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Avoiding Common Errors with English: Part III, a Review and Some New Ideas

In the third part of this series I would like to discuss the use of plural words (especially Latin plural words), the use of words in a series (including use of the word “respectively” and the “serial comma” which is also known as the Oxford comma). As we did in Parts I and II, bold text will indicate examples.

Chinese and Japanese (and probably Korean and other languages based on Chinese) do not use an added “S” to form plural words. As an editor, when I see a writer failing to add an “S” or “ES” to plural words, I instantly know the authors need to work on improving their English in other ways. My point is simple. Authors should remember to think about plural words as they write and make sure to use the correct plural forms. Here is a sentence that fails to do that: Many author should remember to use the plural form of word. That is, this should talk about “authors” and “words.”

However, English is a language of exceptions. Some plural forms of words never (or rarely) take an added “s.” We call these “collective nouns.” With collective nouns, groups of things are considered to be one large thing. The best example is the word “furniture.” Native speakers might talk of a single piece of furniture or many pieced of furniture. The word “furnitures” is never used because all the furniture in one house is thought of collectively, as one thing. Here are some examples of correct singular and plural forms (both are spelled the same way for collective nouns): advice, content, evidence, infrastructure, research, seaweed, shrimp, slang, stuff. For collective nouns, we rarely (or never) an added “s” with these nouns: advices, contents (sometimes is used), evidences, infrastructures, researches, seaweeds, shrimps, slangs, stuffs.

A linguist who knows Latin could probably give you the reasoning behind creating plural forms of English words that are taken from Latin. We are stuck with Latin in science for a simple reason. In short, long ago a bunch of mostly European scientists wanted to choose a language for use in science. The English wanted to use English, the French wanted to use French, the Germans wanted to use German; the only language they could agree on was one that none of the used, Latin. When using words that come from Latin, different endings of plurals are spelled in different ways. Look at the singular and plurals of these similar groups of words: apex and index; herbarium and medium; lamella and stoma; genus and species. The plurals are similar, with some patterns, but are not completely consistent: apices and indices; herbaria and media; lamellae and stomata; genera and species. When you see a word that appears to have come from Latin, such as nouns ending in -ex or -ium, remember to check a dictionary to get the correct Latin form.

Lastly, I’d like to discuss words in a series and the word “respectively.” Two methods can be used to list words in a series. The comma before the word “and” is called the “serial comma” or the “Oxford comma;” both terms mean the same thing. Here are the two methods. Without the serial comma, I could write, “dogs, cats and mice.” With the serial comma, this becomes “dogs, cats, and mice.” While many writers, including native speakers, do not use the serial comma, it can be important to use it. Why? It can help you avoid confusion.

For example, look at these sentences, one with the serial comma, the second without it: “The group met with two clowns, Bill, and Tom” and “The group met with two clowns, Bill and Tom.” In the first sentence, the group met with four people and two of those people were clowns. In the second sentence, the group met with two people who were both clowns, the clowns named Bill and Tom. In scientific writing, the lack of a serial comma can sometimes change the meaning of your sentence.

Similarly, let’s look at three animals. We will use the serial comma to make things perfectly clear and then introduce the word “respectively.” Look at this series of words (you might note that the words series and serial are related and spelled in similar ways): dogs, cats, and mice. We now have three groups of animals, and we are not grouping “cats and mice” as one group because we used the serial comma to make it clear we have three groups and not two. What do they eat? Dogs, cats, and mice eat meat, mice, and grain, respectively. When you use the word “respectively” you are connecting two groups of words. That is, dogs eat meat, cats eat mice, and mice eat grain. In this last example, we do not use the word “respectively” because it is very clear which animal is eating which food.

That is, use “respectively” to connect two series of words. Here’s an example of a way that a writer can save space by using the word respectively. The study site, a rock outcrop surrounded by forest, had a mean annual temperature of 13°C, a mean annual precipitation of 40%, and a mean annual wind speed of 2 m s-1.

In this example, we’ve included an appositive (the study site = a rock outcrop surrounded by forest, so the latter phrase is an appositive). However, you will notice the words “mean annual” are repeated three times. We can shorten this series of words by using the word “respectively.” The study site, a rock outcrop surrounded by forest, had a mean annual temperature, precipitation, and humidity of 13°C, 40%, and 2 m s-1, respectively.

Compare the two sentences. Which one is shorter? We use the word “respectively” to keep our sentences short and make them easier to understand.

Lastly, we would like to conclude with a bad example. In this paragraph we will try to do everything wrong, mis-using the little things of capitalization, punctuation, and spacing, using simsun fonts with english, creating run-on sentences like this one that never seems to end, failing to use semicolons, using informal English, starting sentences with “And,” failing to use commas with appositives, failing to use numbers correctly, misplacing time units and really messing up by not using the serial comma. You’ve just had your example of a run-on sentence the sentence before this one. And the sentence before this sentence had an appositive that didn’t have a comma to set it off. And the series of words didn’t use the serial or Oxford comma and this run-on sentence fails to use a semi-colon and uses the word “and” too often at least 4 times and is too long. Today we have made numerous errors in this paragraph(so if you were an editor and you receive a document that looks like this one you will send it back to the author).

You would tell that author, “Find a native speaker to help with your use of English.” Or, you can concentrate on the things we’ve discussed and improve your use of English!

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