Spellings, grammar and typos in science

Last week I wrote (as I do every week) an article. The article was made up of ~600 words and quite a lot of grammar and punctuation. As was pointed out to me on Facebook, some of these words and grammar were not used correctly. Obviously this is the worst of all crimes and this level of un-protessionalism is absolutely appalling.

Now first off, I do actually try to put out blog posts without spelling errors. For several years ErrantScience was proofed by Helen (retired) and since early last year has been on/off proofed by Sarah (currently looking after a beautiful new baby) and more recently Erica. They do this in exchange for coffee and honey based gin and because they are amazing people.

Now, they do a good job but they are not perfect. In my experience with drafting papers, 6 people can all read the text 10 times each and still somehow miss that you’ve spelt “water” as “waster”. The human brain is very very good at reading what it expects to see and not what is actually written. It’s why professional proof-reading is a thing you train for and a thing that costs lots of money.

One sure way to find my typos quickly is to publish stuff online (or send it off to reviewers). When articles, cartoons or papers go out with typos I am quickly informed of this serious offence with a range of helpful comments…

This is lazy and shows a lack of care

Every paper I’ve ever published has gone through MONTHS of review and re-review by at least 3 people. I have re-re-re-read it countless times and thought very carefully about its flow and contents. The fact that I used “it’s” instead of “its” is not an indication of not reading it enough, it’s an indication that I read it so much my brain stopped seeing the errors.

To claim spelling or grammar is somehow the litmus test for how much work or care someone has taken over writing is baffling. I mean, most papers are based on years of hard work, thousands of results, countless theories and discussions. To claim that misusing an apostrophe shows laziness is a bit like claiming that the builders of the Pyramids of Egypt were lazy because one of the hieroglyphs is in the wrong colour.

Unprofessional

Being professional I feel is sometimes used as a synonym for “never show weakness”. And similarly is implied to mean that in the work place at all times we should apparently strive to suppress any signs of humanity or fallibility – anything less and you should flog yourself with a bundle of network cables.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t all work to do our best, but I also don’t think that a miss-spelling is an immediate indication that a person is not acting in a professional manner.

The other day my son’s school report came and had a spelling mistake where the teacher had written “minuet” instead of “minute”. I have to say that this didn’t make me question her professionalism as a teacher nor her ability to explain the correct spelling to my son in class. One typo is not indicative of some life long misunderstanding of an entire concept or word that shatters the very bedrock of someone’s job.

As scientists we should hold ourselves to a higher standard

This quote is the hardest to hear as it always sounds a bit distant what with it being shouted from the top of an ivory tower.

Why is science different? Why exactly should we be faultless and perfect?

See, I had always thought I had this job called ‘researcher’. I wasn’t aware that by doing this job I have inadvertently agreed to become some paragon of perfection in all things. I thought I was just a human being doing a job (that I love) and that the job was just like other jobs, except that it involves a lot more explosions (at least the way I do it).

It’s very hard to persuade people that scientists don’t live in impenetrable ivory towers while also saying that scientists should be ‘better’ in someway than everyone else and not achieving betterness makes you a poor scientist.

Hey in your article/paper/cartoon I found a typo [typo place]

This is the best of all comments to get. Non-judgemental, helpful and to the point. I don’t like my articles having spelling or grammar errors where I can avoid it and any help pointing them out is HUGELY appreciated. I always correct any that people let me know about ASAP and I’m always pleased to have had the help improving the article.

So if you are reading a blog post, or reviewing a paper and spot a typo. Tell the author and help them make it better. But please don’t act like the world is imploding and anarchy is just round the corner. Language has survived 200,000 years of misuse and change, I think it will make it through till when the servers for ErrantScience have long been destroyed in the inevitable robot wars.

One thought on “Spellings, grammar and typos in science

  • August 29, 2018 at 13:11
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    This was very very good
    I felt your thoughts on protessionalism were on point, however as a lifelong pedant I was disappointed to see the glaring error in the first line of the last paragraph where a comma would surely have been better placed than a full stop after the word typo.

    Reply

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