Don’t write “exhibit” when you mean “have”

May 8, 2012

Question. I am supposed to be meeting up with Mike Taylor at the conference, but we’ve not met before and I won’t recognise him.  Do you know what he looks like?

Candidate Answer #1. He’s a bit overweight and has white hair.

Candidate Answer #2. He exhibits mild to moderate abdominal hypertrophy and accelerated ontogenetic degradation in the pigmentation of the cranial integument.

You wouldn’t use answer #2 in Real Life, so don’t use it in your papers.  It’s not big, and it’s not clever.

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12 Responses to “Don’t write “exhibit” when you mean “have””

  1. Mickey Mortimer Says:

    Just to play Devil’s Advocate, wouldn’t you be equally guilty every time you say ‘cervical vertebra’ instead of ‘neck vertebra’ on this site?

    And citing page 798 of your Giraffatitan paper is just too good to pass up-

    “All elements sufficiently well preserved in both species, then,
    exhibit distinct differences, and generic separation is warranted
    since the two species are more different from each other than,
    for example, Diplodocus and Barosaurus Marsh, 1890.”

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Interesting … Could we just say “neck”, “back”, “hip” and “tail” instead of cervical, dorsal, sacral and tail? “Neck rib” for cervical rib. I can’t immediately see why not.

    In other news: thanks for grepping all my papers for instances of “exhibit”. In my defence, I was young and stupid then.

  3. Mickey Mortimer Says:

    To be fair, I do agree with your point in many cases. There are a lot of characters used in phylogenetic analyses that took me some time to understand, merely because the terminology is more technical than it needs to be. Take the classic TWG character “Acromion margin of scapula continuous with blade (0) or anterior edge laterally everted (1).” As far as I knew, eversion meant turning inside out, and nothing has an inside out acromion. If Norell et al. would have just said “acromion tip curved laterally”, then I would have got it right away.

    In other news: thanks for teaching me the word ‘grep’. ;)

  4. Andy Farke Says:

    My general philosophy is that if I don’t find some of my previous writing slightly wince-worthy, then I haven’t been working sufficiently on improving!

    When it comes to naming anatomical features, my opinion is that more precise (i.e., technical) is usually better. For instance, “jaw” is short and well-known, but could mean upper or lower, or cranium, or dentary, or any number of things. Does “hip vertebra” refer to a primordial sacral vertebra or a sacralized dorsal?

    “Acromion tip curved laterally” is still technical – but I agree that it’s much more clearly written than “anterior edge laterally everted.” So I guess even technical writing can be clear or unclear.

  5. Matt Wedel Says:

    So I guess even technical writing can be clear or unclear.

    I think that’s the issue entirely. It’s all too easy to retreat into either pointlessly jargonized language or skew so hard in the direction of informal that confusion creeps in–your examples using ‘jaw’ and ‘hip’ are apt. Much harder to find the balance between being technical enough to avoid confusion, without losing readability or using jargon for jargon’s sake. It’s something that takes time and practice, and probably something we can all do a better job of, no matter what our current level of art.

    (Sadly, that paragraph is not as readable as I’d like…)

    BTW, this is huge issue for talks. I have noticed in a lot of presentations that the speaker will retreat in jargon when they’re nervous or feel insecure. Some of these presentations were even given by people other than me!

  6. Mike Taylor Says:

    A big +1 on Andy’s point that even technical writing can be either clear or unclear. More precisely, writing can be technical or non-technical and it can be clear or unclear, and those two axes are pretty close to orthogonal.

    To put it another way, the goal of writing is to communicate ideas accurately and with as little effort on the part of the reader as possible. That means being precise (so, yes, “mandible” is nearly always better than “jaw” when writing for scientists) it also means not erecting any unnecessary barriers (so I would nearly always prefer “toothless” over “edentulous”, which pretty unambiguously means the same thing in most circumstances).

    I remain curiously intrigued by Micky M.’s (presumably lightheated) suggestion of using “neck vertebra” (and by induction, back, hip and tail) instead of cervicals (and dorsal, sacral and tail). Does doing so actually remove any clarity? I don’t think it does. The example that Andy raises (Does “hip vertebra” refer to a primordial sacral vertebra or a sacralized dorsal?) still pertains when we use “sacral”. We could just as well ask whether a given “hip vertebra” refers to a “primordial hip vertebra”. We do have a problem translating the adjective “sacralised” — I don’t want to have to say “hipised” or “hippified”. Of course we could keep using the adjective “sacralised” of such hip vertebrae, but then we have an internal inconsistency in our nomenclature and that’s not appealing.

    Hmmm.

  7. Matt Wedel Says:

    One reason I’d like to retain at least cervical, dorsal, sacral, etc. is for cases in which the informal body divisions like ‘neck’ and ‘trunk’ appear not to be present. Whales, frogs, and legless lizards still have cervical vertebrae, even if it’s pretty darned hard to locate anything one would call a ‘neck’. Ditto for sacrals in some animals that lack external hindlimbs.

    It might be an inexact parallel, but I think there’s some similarity here to the definition/diagnosis difference in phylogenetics. Cervical vertebrae are defined as those vertebrae immediately posterior to the skull that lack mobile ribs (so, encompassing fused ribs, as in sauropods and birds; unfused but non-mobile ribs, as in most non-avian theropods; and no ribs at all, as in at least some lizards)*. They mostly occur in the neck–if one can be identified–but even then the cervical = neck equivalency is not very exact, in that many tetrapods have their last cervical buried in the anterior trunk.

    * If we wanted to get really technical, we could define cervical vertebrae based on their Hox gene expression patterns, although I don’t know if those are conserved across all tetrapods (they may well be, I’m just ignorant on that point). In almost all cases, though, that would be overtechnicalization for no payoff in clarity.

    I don’t think we’re going to find any perfect solutions, because I don’t they’re out there to be found. I used the term ‘art’ in my last comment because that’s what I think it is. It’s a matter of speaker (or writer), audience, circumstance, experience, and taste. I think as long as we’re aware of the problem and try to avoid the ditches on either side, we’re doing well enough.

  8. Mike Taylor Says:

    Dammit, Wedel, how am I supposed to make an interesting comment in response when I agree with everything you say?


  9. Good points!

    I tend to distinguish between an exact anatomical term, for which I use jargon, and a general concept. “Neck vertebrae” are those that form the externally visible neck – which may well include some anterior, cervicalized dorsals at the neck base. “Cervical vertebrae” are those that are true cervicals only.

    Similarly, “manus” is the entire, complete hand, but NOT the wrist, whereas “hand” may well include the wrist as well.

  10. John Scanlon, FCD Says:

    Re: everted/curved laterally

    ‘curved’ could mean the bone (its surface?) is not straight or flat on the lateral side (though it might be medially);

    everted is more precise, as it just means ‘turned outward’.

    Ambiguity is worse than obscurity, because you can’t look up the author’s intention in a dictionary (or Google).

    Speaking of adverbs of directionality, you don’t often now see those forms in ‘-ad’ (laterad, anteriad etc) that were still quite popular with morphologists in mid-Twen-Cen. I used’em in my thesis and a couple of papers, and nobody ever complained, but gave it up because I wasn’t sure anyone was actually reading my stuff (apart from a couple of Europeans, who have to put up with a lot from anglophone authors).

    To extend the hip/sacral/sacralised example above, I’m reminded of the way everything and everybody in (say) ‘Lord of the Rings’ (I’m not talking about the movie) has at least three names used more or less interchangeably, which obviously creates a barrier for first-time readers but a feeling of depth and richness for those with familiarity/interest in the languages and history. Doing morphological description, including character definitions, in English, I have a tendency to alternate among synonymous terms without realising it – presumably because it feels like better writing to avoid close repetition (and I read a lot of 18th and 19th Century stuff when I was young), but it’s potentially worse if they’re not understood as synonyms by the reader.

    Someone (Cohn & Tickle 1999, in Nature) actually did conclude that snakes have no neck on the basis of Hox gene expression, but they also did not seem to have heard of cervical ribs or the axis vertebra, so the case was not well made (altho’ an interesting result). A little further back, Aristotle seems to have been undecided whether lungs or shoulders were a better criterion for defining the ‘neck’ (he didn’t mention sternal ribs or Hox genes).

  11. Mickey Mortimer Says:

    John- Ah, but my alternative was “acromion tip curved laterally”, which I think clearly indicates the process itself is curved as opposed to just one surface of the process. In fact, even “acromion curved laterally” is pretty unambiguous, since the acromion is a process. Now if it were something non-projecting like “nasal dorsal edge curved laterally”, then you couldn’t just shorten it to “nasal curved laterally” and be unambiguous, but even then I don’t think “nasal dorsal edge everted” brings any more clarity than “nasal dorsal edge curved laterally”.


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