Friday, July 21, 2017

Do I Make Myself Clear?

I enjoy reading books about writing. Recently I read Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters by Harold Evans. One of Evans’ pet peeves is “unnoticed redundancies, such as complete monopoly and awkward predicament, that do not add to the sense of the message.” He provides over 250 examples, with instructions to “strike out the words in italics.”

Of course, I became curious how Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology fared with these redundancies. So I hunted for them using the search box in my pdf version of IPMB. Most were absent, but a few appeared. I’m not sure they are always bad; you can decide for yourself. I enjoy doing this sort of thing, but is it fair to subject my dear readers to this analysis? I believe that writing well is critical for scientists; if pointing out some sloppy writing in IPMB can help others tighten their prose, the effort is worthwhile.
all of

Russ Hobbie and I occasionally include the unnecessary “of,” such as on page 59, “all of the external parameters,” which would sound tighter with no loss of meaning as “all the external parameters.”

a distance of

Evans puts the whole phrase in italics, which must mean he thinks it is unnecessary. Our text would probably be better by deleting “a distance of” from the homework problem on page 497: “Use the appropriate values for striated muscle to estimate the dose to the gonads if they are at a distance of 50 cm from the x-ray tube."

a number of examples

While Russ and I don’t use “a number of” with the word “examples,” we often write “a number of.” Sometimes we mean "several", which I think is OK (although it sounds slightly pompous). My guess is that Evans is concerned primarily with cases when “a number of” could be deleted with no loss of meaning. I found a few examples in IPMB, such as on page 489, “irradiating the patient through a number of absorbers of different thickness spreads out the region of maximum dose” (and should it be “thicknesses”?), and especially page 514, “A number of more complicated situations are solved by Loevinger et al.”

a period of

I suspect that Evans is irritated by authors who write “a period of time,” which Russ and I never do. Sometimes we use “a period of” in the mathematical sense of the repeat time of a periodic function, such as on page 342: “If you are told that there is a signal in these data with a period of 4 s, you can group them together and average them.” No change is needed there. On the other hand, this text from page 39 is a borderline case: “figure 2.10 shows the survival of patients with congestive heart failure for a period of 9 years.” To me our prose sounds fine; I’m not sure what Evans would say.

appear to be

I admit, we occasionally have the unneeded "to be" after "appear", such as on page 178 “does the charge distribution appear to be continuous or discrete?” and page 297 “do the results appear to be chaotic?” I write mainly be ear, and my ear isn’t bothered by “appear to be.” I am left wondering: “to be”, or not “to be”: that is the question.

as yet

On page 134 we write “There is evidence that some as yet unidentified toxin of medium molecular weight accumulates in the blood.” Yes, I concede the sentence would sound better if we delete the “as.”

close proximity

I agree with Evans that the “close” is bothersome. Russ and I never include a “close” with our “proximity,” except once on page 483 when we had no choice, it was inside a quote: “The bystander effect in radiobiology refers to the ‘induction of biological effects in cells that are not directly traversed by a charged particle, but are in close proximity to cells that are.’”

completely untrue

I think Evans’ point is that a statement can be either true or untrue, with no intermediate case, so completely is redundant. I’m not sure science is so black and white. Sometimes you can have an approximation that is very accurate, but technically untrue (Newtonian mechanics is almost true for speeds much less than the speed of light, but not completely true). Perhaps a better example is the cliché “completely pregnant.”

We have a lot of completely’s in IPMB, most of which I am comfortable with. One questionable case appears on page 125: “if a solute is present to which the membrane is completely impermeable...” At first the completely sounds unneeded—a membrane is either permeable or it is not—but we had just introduced the hydraulic permeability, a parameter that can be very small without being zero. Saying “completely impermeable” is probably fine when we mean the limit as the hydraulic permeability goes to zero. I side with Evans that completely is unnecessary on page 88 “this differential form of the continuity equation is completely equivalent to the integral form,” and on page 279 “Jules Henri Poincaré realized around 1900 that systems described exactly by the completely deterministic equations of Newton’s laws could exhibit wild behavior.

depreciated in value

Although we don’t use "depreciated", this wordy sentence from page 33 would be improved by deleting “in value”: “if the interest rate is 5% and if the interest is credited to the account once a year, the account increases in value by 5% of its present value each year.”

divide up

Russ and I sin only once, on page 144: “Divide up any closed surface into elements of surface area...”

end up

You tell me if this sentence form page 510 sounds better without the “up”; my ear can’t decide: “When a radiopharmaceutical is given to a patient for either diagnosis or therapy, the nuclei end up in different organs in varying amounts.”

have got

Sometimes Evans is like the Lorax: correct but annoying. I suppose this sentence from page 607 should not have the “gotten,” but the change seems so picky: “This is the same answer we would have gotten if h had been regarded as a constant.”

it is interesting to note that

We never use this exact phrase, but on page 248 “it is interesting to compare this to Eq. 9.38” would sound better as the command “compare this to Eq. 9.38.” I probably would not change page 11: “it is interesting to read what an orthopedic surgeon had to say about the use of a cane.”

past history

I hadn’t really thought about this redundancy until Evans pointed it out. He is right that “past history” is redundant, and I would change several such cases in IPMB, including page 57, “it is independent of the past history of the system and is specified by a few macroscopic parameters.”
Do I Make Myself Clear? is a fine book, although in my opinion it is not as good as Zinsser’s On Writing Well. Scientists are judged by their journal papers and grant proposals, both written documents. You need to write well, or your reputation will suffer. Eliminating minor redundancies is one way to make your writing clearer and more concise. Train your ear to listen for them.

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