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January 3, 2015 / jpschimel

Language Pet Peeves

This may become a recurring column, as even among experienced and knowledgeable scholars, there are some really common misuses of language. Here, as a start, are two that I find particularly frustrating, although I’m not particularly pedantic.

Principal vs. Principle.

Principal: The lead person.

Principle: A code of personal action (she has principles) or a fundamental truth (e.g. first principles).

I can’t say how many proposals I’ve seen where the investigators describe themselves as Principle investigators. Why can’t people remember that they are Principal investigators: the primary, important, person in charge. I certainly expect investigators to have principles, but a “Principle Investigator” is studying ethics, not science.

Combining words that should stay separate–nouns that should not be used as a verb:

Feedback: This word is only a noun. It may not be correctly used as a verb. Hence ecosystems can’t feedback on climate. The may feed back on climate. The combined form is only for the noun: a feedback between ecosystems and climate.

Uptake: This is also only a noun. You can take up something but you can’t uptake it. You can measure uptake, but this is now grammatically a noun.

Breakdown: Also not a verb. The verb is two words: break down, but a breakdown is an event. When your car broke down, it had a breakdown.

The pattern here is that these word pairs combine an action (feed, take, break) and a direction (up, down, back), the verb form leaves the words separate: the action stays distinct. Only when you make them into a compound noun do the words smash together.

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One Comment

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  1. Meredith Warshaw / Jan 3 2015 9:04 am

    My pet peeve is using criteria as singular. You can have many criteria, but if you have one, it’s a criterion. I work in clinical trials where all our studies have eligibility criteria and constantly see or hear this misused.

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