Don’t Tell Me What to Think

“One of the most remarkable aspects of T cells and B cells is that once an innate cell presents them with antigen, they can remember it for the rest of your life.”

David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé, The Hidden Half of Nature, W.W. Norton, 2016.


The authors are telling me that I must regard this fact as remarkable. If the fact is remarkable, they ought to convey it in such a way that I find it remarkable on my own. 


Also, the construction “aspect… is that…” is clumsy and serves no purpose. The word “aspect” is less than satisfactory for what is meant. “Aspect” is more appropriate for architecture. “Characteristics” would be better here. But not even that word is needed.


Better: “Innate cells present antigens to T and B cells. Then the T and B cells remember those antigens for the rest of your life.”


Is that remarkable? You tell me.

Junk Words

“The research is hazy, if not totally silent, about exactly where the amber finds come from.”

“Blood Amber”

New Scientist, Graham Lawton 4 May, 2019


Don’t use words that you don’t need. How is “totally silent” different from “silent”? If something is silent, it makes no noise. Totally making no noise does not increase its silence. Likewise, “exactly where” is no different from “where.” 


In many cases, you may find that adverbs can be safely removed from your sentences without doing harm.


This sentence also suffers from the crime of using a noun as an adjective and a verb as a noun. This leads to a confusing construction. The phrase “where the amber finds” leads the brain to expect the word “amber” to be a subject and “finds” to be a verb. Encountering the phrase “finds come” or “come from” sets up a dissonance that causes us to double back to see what the writer intended. 


Better: “The research is hazy, if not silent, about where the amber comes from.”

Don’t Use Nouns as Adjectives

In December, 2019, the New York Times Magazine published an article by Heidi Julavits called “What I Learned in Avalanche School.” In it, Heidi repeatedly used awkward constructions that could easily have been fixed by the use of prepositions or the elimination of a word. She is not only an associate professor of writing at Columbia University, she has published several novels and won a PEN New England Fiction Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. 


One sentence she wrote said, “In many nonavalanche-terrain scenarios, if a person falls into a heuristic trap, the outcome isn’t death.” It is permissible to put the prefix non before any word. But nonavalanche stretches the point and is awkward. But to create an adjective by adding a hyphen and the word terrain produces an unpleasant effect that cries out for revision. The vogue word scenario has no place in good writing.


Further on: “We noted the resistance variation between the layers.” Better: “variation in resistance between…” But we don’t really know if the original sentence meant that they were noting the resistance or noting the variation. She could also say, “We noted the difference in resistance between the layers.” 


All of this can be avoided by not trying to use nouns as adjectives.


She also wrote, “survival strategy,” “many-feet-deep snow,” “avalanche autopsy,” and “tree bough.”