The Write Word
A tipsheet by David Poulson, associate director, Knight Center for Environmental Journalism
When a journalist uses the wrong word it is like a carpenter using a screwdriver to pound a nail. It won’t get the job done.
And it undermines credibility with readers, sources and colleagues.
Few people witness the screwdriver-hammering carpenter. Journalists publish their mistakes for thousands to see. And then they sign their names to them.
This list of potential linguistic pitfalls comes from those who cover the environment:
data – Sigh. Disagreement on treating data as a singular or plural noun approaches the level of religious conflict. Many scientists insist on data’s plurality. They’re right, strictly speaking. The singular form is datum. But who are scientists to dictate the conventions of an ever-evolving language? The AP Stylebook, some dictionaries and grammar references say it can be both plural and singular. Here’s one line of reasoning: When scientists talk about data, they are talking about discrete values that they measure in the field. But when you process data – crunch it in a spreadsheet, stream it over the Internet – it becomes a collection, a unit, a commodity – an “it” rather than a “they.” Literate people use data in a singular sense. Should you? The best answer – and admittedly a copout – is to check with your publication. But whatever you decide, make sure your pronouns and verbs are consistent:
– The data are shaky. They should be measured again.
– The data is bogus. It should be ignored.
effluent – That’s the stuff that comes out of a properly working wastewater treatment plant. It is sewage before it arrives.
fireproof – An adjective describing an inability to burn.
fire-resistant – An adjective describing a material that’s hard to ignite.
fire-retardant – An adjective describing an ability to resist burning and withstand heat.
fire retardant – A noun with fire-retardant properties. The hyphen distinguishes the adjective from the noun.
genus – Part of a naming convention that scientists use to identify organisms with similar traits. Many species can be part of the same genus. When a specific genus is written, it is always capitalized and italicized. The correct order is Genus species.
genera – The plural of genus.
genuses – This word does not exist.
genius – It shouldn’t take one to properly use the term “genus.”
global warming/climate change – Both also happen by natural processes so precede them with a modifier like “human-caused” if that is what you mean. Human-caused global warming is a rise in global average temperature caused by greenhouse gasses released when fossil fuels are burned. It is one of many climate changes that are natural or human-caused. Global warming can trigger other climatic shifts like drought.
Climate change has been used as a less alarming way of referring to global warming. Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, climate change is a more general term that can encompass increasing temperature at local, regional and global levels, more frequent droughts, more intense storms and cooling in certain regions despite an average global temperature rise.
mucous – An adjective pertaining to mucus.
mucous membrane – Mucus-secreting tissue. The mucous membranes in your nose may be clogged with mucus.
mucus – The slimy stuff secreted by mucous membranes. Snot, for instance.
nuclear – It is pronounced “noo-klee-er” and not “noo-kue-lar.”
sewage – That’s the foul-smelling, black-tinged, semi-liquid that flows through waste pipes and into a sewage treatment plant. It becomes effluent when it leaves – or at least it does if the plant is operating correctly.
sewerage – The pipe system that carries sewage to treatment plants. Sewerage may be part of the name of a utility authority. Since these authorities often run the plant as well as lay and maintain the pipe, “sewerage” has come also to mean the plant itself.
species – Part of a naming convention that scientists use to identify organisms capable of interbreeding. It is a closer relationship than genus. When a specific species is written, it is always lower case and italicized. The correct order is Genus species.
specie – Coin money. It has nothing to do with the scientific naming convention.
tocsin (TOK-sin) – An alarm bell or a warning signal. Example: The device triggered a tocsin whenever it sensed a toxin, toxicant, toxic substance or any of a list of toxics.
toxic – An adjective meaning harmful, even poisonous.
toxics – EPA refers to pesticides and other harmful agents with this inelegant term in recognition that they are not toxins but are toxic. It’s the agency’s short-hand for the more accurate but boring mouthful: toxic substances.
toxins – These are poisons made by biological organisms–as in bee venom, snake venom, the damoic acid produced by some harmful algal blooms or the blistering agents released by some insects. A toxin is NEVER a synthetic chemical, such as a pesticide, combustion byproduct, or flame retardant. It is NEVER a natural inorganic chemical or element, such as lead, arsenic, or asbestos.
toxicant – Some publications prefer this rather clunky word to toxin when describing the same thing.
wetlands – They don’t have to be wet. The federal government says they are areas soaked with water often enough that they support vegetation adapted to saturated soils. There are many flavors of wetlands – swamps, marshes, bogs, fens, swales, potholes. Some distinctions are described here.
Special thanks to Janet Raloff, Kimberly Thigpen Tart, Sylvia Forbes, Wendee Holtcamp, Robert A. Thomas, Joseph A. Davis, Cheryl Hogue, Sarah Whyman, Thomas H. Yulsman