English and Science, Crimes and Misdemeanors

The author decries current usage of English in scientific circles.1 He completely misses the real problem.The German-speaking countries have periodic conferences to update the German language and keep it standardized. Unfortunately, English-speaking countries have no such forum. The result is that the English language has become an unqualified disaster.In ancient times, the phonetic alphabet was invented for a reason, that is, to make it easy for people to learn to read and write. Some languages

Frank Eggers
Feb 1, 2004

The author decries current usage of English in scientific circles.1 He completely misses the real problem.

The German-speaking countries have periodic conferences to update the German language and keep it standardized. Unfortunately, English-speaking countries have no such forum. The result is that the English language has become an unqualified disaster.

In ancient times, the phonetic alphabet was invented for a reason, that is, to make it easy for people to learn to read and write. Some languages are still phonetic, or at least reasonably phonetic. Among them are Spanish, German, Fijian, and Hindi; English is not. Nor is that the only problem with English. Irregular verbs are an additional problem.

Because English is not phonetic, it is very difficult for people to learn to read and write English. That is especially true for people who learn it as a second language. Consider the words knife, pneumonia, light, right, rendezvous,...

Indeed things are often in a bad state for technical and scientific writing.1 The solution, in my view, is to have the best-qualified people take care of this. They are called, not committees, but editors. In his or her own domain, an editor has far more power than the most ruthless despot (and should). It is upon their shoulders that this burden must be borne.

The author's essay mixes crimes and misdemeanors, making it more difficult to censure the crimes. Further, the cited mistakes and malapropisms should be contrasted by offering improvements. For example, the author stipulates [the word] chairperson as awkward PC vocabulary, but should it be improved? The term chair as noun and verb has long served as gender indeterminate, yet graceful. Why not mention it, to help show the way? If long compounds are not best, what is? I know it's a short article, but proscription without prescription is just scolding.

Other problems that are mentioned are historical characteristics of any living language. Like biology, it's not always neat. In suggesting solutions, please take care that they aren't worse than the problem. My experience with terminology regulation is that it follows language change in a given field and takes credit for it.

I suspect that less-than-ideal language is more symptom than primary disease. As the mathematician K.F. Gauss said, "Your problem is not your notations, but your notions."

Bill Rudersdorf

Houston wmruders@mdanderson.org

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