APS News

Straight Talk

By Francis Slakey, APS Office of Public Affairs

By the time I finished graduate school in physics, I had mastered technical speech. But, I managed day-to-day conversation with all the grace of a fellow whose unsuspecting foot catches on a sidewalk crack. Rather than continuing to stumble about on the potholes of my own elliptic metaphors, I made a decision. To the Ph.D. anointed among you, this may seem strange. I decided that I wanted to be understood.

I began by trying to finger someone as the cause of my dilemma. After all, the first step to self-improvement is assigning blame. Maybe the environment mucked up my verbal skills? I considered blaming my grad school mentor, but I've hung enough of my deficiencies on him already. Then perhaps some pesky gene was the culprit? Alas, my father publishes poetry. Eventually I settled on blaming Sir Isaac Newton. Surely, Principia had been polluting my diction since childhood.

The next step required some distasteful self-examination. What was it about my speech that made the eyes of the masses glaze? I examined my scientific publications and uncovered my shameful weakness. I, Francis Slakey, am an adjective addict. There in my papers, mocking me, were the giveaway phrases: "optically induced metastable phase" and "magnetic-exchange Cooper-pair interaction strength." The devilish adjective was my master and I was its pathetic tongue-lolling junkie. There was only one way to kick the habit - I went cold turkey.

When I had finally re-established control over the adjective, I began examining other aspects of my scientific speech. I discovered that while my verbs were not a source of confusion, they were all quite boring. I did plenty of "measuring" and "calculating" but I rarely "reckoned" and I never "conjured up." I needed to enrich my vocabulary. As I began stocking my head with fresh verbs, I discovered that the adverb is completely over-sold. The adverb is a footstool for linguistic dwarfs who can't reach the right verb. For example, instead of saying a scientist "spoke confidently," you should say "babbled." Instead of saying the wise doctor "keenly lectured," you should say "droned." What you find is that for every quality verb you learn, you can discard one adverb. So, expanding your verb inventory doesn't require any new shelf space. In fact, it's quite the opposite. If you choose your verbs carefully, you will discover that when you finish upgrading your inventory, you will have an impressive number of empty mental shelves.

In the course of examining my speech, I found that I completely misunderstood the semicolon. A typical sentence in my scientific papers would make a point, certainly, but then additional little thoughts and fragments would tail along behind. The semicolon was the glue for the verbal streamer. What I learned, however, is that a semicolon is the pennant of a dimwit, a waffler. So uncertain over wether to use a period or a comma, the dimwit uses both - stacking them one on top of the other.

Despite my best efforts, I haven't mastered the paragraph. Apparently, the purpose of the paragraph is to introduce more white space into the text, breaking up what the eye would otherwise interpret as an endless blotch of ink. Fortunately, a skilled editor rescued me in this matter. Though I admit, I am uncertain whether this very sentence should be boxed between two others or be this paragraph's caboose.

Most of the linguistic rules I've just described, I worked out on my own, but I have it from a respected source that they are, nevertheless, quite accurate. Although the source is dead, his writing confirms my theories. For example, consider the following plausible scientific sentence: "In order to achieve some measure of progress, it was necessary for him to agitate the liquid repeatedly with an exhausting twisting of his wrists." Now consider Hemingway's version: "He rowed and he rowed and he rowed." Magnifique! No adjectival blockage, no semicolon irregularities, just smooth flow.

You may have noticed that I don't use the letter "Z." I recommend that you drop this letter from your public alphabet. You will find it difficult at first, because you have to avoid phrases like "Zeener diode" and "Zirconium crucible." Of course, that's precisely the point-these phrases shouldn't be used in mixed company. In fact, I believe we should drop the letter "Z" from the dictionary altogether. That would do away with the zodiac, making us all a lot better off.

There is one final bit of self-editing that I do, sort of the rhetorical equivalent of the least common denominator. Before publishing anything, I check the average word length. In graduate school, I could boast an average in the double digits. Recently, a psychiatrist told me that an obsession with long words is a sign of sexual insecurity. Now I try to keep my average under five letters.

This article was reprinted from New Scientist, June 22 1996.


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