My Photo


  • Jen-Luc Piquant sez: "They like us! They really like us!"

    "Explains physics to the layperson and specialist alike with abundant historical and cultural references."
    -- Exploratorium ("10 Cool Sites")

    "... polished and humorous..."
    -- Physics World

    "Takes 1 part pop culture, 1 part science, and mixes vigorously with a shakerful of passion."
    -- Typepad (Featured Blog)

    "In this elegantly written blog, stories about science and technology come to life as effortlessly as everyday chatter about politics, celebrities, and vacations."
    -- Fast Company ("The Top 10 Websites You've Never Heard Of")
Blog powered by Typepad
Bookmark and Share

« my kind of town | Main | all you need is.... »


Lee, this reminds me of all those highly-educated engineers often couldn't be bothered to write a coherent email - as though clear communication were some sort of "soft" humanities time-waster.

Reading through your post, by the end I was aching to say just what you have William D. Phillips say at the end. What a cliffhanger! I read Sci-Fi all through adolescence and wrote as little as I could get away with, only realizing something of the nature of the flaw when I reached my 30s.

I was also thinking of this: if one were a scientist who couldn't do math, but you contracted out the doing of math to someone who could, how would that affect how you approach the work and what you could do? Being very comfortable with how words work lets you do things that someone who has to get someone to write for them simply can't imagine asking for. A good writer has as many tools as a good scientist has, and can use them as well. When your editor's third attempt at saying what you want to say only barely comes near what you want, and you don't care that much about words anyway, there is a great temptation to be damned by saying it anyway. At least if one has a good sense of what can be done, and a proper respect for it, one can work well with an editor.

I was amused by several split infinitives above, on both sides of the discussion, insofar as anyone cares.

Peter, the injunction against split infinitives is an unnecessary one that we copyeditors often refer to as a Thistlebottomism. Miss Thistlebottom is the archetypical grade-school English teacher of decades past who was a stickler for rules by which she tried to squeeze the English language into rigidity. For information on many more Thistlebottomisms, see Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer's Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears, and Outmoded Rules of English Usage, by style maven Theodore M. Bernstein, who also wrote The Careful Writer.

Many current style guides say that there is no prohibition against splitting infinitives. From The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition:

5.106 Split infinitive
Although from about 1850 to 1925 many grammarians stated otherwise, it is now widely acknowledged that adverbs sometimes justifiably separate the to from the principal verb {they expect to more than double their income next year}. See 5.160.

5.160 Adverb within verb phrase
When an adverb qualifies a verb phrase, the natural place for the adverb is between the auxiliary verb and the principal verb {the administration has consistently repudiated this view} {the reports will soon generate controversy} {public opinion is sharply divided}. See 5.104. Some adverbs may follow the principal verb {you must go quietly} {Are you asking rhetorically?}. There is no rule against adverbial modifiers between the parts of a verb phrase. In fact, it's typically preferable to put them there {the heckler was abruptly expelled} {the bus had been seriously damaged in the crash}. And sometimes it is perfectly appropriate to split an infinitive verb with an adverb to add emphasis or to produce a natural sound. See 5.106. A verb's infinitive or to form is split when an intervening word immediately follows to {to bravely assert}. If the adverb bears the emphasis in a phrase {to boldly go} {to strongly favor}, then leave the split infinitive alone. But if moving the adverb to the end of the phrase doesn't suggest a different meaning or impair the sound, then it is an acceptable way to avoid splitting the verb. Recasting a sentence just to eliminate a split infinitive or avoid splitting the infinitive can alter the nuance or meaning: for example, it's best to always get up early (always modifies get up) is not quite the same as it's always best to get up early (always modifies best). Or an unnatural phrasing can result: it's best to get up early always.

And from the AMA Manual of Style, 10th edition:

7.3.5 Split Infinitives and Verb Phrases.
Although some authorities may still advise the avoidance of split infinitives, this proscription—a holdover from Latin grammar, wherein the infinitive is a single word and cannot be split—has been relaxed. In some cases, moreover, clarity is better served by the split infinitive.

Ambiguous: The authors planned to promote exercising vigorously. Is it the exercising or the promotion of exercising that is vigorous?]

Clearer: The authors planned to vigorously promote exercising.


The authors planned to promote vigorous exercise.

Thanks for a thoughtful post.
(I love this blog!)

Not exactly on the topic (you put it all very well), but I noticed you open this post with an "X from Hell" phrase, and I just discovered the linguistic term for those phrases with replaceable parts:
(More here: &

Though that delighted me, I wasn't going to bother mentioning it --you likely know it anyway--but when the comments turned to split infinitives, I felt moved to mention another one:
Let us feel free...
"to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before," originally used in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio series (1978).
And we all know where that one came from.

P.S. Oh, and speaking of the red pen, have you seen Taylor Mali read his poem
"The The Impotence of Proofreading," with the line "the red penis your friend"?

Katharine & Fresca: I think the modern blessing on split infinitives comes not from the CMOS but from the original Star Trek's voiceover. And ever since, we have boldly gone where no grammarian has gone before.

And Fresca, I didn't know about snowclones! That's delightful! And one of the things I really love about English. It's so flexible and forgiving and inventive, unlike many other languages, and we're happy to mug other languages for vocabulary. I'm actually reading a fascinating book about "standard" English right now called The Lexicographer's Dilemma by Jack Lynch.

Fresca, I love that video. I actually have it posted on all my class web pages and make my students watch it.

Splendid post. Very much enjoyed. Do you know about the Thrilling Adventures of Babbage and Lovelace? THEY FIGHT CRIME! Well, for some value of "crime" that includes poetry and street music.

I'm not even a third of the way through this and I have to laugh. And share. I'm getting ready to graduate with a BS in CS, and I already have a BA in Communications (minored in English Writing for that one). I can't count how many classmates/project group members I've worked with who can't seem to write a simple, comprehensible paragraph, much less a whole lab report. After a couple years, I managed to find a nice, core group of classmates who could write rather well, and stuck with them.

Just last week, though, I was at a campus career fair, and stopped by a booth for a company looking for CS grads. I handed them my resume, and they scanned it over, stopping in disbelief when they hit the education summary - "You claim to be an engineer who can communicate?!" They seemed generally amazed. From the level of advice I've seen handed out at the school's Career Services resume and cover letter help sessions, I'm not surprised by their surprise. Apparently, proper grammar and the use of spell-check are foreign concepts to a great many students.

Thanks for this post.

I'm a full professor in mathematics at a research university. I also had a blog post tweeted by Roger Ebert a few days ago. Yes, I'm bragging. I'm every bit as proud of that as I would be of having a research article accepted in a journal.

Mathematical research journals do not always have copy editors, and when they do, it tends to be a cursory check to correct obvious grammar and spelling errors. It would take much more than that to actually change the quality of the writing. The only time I had a "real" copy editor was when I had an expository article published in a major "general audience" mathematical journal two years ago. Among other things, she corrected all of my split infinitives; she also changed the meaning of some of my phrasing. I rewrote some of it and asked her to walk it back in a few instances. In retrospect, I should have stuck to my guns a bit harder than I did. English is my second language (third in the order of learning) and I didn't quite have the confidence.

A good part of the mathematical writing that I have seen is quite atrocious, and just to make it clear: first-language (including single-language) English speakers can be as awful as anyone, although in different ways. You can become a research mathematician without any verbal skills whatsoever. Then, however, you hit a wall. To get past a certain point (e.g. winning major research grants) you have to be able to communicate your work to others and get them excited about it. Many scientists have to learn it on the fly, along with teaching, management and leadership skills, and too many other things to list here.

I'm pretty sure that my teaching and research presentations have improved since I took up blogging. I've spent some time lurking on writing-related discussion boards, too. I'm not sure if it has had any effect on the actual research I do, but hell, I'm so glad I did it.

(Hope that this doesn't appear multiple times. The "post" button seems to be malfunctioning.)

Good post Lee. It just amazes me how so many young folks out there (be they math wizz or other) are always using excuses for not applying themselves in basic skills, in school or even in later life. "it's someone elses fault..."

The comments to this entry are closed.

Twitter Updates

    follow me on Twitter

    Physics Cocktails

    • Heavy G
      The perfect pick-me-up when gravity gets you down.
      2 oz Tequila
      2 oz Triple sec
      2 oz Rose's sweetened lime juice
      7-Up or Sprite
      Mix tequila, triple sec and lime juice in a shaker and pour into a margarita glass. (Salted rim and ice are optional.) Top off with 7-Up/Sprite and let the weight of the world lift off your shoulders.
    • Listening to the Drums of Feynman
      The perfect nightcap after a long day struggling with QED equations.
      1 oz dark rum
      1/2 oz light rum
      1 oz Tia Maria
      2 oz light cream
      Crushed ice
      1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
      In a shaker half-filled with ice, combine the dark and light rum, Tia Maria, and cream. Shake well. Strain into an old fashioned glass almost filled with crushed ice. Dust with the nutmeg, and serve. Bongos optional.
    • Combustible Edison
      Electrify your friends with amazing pyrotechnics!
      2 oz brandy
      1 oz Campari
      1 oz fresh lemon juice
      Combine Campari and lemon juice in shaker filled with cracked ice. Shake and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Heat brandy in chafing dish, then ignite and pour into glass. Cocktail Go BOOM! Plus, Fire = Pretty!
    • Hiroshima Bomber
      Dr. Strangelove's drink of choice.
      3/4 Triple sec
      1/4 oz Bailey's Irish Cream
      2-3 drops Grenadine
      Fill shot glass 3/4 with Triple Sec. Layer Bailey's on top. Drop Grenadine in center of shot; it should billow up like a mushroom cloud. Remember to "duck and cover."
    • Mad Scientist
      Any mad scientist will tell you that flames make drinking more fun. What good is science if no one gets hurt?
      1 oz Midori melon liqueur
      1-1/2 oz sour mix
      1 splash soda water
      151 proof rum
      Mix melon liqueur, sour mix and soda water with ice in shaker. Shake and strain into martini glass. Top with rum and ignite. Try to take over the world.
    • Laser Beam
      Warning: may result in amplified stimulated emission.
      1 oz Southern Comfort
      1/2 oz Amaretto
      1/2 oz sloe gin
      1/2 oz vodka
      1/2 oz Triple sec
      7 oz orange juice
      Combine all liquor in a full glass of ice. Shake well. Garnish with orange and cherry. Serve to attractive target of choice.
    • Quantum Theory
      Guaranteed to collapse your wave function:
      3/4 oz Rum
      1/2 oz Strega
      1/4 oz Grand Marnier
      2 oz Pineapple juice
      Fill with Sweet and sour
      Pour rum, strega and Grand Marnier into a collins glass. Add pineapple and fill with sweet and sour. Sip until all the day's super-positioned states disappear.
    • The Black Hole
      So called because after one of these, you have already passed the event horizon of inebriation.
      1 oz. Kahlua
      1 oz. vodka
      .5 oz. Cointreau or Triple Sec
      .5 oz. dark rum
      .5 oz. Amaretto
      Pour into an old-fashioned glass over (scant) ice. Stir gently. Watch time slow.