when they arrived in Perth in the early 20th century. One of the descendants, the footballer Peter Sumich (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Sumich) has an Australianised nickname Suma [ˈsumə].

  61. jamessal-
    What bothers me about “perhaps the hardest-hit place in the state” is that it conveys no information more than “which was hit hard.” The reporter feels the need for a superlative for dramatic purposes, but s/he doesn’t have the facts, so we the readers get, maybe it’s the hardest it, I dunno, you figure it out.

    You get this a lot in sports writing, for some reason. Here’s a true horror:

    “According to Tim Reid of the Committee to Commemorate Babe Ruth, the West Coast Inn home run is now believed to be perhaps the longest hit ever off Major League pitching.”

    The hit is BELIEVED to be MAYBE the longest. Good thing we have the expert so we can be sure.

    http://northeastjournal.org/babe-ruths-longest-home-run/

  62. It does exclude doing it willy-nilly, however.

    Come to think of it, it does not. I do my tax returns will I or n’will I, but doing them is still an intentional/purposeful act. The true antonym for purposely is accidentally.

    There is a certain class of theorems that mathematicians would call “obvious”

    I think Bell’s point (cited by D.O.) is that “obvious” does not exclude “wrong”. It is obvious, based on the commutativity of addition, that you can rearrange the terms of any convergent series without affecting its result, but the sum of (-1)^i over i is a counterexample. On a more elementary level, it is obvious (but untrue) that there are more fractions than there are integers.

  63. Another word I loathe: “individuals.” It has its uses (as do all these words, of course), but it’s wildly overused and sometimes entirely excrescent, as in the example I just ran across: “[such schools] provided a scholastic start to some individuals who went on to become prominent writers…” I deleted “individuals” and the world is a better and more efficient place.

  64. @ Bloix:
    What bothers me about “perhaps the hardest-hit place in the state” is that it conveys no information more than “which was hit hard.”

    I would disagree. “Perhaps the hardest-hit place”, to me, translates as “certainly one of the hardest-hit places, and possible the hardest-hit”. So it’s a member of a very small class, and could be the most extreme member. Whereas “was hit hard” only distinguishes it from places that weren’t hit hard. If half the state “was hit hard”, then that particular place is a member of a very large class, with nothing to distinguish it.

    (Contrast “a poor village in India” with “perhaps the poorest village in India”. Not the same thing, in my view.)

  65. I deleted “individuals”

    On the Economist‘s list of overused words: “fine as an adjective and occasionally as a noun, but increasingly favoured by the wooden-tongued as a longer synonym for man, woman or person“. I like “wooden-tongued”, and I think the plural is even more overused than the singular.

    The Economist further comments generally: “Such words should not be banned, but if you find yourself using them only because you hear others using them, not because they are the most appropriate ones in the context, you should avoid them. Overused words and off-the-shelf expressions make for stale prose.” Hear, hear.

    I would not, however, have deleted it altogether: I am not a fan of some as a noun unless contrasted with others. I would have changed it to students or something of the sort (but as always you see the whole context and we don’t).

  66. It does exclude doing it willy-nilly, however.

    Come to think of it, it does not. I do my tax returns will I or n’will I, but doing them is still an intentional/purposeful act. The true antonym for purposely is accidentally.

    That gets at my point better than my own response. Let’s say accidentally is the “true” antonym of purposely: still, far more often than not the context of a sentence will reveal whether something was done accidentally — and, indeed, my sense of it (FWIW) is that purposely is rarely added to do nothing more than say not accidentally. So while I’ll concede that purposely doesn’t inhere intensifying properties, as I originally wrote, I still think it’s often accompanied by them — which is just as good for my initial argument. Even to find examples you’ve adduced — of something being done both purposely and either willy-nilly or distractedly — you’ve scanned your past for acts that will fit the bill; but who does their taxes accidentally? Again, I think you make my point for me. If someone were to find themselves in a position where it would sound perfectly normal for them to announce that they would be doing their taxes — and it would not be an accident — they’d have to be a criminal committing some sort of fraud, and the chances of any of those filings being done distractedly or willy-nilly would plummet. And if such a criminal, detailing his fraud, were to use the word purposely to describe his actions, he might literally being saying that his marking of such and such a box wasn’t an accident, but that’s not why he’d say it: he’d say it only if he wanted to show the great attention required of his work, i.e., the lack of distraction required in his thinking. So I’ll restate my original conclusion, striking through the the bit you’ve proved inaccurate with your true antonym (to prove myself that I’ve at least learned something): “[P]urposely is an adverb that, because it has inherent intensifying qualities, rarely benefits from intensifiers — used here in the technical linguistic sense. I’m sure some sentences could be dredged up from which you would lose something by deleting quite before purposely — context indeed being everything in language — but Hat’s certainly wasn’t one of them.” I’ll still stand by that.

  67. Bloix: What bothers me about “perhaps the hardest-hit place in the state” is that it conveys no information more than “which was hit hard.” The reporter feels the need for a superlative for dramatic purposes, but s/he doesn’t have the facts, so we the readers get, maybe it’s the hardest it, I dunno, you figure it out.

    Peter Erwin: I would disagree. “Perhaps the hardest-hit place”, to me, translates as “certainly one of the hardest-hit places, and possible the hardest-hit”. So it’s a member of a very small class, and could be the most extreme member. Whereas “was hit hard” only distinguishes it from places that weren’t hit hard. If half the state “was hit hard”, then that particular place is a member of a very large class, with nothing to distinguish it.

    I’m with Peter Erwin in that I don’t think perhaps denotes nothing; I just don’t like it for being inappropriately dandyish and for being a step removed, as it were, from the thought that cause the writer to include it in the first place: I don’t actually know if it’s the hardest hit. Bloix, would you object to, ““In Livingston parish—to my knowledge the hardest-hit place in the state …”?

  68. Another word I loathe: “individuals.” It has its uses (as do all these words, of course), but it’s wildly overused and sometimes entirely excrescent, as in the example I just ran across: “[such schools] provided a scholastic start to some individuals who went on to become prominent writers…” I deleted “individuals” and the world is a better and more efficient place.

    Couldn’t agree more, and would venture, first, that our surfeit of individuals owes to a dearth of people and, second, that this loathsome exchange is a political byproduct, i.e., that of internal polling for candidates and the like: people having been discovered as the cold, dangerous, pluralistic creature that they are; folks the true warm and jolly descendants of our first president, Arthur, back when the White House was in Camelot; and individuals a rarely seen breed of people that thus give no offense.

  69. Another one: “be it.” I almost always change it to “whether.”

  70. Trond Engen says:

    Oh, I use “be it” — too much, no doubt. I can’t figure out how “whether” works in those constructions.

  71. Bloix, would you object to, ““In Livingston parish—to my knowledge the hardest-hit place in the state …”

    A reporter would never say “to my knowledge” because “I” isn’t allowed to exist in traditional reportage.

  72. Even worse than perhaps: arguably.
    “The 1970s was arguably the single decade of the 20th century when recorded music was most central to culture.”
    http://pitchfork.com/features/lists-and-guides/9935-the-200-best-songs-of-the-1970s/?page=1
    What is wrong with these people?

  73. And worse still: Seemingly, which means, I’m telling you what I think, but you’ll never get me to admit it.

    “Hillary Clinton took questions from reporters aboard her campaign plane Monday, but seemingly more interesting than what she said is what to call the session in which she said it.”

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/09/06/hillary-clintons-press-conference-drought-is-finally-over-or-is-it/

  74. David Marjanović says:

    (Editing a comment twice while it’s in moderation… I suppose it’s actually only submitted to moderation when the quarter-hour is over?)

    Mateschitz […] Perhaps the name was originally Serbo-Croat and was Austrianized at some point ?

    Of course; that’s obvious enough that we even keep his first vowel short, even though this makes the whole word sound like it was chased too long (a short vowel in a stressed open syllable is a big no-no this side of Switzerland).

    Right, but you can phrase it without going to the extreme of “X may reduce the risk of Y” (which sounds like it implies “possibly, in some rare cases, but probably not”). Why not just add a footnote spelling out that X may affect different people differently?

    That’s the preceding step in the science news cycle, you know.

    Bulgarian, *reportedly*, has evidential marking

    Yep, found it. It has taken four tense/aspect combinations and reinterpreted them as evidentials under Turkish influence.

    (The way the renarrative and the dubitative are described reminds me strongly of the journalistic uses of the two subjunctives in German. The difference is probably that, in German, nobody speaks like that.)

    That’s because the text you read has been edited! Believe me, you don’t want to see how the sausage is made.

    No, that’s not how it works.

    As I keep lamenting, most scientific journals aren’t edited at all. And while this journal does have a so-called layouting process which is fully capable of introducing errors through ignorance after a manuscript is accepted, it does not make page proofs. (The “layouting process” is nowhere mentioned on the website or in the instructions to authors. The lack of proofs is.) Just recently it accidentally published the first instead of the second revised version of a manuscript; the entire second round of peer review was for nothing, and the authors can’t do anything about it.

    Also, a good part of what many scientists read are freshly submitted manuscripts, as peer reviewers. I’m practically the only one who tries to correct clearly ungrammatical English, or even incomprehensible English; few scientists see that as part of their job, after all, but there’s noone else left!

    If this doctor is Croatian, there is lots of information about how his surname is pronounced in Croatian. However, the same surnames (ie. spelled in the same way) are not uncommonly pronounced differently in Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian and Montenegrin languages, or rather on the territory of those states.

    Not in the standard languages. They all have the same sound system.

    or someone with a particularly Australian sense of humour might even say “Doctor Make Sick”.

    There are many jokes like this involving Turkish(-looking) names in German. Unfortunately, most of them are completely fake.

  75. I’m practically the only one who tries to correct clearly ungrammatical English, or even incomprehensible English; few scientists see that as part of their job, after all, but there’s noone else left!

    ~~ sour smile ~~

    Since the average number of readers of any scientific paper is close enough to zero, there’s not much point. Eventually scientists will stop researching and writing papers altogether and just submit the list of citations, from which their future careers can be calculated using a variant of PageRank.

  76. There are a small number of scientific papers that are genuinely literary pleasures to read. The most notable one that I have come across in my own research in Robert Laughlin’s paper that lays out his (Nobel-prize-winning) model of the fractional quantum Hall effect.

    (I realized that it has now been more than thirty years since that paper was written and close to twenty since I first read it. Sigh.)

  77. David Marjanović says:

    Eventually scientists will stop researching and writing papers altogether and just submit the list of citations, from which their future careers can be calculated using a variant of PageRank.

    I fear you’re a genius.

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