Hooray for grammar! AMA Style Insider was pleased and surprised to find our humble blog linked from the website of Midwestern singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens. Subjects, objects, Miley Cyrus, and AMA style—it’s all coming together.—Brenda Gregoline, ELS
When I was in high school, I liked to do my homework at the kitchen table. Invariably I’d come across a word that I wasn’t 100% sure I understood or, even more often, a word for which I wasn’t 100% sure of the spelling. Mom was close at hand in the kitchen, so she was my first resource. Handy and reliable too. After I’d asked her about 3 questions, she’d say, “Why don’t you go look it up?” Not as convenient, but I knew when I’d reached my mom’s limit!
Recently I asked a friend of mine with 2 grown children if there were any oft-repeated words of wisdom she remembered offering her kids as they were growing up. One of the first things she remembered was “Don’t guess. Look it up.” Of course, she’s a librarian, so this is an answer designed to foster good research habits in later life…as well as reserve a few moments of peace and quiet for one’s own pursuits.
Now here we are in a time when the encyclopedia salesperson no longer makes house calls, trying to sell a many-volume set of hardcover books. Instead, we have the smartphone. Now, looking it up is a snap. In fact, it’s almost an addiction.—Cheryl Iverson, MA
I have a “tween” daughter who is interested in sports, Minecraft, YouTube, wildlife conservation, and believing that she knows everything—not necessarily in that order. If I had been a parent 20 years ago, I might have been able to let the dubious or improbable-sounding facts she spouts off during breakfast slide by with a murmured, motherly, “mmmmm.” I might have been able to respond to questions about why Pluto is no longer a planet, how much would it cost to fly from Chicago to Ulaanbataar, or what is the total length of stretched-out human intestines with “I don’t know” or “Go look it up.”
But I am lucky enough to be a tech-connected parent in 2014, and I can know! The phone is in my pocket, the iPad is on the counter, the desktop is steps away! We can look it up together! (Short answers for the curious: too small, orbit too irregular; about $4000 for the 3 of us; and between 15 and 30 feet, depending on your anatomy.) Along the way, I have managed to sneak in a few meta-lessons to my daughter about critical thinking and what constitutes trustworthy information on the internet. You can’t believe everything you read!
Deciding on “screen time” allowances, finding the balance between work and home, and remembering never to put pixels over people are things we all have to navigate. But I have to admit that our “no devices at the dinner table” rule has a “let’s look it up” loophole—ready access to knowledge has solved arguments, taught us new facts, and livened up many a family conversation.— Brenda Gregoline
Okay, perhaps he’s not “using” the AMA Manual of Style, but he’s certainly looking very handsome near several editions of it! I’d say he was “gobbling” up style advice, but that might make you want to stab yourself in the eye with the Manual’s sharp corner. And yet I said it anyway. Happy Thanksgiving!
This is Conrad, a wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) befriended by Melissa L. Bogen, ELS. This is the second time we’ve featured a pet with the Manual. Should it become a theme?—Brenda Gregoline, ELS
We love comments. (From real people, that is. Spambots, you can stop any time.)
We love comments like, “Great blog!” We even love comments like, “You are wrong about every single thing related to medical editing, your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries, goodbye.” Both of those require simple responses—I like “Thanks!” for both, to be honest. For the latter, I would be charitable and not even comment on the comma usage.
Every once in a while someone will leave a critical comment that requires a longer response, and sometimes the consultation of outside experts. That was the case with this Quiz Bowl post on units of measure. A reader wrote:
A big problem with the AMA manual is a lack of consideration significant figures. The conversion factor listed in the online “SI Conversion Tables” section from feet to centimeters is 30. That’s wrong. Let’s say I try to convert my height (6.0000 feet) into centimeters. The “.0000″ means that my measurement has 5 significant figures. Significant figures are important in science and health care.
I start with the only unit conversion between customary and metric that matters: 2.54 centimeters equals exactly 1 inch. This is the only conversion that matters because it is a definition. There are infinite significant figures.
Here is what happens if I use the “SI Conversion Tables” section of the AMA manual of style:
6.0000 feet * 30 = 180 centimeters
Here is what happens if I use math and pay attention to significant figures:
6.0000 feet * (12 inches/1 foot) * (2.54 cm)/(1 inch) = 182.88
Where did those extra 2.88 centimeters come from? They came from a a conversion factor that was wrong.
For the same reason as above, your answer to the first problem is wrong.
7.2 inches^2 * (((2.54 cm)^2)/((1 in)^2)) = 46.45 (assuming 4 significant figures, to demonstrate the inaccuracy of your conversion factor)
This isn’t just an academic exercise. A text for editors shouldn’t have errors like this.
We made “hmmm” noises for a while but finally drafted a response to post here, since a shameful amount of time has gone by since the original comment.
You raise an important point about the significance of significant digits. The Manual addresses this in section 20.8.1 and, in chapter 18, where the conversion table is embedded that shows conversions for inches to centimeters, there is a caution that results should not be reported beyond the appropriate level of precision. It is critical to ascertain the precision needed for the clinical context of the conversion. If you only need significance to 1 place beyond the decimal (7.2 inches) to accurately describe tumor size, then the 2 significant digits of the result should be fine and the clinical difference between 46.8 and 46.5 is probably not important.
It’s entirely possible that the final 3 words of that paragraph are the equivalent of a thrown gauntlet to someone out there—if so, we’re willing to continue the conversation in the comments to this post.—Brenda Gregoline, ELS