amastyleinsider

October 7, 2012

Quiz Bowl: Articles

Filed under: quizzes — amastyleinsider @ 7:19 am
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Once again it’s time for a historic Quiz Bowl. Okay, maybe historic is a bit much, but I’m trying to make a point here. The point has to do with the subject of this month’s AMA Manual of Style quiz—articles. Is it a historic or an historic Quiz Bowl? Did you guess a historic? If so, you’re right. The article a is used before the aspirate h (eg, a historic occasion) and nonvocalic y (eg, a ubiquitous organism) (§11.9, Articles, p 412 in print).

Try another example from this month’s quiz.

The physician told that patient that he should have a/an ultrasound examination performed.

Here’s a hint. Sometimes it helps to read the sentence aloud.

The answer is as follows (use your mouse to highlight the text box):

The physician told that patient that he should have an ultrasound examination performed.

Words beginning with vowels are preceded by a or an according to the sound following (in this case, the u sound) (§11.9, Articles, p 412 in print).

Sound plays an important role in determining whether to use a or an. Test your skills by taking the full Articles Quiz on the AMA Manual of Style online. It will be a (or is that an?) unique experience.—Laura King, MA, ELS

September 25, 2012

Going the Distance: Further or Farther?

Filed under: usage — amastyleinsider @ 2:51 pm
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A medical editor who in a manuscript meeting asks, “Should we take this manuscript farther?” sparks the idea for this discussion on the grounds that farther suggests distance and further, “quantity or degree.”1

 
Once decided, the examples of variant use jump unexpectedly forward without my having to crack a book:

• Jack Shephard, spinal surgeon and Lost castaway, pauses amid the lush tropical foliage to ask his guide to Jacob’s lighthouse, “How much further, Hurley?”2 He’s a spine surgeon, not a brain surgeon, I think smugly, feeling confirmed in my theory that fictional characters are only as smart as the people who create them.
• The writer of a blurb on the Adventure Cycle Association itinerary3 for a guided bicycle trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains gets it right when describing what’s in store for riders after they reach Mabry Mill: “Approximately five miles farther down the road, you might want to take a detour of less than a mile off the parkway for a tour and a taste at the popular Chateau Morrisette winery.”
• I am sitting at an Italian restaurant celebrating the birthdays of 2 manuscript editors. Talking about my running schedule, I say that my weekly distance “will extend further.” I pause. “That would be farther.” I smile, lift my brows, and announce that I have selected further and farther for my blog entry.

But once I crack the dictionary and English-language usage books, my smugness at knowing the difference between the two dissolves, for the words “have been used more or less interchangeably throughout most of their history,” says the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, which allots 11 lines to a discussion of their usage differences, adding that they “are showing signs of diverging.” First, noting that they are not used differently as adverbs “whenever spatial, temporal, or metaphorical distance is involved,” the entry says they “diverge” when the meaning is not conveying distance. In that case, “further is used.” Furthermore, when used as a transitional adverb announcing that the sentence aims to advance a point, the entry says further is used, but farther is not. (However, further is usually changed to furthermore in JAMA in such instances.) Adjectivally, the usage entry continues, “Farther is taking over the meaning of distance.”

 
To put it in perspective, Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage devotes 3 columns to the discussion that begins, “About every usage commentator in the 20th century … has had something to say about farther and further… as to how they should be used or how they seem to be used.”1 This explanation comes after first noting that few of the commentators have ventured little beyond a 1906 “pronouncement”:

Farther should be used to designate longitudinal distance; further to signify quantity or degree.

Webster’s says that farther and further “are historically the same word” and concludes that their interchangeable use is after all “not surprising.” To buttress the claim that they have the same origin and that they did not stem from the word far, the Webster’s entry reports that, of the two, further is older and “appears to have originated as the comparative form of a Germanic ancestor of the English forth,” whereas “farther originated in Middle English as a variant of further that was influenced by the comparative (spelled ferre) of far (then spelled fer) which it (and further) eventually replaced.”

 
The rest of the entry provides examples of usage, noting when grammatical usage for one eclipses the use by the other. In modern English, Webster’s says that further “used in the sense ‘additional’ … has taken over…” But farther is more frequently used adjectivally when “literal or figurative distance is involved.”

 
The Chicago Manual of Style4 and The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual5 echo the 1906 pronouncement and distinguish the two by distance and degree. However, swerving slightly, the seventh edition of Scientific Style and Format6 suggests that the use of farther as an adverb works for physical or nonphysical distance and suggests that further be reserved for use as a transitive verb: “His theory did little to further our knowledge of the oldest galaxies.”

 
After examining the language usage explanations of the 2 words, perhaps the commentators who have not ventured further than the 1906 pronouncement offer the best understood explanation. I could go farther, but I won’t. —Beverly Stewart, MSJ

1. Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 1989.
2. Lighthouse. Lost. ABC television. February 23, 2010.
3. Adventure Cycling Association. Blue Ridge Bliss: tour itinerary. http://www.adventurecycling.org/tours/tourdetail.cfm?id=175&t=EV10&p=3. Accessed September 25, 2012.
4. The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers. 15th ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press; 2003.
5. Goldstein N, ed. The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law. New York, NY: Basic Books; 2007.
6. Council of Science Editors. Scientific Style and Format: The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers. 7th ed. Reston, VA: Council of Science Editors in cooperation with Rockefeller University Press; 2006.

September 19, 2012

A Peek at a Trio of Homophones to Pique Your Interest and Provide Peak Enjoyment

Filed under: usage — amastyleinsider @ 10:03 am
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Grammarians who pen English usage guides do not seem piqued at the misuse of the words peek, peak, and pique. Theodore M. Bernstein notes only that piqued “takes [the] preposition at or by.” Even college-level writers’ guides make little fuss. Flipping to the usage sections of several writers’ guides, one finds a no-show for the peeks. Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, however, writes that “[t]hese homophones have a way of being muddled by nodding writers.” Relying on former newspaper columnist and grammarian James J. Kilpatrick, who had caught misuses among the peaks in various news publications, the entry notes that peak most frequently edged out its competitors and inappropriately made its way into print. The entry ends by warning writers “to keep the meaning in mind and match it to the correct spelling.”

English usage of peek is traced to 1374 and stems from the Middle English piken, which some sources speculate comes from the Middle Dutch kieken. Peek means “to glance at quickly, or to peer at furtively, as from a place of concealment.” As a verb, it means that something is “only partially visible…[t]iny crocuses peeked through the snow.” The expression peek-a-boo is “attested from 1599,” according to the Random House Dictionary.

Peak is traced to 1520-1530, perhaps from the Middle Low German words pick and pike, according to Random House. As a noun it has several meanings, some of which point to the top of a mountain, ridge, or summit. It can also be used to describe a “projecting part of a garment,” as in the bill of a hat. Nautically, it means the “upper most corner of a fore-and-aft sail” or the “narrow part of a ship’s bow.” As an intransitive verb, it means reaching “maximum capacity, value, or activity,” as in “My running pace peaked at 10 minutes per mile.” Similarly, as an adjective, reaching peak levels demonstrates that one has maxed out.

In a less common usage, those who grow sick or thin are sometimes spoken of as having peaked or “dwindled away” or, as an adjective, being peaked (2 syllables), “being pale and wan or emaciated: sickly.”

Emotion rules pique. It stems from the Vulgar Latin verb piccare, “to pick,” and its usage in English is traced to 1525-1535. It is menacingly linked with pickax and pike. As a noun, it is defined as “a transient feeling of wounded vanity.” Or, as one might say of a woman scorned, “She’s in a fit of pique.” But a woman moves quickly on, pique being a transient emotion. As a verb it means that someone has been “aroused” to “anger or resentment.” Or, as I like to use it, aroused to the state of curiosity.

Although they sound alike and to an extent they look alike, the piques are as different as … Has your interest peaked? (Begs for a pun, doesn’t it?)—Beverly Stewart, MSJ

September 14, 2012

Around, About, Approximately

Filed under: usage — amastyleinsider @ 11:58 am
Tags: ,

Although each of these words is used to refer to a value that is estimated and therefore imprecise, whether it is acceptable to use them interchangeably depends in part on context and the level of accuracy being implied.

Some speakers and writers will use approximately before turning to the other two—not surprising, because people faced with a choice between words will often choose the most impressive-sounding one. And sometimes that choice happens to be correct. On the other hand, people will often, especially in casual communications, use around or about as a sort of verbal shorthand. And again, sometimes that choice happens to be correct.

So, what’s the scoop? To sort this out, it helps to recognize that authorities for the most part agree that around, about, and approximately lie on a scale from casual to formal. As it happens, around is also thought of as the most imprecise and approximately the most precise, with about falling somewhere in between. It further helps to note that around, meaning merely “with some approach to exactness,”1(p68) is not widely considered an adequate replacement for either about or approximately and thus is often accepted only in casual conversation.2 Hence, in conversation between friends, for example, many speakers will toss off a “See ya around three,” whereas in written communications, as Bernstein maintains, “‘about three o’clock’ is preferable to ‘around three o’clock.’”2

Things get a bit more complicated as one moves along the scale: not only does the choice of word depend in part on the closeness to accuracy required by different types of communication, but the differences between the implied degrees of closeness can be subtle. For example, Merriam-Webster’s defines about as “reasonably close to”1(p4) and approximately as “nearly correct or exact.”1(p61) However, it is safe to say that in nontechnical communications (which presumably often place less emphasis on precision), the use of about is not only accepted but is perhaps preferred. As Garner maintains, “When possible, use about instead of approximately, a formal word”3(p5)—where a “formal” word is defined simply as one “occupying an elevated level of diction.”3(pp153-154) On the other hand, as suggested by the above definitions, about does not emphasize a closeness to accuracy as strongly as approximately does—which helps explain why about seems fine when used to refer to estimated values that have been rounded to multiples of 5 or 10 but can seem strange when used to refer to unrounded values.4 Moreover, around and about each have multiple meanings and can be used in other senses, whereas approximately is used in a single sense only, leading some authorities to maintain that the latter is a better choice for technical communications.5

The bottom line:

● Referring to an inexact value in casual conversation? Around, about, and approximately are all acceptable, but approximately can sound a bit pretentious.

● Referring to an inexact value in nontechnical writing? About is perhaps the best choice, around being too informal and approximately being a tad too formal.

● Referring to an inexact value in medical or other technical writing? Although about may very occasionally be used if one carefully assesses the context, approximately is nearly always the best choice.—Phil Sefton, ELS

1. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003.

2. Around. In: Bernstein TM. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. New York, NY: Athaneum; 1985:44-45.

3. Garner BA. The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2000.

4. Yateendra J. About and Around and Approximately: Shades of Difference? Editage website. http://blog.editage.com/about-and-around-and-approximately-shades-of-difference. Accessed August 1, 2012.

5. Scientific English as a Foreign Language: Around, About, Approximately. Worcester Polytechnic Institute website. http://users.wpi.edu/~nab/sci_eng/97_Jun_20.html. 1997. Accessed August 1, 2012.

September 7, 2012

Questions From Users of the Manual

Filed under: abbreviations,frequently asked questions,references — amastyleinsider @ 11:55 am
Tags: ,

Q: I am writing a manuscript in which I want to include the dates that a list of products were first marketed. The database from which I got the information is a subscriber-only database. This seems to be the only place that has the information I want to use. Are such subscriber-only databases allowable to include in a reference list?

A: This question was one we had to address when working on the chapter on reference citation style and the answer we decided on was YES, these may be included in a reference list. (We did not address it specifically for a subscriber-only database, but this question also arises with reference to journal articles that are password-protected/available only to subscribers.) The rationale was 2-fold. First, if there is another place that the information can be obtained that is not behind a “wall,” then of course you might want to consider using that reference instead of the one that is not easily available to all. But, as you indicated in your case, sometimes there is no “free” site for the information you want to reference, and it’s important to acknowledge your source—even if access to it is limited. Second, thinking back to the days before people were citing much online material (and those days were not that long ago, were they?), reference lists frequently cited books that might be out of print or other sources that might not allow easy access. This doesn’t seem a reason not to include the material, even though it might be an annoyance to online readers to find that the source is not freely available, so YES.

Q: How would you cite a webinar?

A: I would extrapolate from the style recommended for citing an audio presentation:

Christiansen S. Medical copyediting with AMA style [webinar]. December 15, 2011.  http://www.copyediting.com.  Accessed April 6, 2012.

Q: In section 14.12, you state “Use the abbreviation [of units of time] only in a virgule construction and in tables and line art.” Does this mandate the use or merely allow the use of these abbreviations in these instances?

A: The answer is short. It does not mandate so much as allow, although units of measure are almost always abbreviated in column heads and stubs in tables and on axes in line art in our journals because of space considerations.—Cheryl Iverson, MA

 

August 30, 2012

Quiz Bowl: Anatomy

Filed under: quizzes — amastyleinsider @ 7:54 am
Tags: ,

Quiz Bowl is back! After a much need summer hiatus (much needed on my part, not sure how you guys feel about the matter), the games continue with a quiz on anatomy. Hmmm, maybe I should rephrase that. Make that with a quiz on anatomy terms. Hmmm, that’s medical terms, not the kind you see scribbled on the bathroom wall. Now that that’s cleared up, let’s get to the question.

Edit the following sentence to conform to the AMA Manual of Style guidelines on anatomical terms (§11.6, Anatomy, p 410 in print).

The investigators examined catheter-induced lesions of the right heart.

Any ideas? Consider the term right heart. Here’s the answer (use your mouse to highlight the text box):

The investigators examined catheter-induced lesions of the right side of the heart

Although some animals have more than 1 heart (the octopus, the earthworm, the cockroach), people only have 1 heart. Authors often err in referring to anatomical regions or structures as the “right heart,” “left chest,” “left neck,” and “right brain.” The terms right and left imply 2 different structures. Generally these terms can be corrected by inserting a phrase such as “part of the” or “side of the.”

Want to learn more? Take the full Anatomy Quiz on the AMA Manual of Style online. See you next month!—Laura King, MA, ELS

August 17, 2012

URLs Gone Bad: Fixing Broken Links

Filed under: references — amastyleinsider @ 1:16 pm
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Link rot is a term that describes the tendency of URLs to fail over time because the page has been deleted or moved. Because of the lag between writing and publication, link rot can be a problem even before content is posted, so all URLs should be checked for dead links.

URL-Checking Software

A number of tools exist that check and verify URLs. Well-written URL-checking software can report dead links and some redirected (forwarded) links. Even if a URL appears to work and is not obviously broken, however, the content of the page may have changed, and it may no longer be what the author intended to cite. Because of this issue and others explained below, it’s not possible to detect all bad links automatically. Therefore, a copy editor should check all URLs manually at least once during the publication process, verifying that the content of the page matches the citation context.

The Link Works, but Is the Content Right?

The content of a web page can change at any time. For example, many government agencies report statistics regularly, archiving or deleting the old report once the new one becomes available. Here’s a reference from the Administration on Aging:

Department of Health and Human Services. A profile of older Americans: 2007. http://www.aoa.gov/AoARoot/Aging_Statistics/Profile/index.aspx. Accessed April 7, 2012.

This URL is valid, but the title on the page is now “A Profile of Older Americans: 2011.” As you scroll down the page there are links to previous profiles, including the 2007 version cited by the author, which now has a new URL:

http://www.aoa.gov/AoAroot/Aging_Statistics/Profile/2007/index.aspx

In this case no change is really needed; the URL is still valid, and the report the author referenced is available from this same page. If there’s any doubt about whether the content of the URL is what the author meant to cite, he or she should review and verify changed URLs (assuming time permits).

Broken Link? Google It

Here’s a sentence from an author-submitted manuscript that includes a broken URL:

To search for gene network pathways, we searched BioCarta, KEGG, and Reactome pathways and available software programs (https://www.affymetrix.com/products/software/compatible/pathway.affx).

A good tool to investigate and repair a broken link is Google. Search the title or a detailed description, in this case “Affymetrix compatible gene network pathways software.” The first result of this search,

http://www.affymetrix.com/partners_programs/genechip_compatible/genechip_compatible.affx

looks promising, and, if you click on the Pathway tab on this page, the heading is “Pathway/Network Analysis,” indicating that this new URL fits the citation context well.

It’s Really Broken: Keep the URL but Kill the Hyperlink

If a title or detailed description search fails to find a match for a source with a broken URL, ask the author to provide another source or another way to access the same source. If there’s not time to consult the author or if the author replies that there is no other way to access the reference, leave the URL in place to indicate how the author accessed the source, but remove the hyperlink.

Here’s an example from another author-submitted reference list, with the URL in place but the hyperlink removed:

Kittler H. Dermatoscopy: introduction of a new algorithmic method based on pattern analysis for diagnosis of pigmented skin lesions. Dermatopathol Practical Conceptual. 2007;13(1). http://www.derm101.com/dynaweb/resources/milestones/49057/@Generic__BookView/49067;cs=chapview.wv;ts=chaptoc.tv;chap=dpc1301a03. Accessed February 15, 2010.

A detailed title search doesn’t help in this case. There are no obvious errors in the URL. Also, entering the author’s name in the site search box provided at the home page, http://www.derm101.com/, produces this result: “The term ‘kittler’ was not found.”

Typos in URLs

Copy editors must also be alert for typos, especially errors in punctuation. These are common, and some of them, like the first example below, can be spotted and repaired before checking the reference:

Bad URL: http://www.hospitalcompare.hhs.gov/Hospital/Search/Welcomeasp

Good URL: http://www.hospitalcompare.hhs.gov/Hospital/Search/Welcome.asp

Bad URL: http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal-pmed.0050120

Good URL: http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050120

Bad URL: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nhanes.htm

Good URL: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nhanes.htm

Redirected URLs

If, when you attempt to verify a URL, the landing page has a URL different than the one you tested, the URL has been redirected, or forwarded. Redirection is used most often to allow URLs to be updated without breaking the old URLs. The cited URL jumps automatically to the updated URL. To identify redirected URLs, check the browser address window. Here are 2 examples:

Cited URL: http://wwwn.cdc.gov/travel/yellowbookch4-hepb.aspx Redirected to: http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/yellowbook/2012/chapter-3-infectious-diseases-related-to-travel/hepatitis-b.htm

The Rule: When URLs are redirected, it’s preferable to cite the destination URL, both because redirection is sometimes temporary and because redirection sometimes fails.

The Exception to the Rule: Another tye of redirection is the use of vanity URLs to promote a product or a brand. For example, the vanity URL http://jama.com redirects to http://jama.jamanetwork.com/journal.aspx. Unlike updated URL redirects, vanity URLs should be left intact.

More Information

See §3.15, Electronic References in the AMA Manual of Style (pp 64-67 in print) for more information about the correct format for URLs in electronic references.—Paul Frank

August 8, 2012

Questions From Users of the Manual

Filed under: references,usage — amastyleinsider @ 2:57 pm
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Q: How can a user of your online manual tell if use of a particular word (such as namely) is discouraged?

A:  The first place to look might be chapter 11, Correct and Preferred Usage. But the word you used as an example is not included therein. Or you could try a search in the online manual for the word in question. But that too produces nothing helpful, most likely because we have no “official” policy on this word. Next you might consult a good usage book or the usage notes in the American Heritage Dictionary. Finding nothing anywhere, you could decide on a policy for your publication or the document you are working on, if this seems appropriate or desirable.

Q:  Several questions about the citation of abstracts in a reference list.

  • Section 3.11.9 (Abstracts and Other Material Taken From Another Source) states on page 50 that for abstracts published in the society proceedings of a journal, “the name of the society before which the paper was read need not be included” and that “if a[n abstract] number is included, it is placed in brackets along with the ‘abstract’ designation.” What is not made clear is whether including an “abstract” designation is mandatory or voluntary.   

Should an “abstract” designation be included in the citation to an abstract published in the society proceedings of a journal if neither the society’s name nor an abstract number is being provided? In other words, using example 3 of the book as a base, which of the following would be correct?  

  •  . . . Lemli-Opitz syndrome. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2001;42(suppl):S627.  (the reference is not identified as being an abstract)

        or

  • . . . Lemli-Opitz syndrome [abstract]. Invest Ophthalmol Vis Sci. 2001;42(suppl):S627.  (the reference is identified as being an abstract)

If the “[abstract]” designation is not mandatory, is it AMA style to delete it when an author includes it (without an accompanying society name or abstract number) in such a reference?

Also, if an abstract is given an abstract number in the place where it is published, is it considered mandatory or voluntary for its number to be included in the reference citation? The text in the manual says “if a number is included” but the meaning of this is possibly ambiguous (included by the journal in which it was published; or voluntarily included by the author who submits the manuscript as a matter of the submitting author’s preference? It seems most likely that it is the latter, but I’m not certain). 

A:  In order:

  • The if  is meant to signify that the designation as an abstract should be included if it is provided.
  • The second version you provided would be preferred. It’s a nice service to readers to let them know that what is referenced is an abstract.
  • Absolutely not. We would never delete it. It too provides a service to readers, helping them to find the abstract referred to, should they be so inclined.
  • You interpreted the manual correctly—the latter is what is intended.—Cheryl Iverson, MA

July 24, 2012

Anticipate, Expect

Filed under: usage — amastyleinsider @ 3:49 pm
Tags: ,

Although the use of anticipate and expect as synonyms is now largely accepted,1 at least in casual communications, the careful writer will do well to note that some authorities still hold that there is a subtle difference between them.1-3

Although both words refer to a person’s attitude toward a future event, they differ in what they convey about that attitude. For example, some observers hold that the difference between the words relates to the level of certainty toward the future event (ie, anticipate implies that a person is certain that the event will take place, whereas expect implies only that a person predicts that the event will take place3). However, this weak distinction is easily blurred, and in practice it seems that it is not often upheld. A stronger and more often upheld distinction maintains that anticipate is the stronger of the two words, connoting that some action has been taken to prepare for the foreseen event.2,3 This sense possibly arose from an early (late 1500s) use, “To seize or take possession of beforehand.”4 Although that use is now obsolete, by the early 1600s anticipate was being used to suggest simply “to take action beforehand,” a meaning still current.4 Bernstein points out that such action “Need not be taken so literally as to mean the performance of an overt act; it may simply connote an advance accommodation of the mind or the senses, even involuntarily, to the coming event.”2

In any case, if anticipate suggests the taking of some sort of action to prepare for an expected event, it seems clear that one should perhaps not use it when wishing to convey only simple expectation. Interestingly enough, even those who consider anticipate and expect synonyms do not extend the same acceptance to the synonymous use of unanticipated and unexpected.1

The misuse of anticipate in place of expect likely arose from the tendency common among writers and speakers to use larger words.5(pp22-23) It also is an example of what Garner terms “slipshod extension”5(pp22-23)—“the mistaken stretching of a word beyond its accepted meanings, the mistake lying in a misunderstanding of the true sense.”5(pp307-308) Garner further maintains that the use of anticipate in the sense of “to await eagerly” is also incorrect and points out that such use is also likely the result of slipshod extension.5(pp22-23)

The bottom line:

● Referring to a person’s attitude toward a future event? Using anticipate and expect interchangeably is likely acceptable in casual communications, but in more formal contexts one should take care to observe the subtle differences between them.

● Referring to the simple expectation of a foreseen event? Use expect.

● Referring to a state of taking action—whether that action be either concrete, mental, or emotional—in preparation for a foreseen event? Use anticipate.—Phil Sefton, ELS

1. Anticipate. The Free Dictionary website. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/p/anticipate. Accessed June 8, 2012.

2. Anticipate, expect. In: Bernstein TM. The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage. New York, NY: Athaneum; 1985:44-45.

3. Anticipate or Expect: What’s Next? Grammatically Correct website. http://www.uhv.edu/ac/newsletters/writing/grammartip2008.05.28.htm. Accessed June 8, 2012.

4. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press; 1991: 58.

5. Anticipate. In: Garner BA. The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2000.

July 18, 2012

Is It an Either/Or or a 50-50 Proposition?

Filed under: punctuation — amastyleinsider @ 2:26 pm
Tags: ,

The usual suspects stand 7½ inches high in a stack next to my computer. They moderate my dogma against what I think lazy or muddled use of punctuation or language by nicely telling me that I am wrong or, worse, that I have become woefully out of date.

No, I don’t wear a string of pearls, hang my reading glasses around my neck, stuff a tissue in the sleeve of my cardigan sweater, or wear my hair swept up in a bun, though my gray strands have thickened to streaks that I fear will dominate my hair soon enough. But I do become cranky about usage trends that render the language imprecise.

My problem is the slash or virgule. It seems to pop up everywhere, from a syllabus for a graduate class to a book assigned in another class. On the syllabus, the assessment subsection head includes “Exam/Term Paper and Class Participation.” Good, I thought, I will be able to pick whether to take the exam or write a paper. But no, as I read on I see there is no choice. The exam is to be written as an essay. Should that expression then be considered a compound modifier of a compound word and expressed with an en dash instead of a slash—“examination–term paper”? The book, on the other hand, discusses a collaborative “Harvard/MIT” study. Clearly, this should have been a hyphen rather than a slash.

But most frequently, I find excessive use of the virgule in the medical research articles I edit. Its prevalence in these articles always surprises me because by nature the virgule is ambiguous while science writing aims at precision—to the point of putting readers to sleep: no active verbs, few identifiable subjects, only statements that remain within the bounds of the data, and no causation, just associations.

So am I justified in being annoyed at what I consider an over-reliance on the slash? As a reader, I favor words and punctuation that make ideas clear. And while I am scrupulous about taking out an and/or construction, as is the mandate of our style manual, by stretching “red and/or white” to “red, white, or both,” I consider my irritation justified when confronted with extending its use to what was submitted in a table footnote for an article I recently edited:

            Rescue was defined as any pharmacological/electrical/surgical intervention for the termination/prevention of AF [atrial fibrillation]/flutter…

I dutifully changed it:

            Rescue was defined as any pharmacological, electrical, or surgical intervention for the termination or prevention of AF [atrial fibrillation] or flutter…

Although I was correct in determining that the slashes suggested an alternative, I could have guessed they meant a series.

Before checking the books, I confirm that the symbol of the virgule, which comes from the Latin virgula, “a little bough, twig; a rod, staff,”1 is defined as a slash in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.2 Clearly, it looks like what it means, a visual mnemonic perhaps? My understanding of the punctuation mark is that the virgule can mean and or it can mean or, or as my poet-husband suggests, it classically means and/or.

So now to the stack. First up, the AMA Manual of Style,3 which in the introductory paragraph of the Forward Slash (Virgule, Solidus) section says that the virgule “is used to represent per, and, or or and to divide material (eg, numerators and denominator in fractions; month, day, and year in dates [only in tables and figures]; lines of poetry).” Then comes the first major discussion under the section, which says that the slash expresses equivalency “[w]hen 2 terms are of equal weight in an expression and and is implied” and provides the following example:

The diagnosis and initial treatment/diagnostic planning were recorded.

With this definition in mind, how do my above examples stand up to the test? MIT would probably not quibble with being viewed as equivalent to Harvard, but I still think in this case they are functioning, in their capacity as the generators of a study, as a compound modifier and should be hyphenated, even though and is implied. I think the same goes for my “exam/essay” example because and is not implied. They are a single concept as the major assessment for the class. And for my table footnote, while they represent equivalent interventions, the word and is not implied, but the expression “termination/prevention” could have been left alone as equivalent ideas. However, I think changing “AF/flutter” to “AF or flutter” was correct because I don’t think the experience is equivalent. (However, I am told by one of our medical editors that AF/flutter is so constructed because a patient’s heart rhythms may vacillate between the 2 states so that treatment and outcome are similar, thereby, demonstrating another example of the virgule serving as a visual reality.)

Fowler’s Modern English Usage4 and The Elements of Style5 are silent on the matter. The Associated Press Stylebook6 allows its use only to describe “phrases such as 24/7 or 9/11” and advises writers and editors to “otherwise confine its use to special situations, as with fractions or denoting the ends of a line in quoted poetry.”

The Chicago Manual of Style7 says, “A slash most commonly signifies alternatives. In certain contexts it is a convenient (if somewhat) informal shorthand for or. It is also used for alternative spellings or names. Where one or more of the terms separated by slashes is an open compound, a space before and after the slash can be helpful.” Although coming at it from the alternative angle rather than equivalent angle, I think my editing still stands. Nevertheless, I think the Chicago Manual captures the spirit of the slash in response to the speed brought on by the age of the Internet and people like my boss, who said, “I like it. It’s fast.”

As for me, the confusion of meaning slows me down. I vote for words.—Beverly Stewart, MSJ

1. University of Notre Dame. Latin dictionary and grammar aid Web page. http://www.nd.edu/~archives/latin.htm. Accessed July 16, 2012.

2. Virgule. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA; Merriam-Webster Inc; 2003:1397.

3. Iverson C, Christiansen S, Flanagin A, et al. AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors. 10th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2007.

4. Burchfield RW. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. 3rd rev ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2004.

5. Strunk W, White EB. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. New York, NY: Longman; 2000.

6. Goldstein N, ed. The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law. New York, NY: Basic Books; 2007.

7. The Chicago Manual of Style. 16th ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press; 2010.

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