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When sound science meets imperfect grammar

There are scientists who obsess over tiny details, and then there are scientists who obsess over tiny details to the point of being truly annoying. I’m the second kind.

I mean, I don’t roll out of bed thinking, “Gee, I hope I can correct a colleague misquoting the thousandth decimal place of Planck’s constant today.” But I’d be lying if I said this opportunity caused no pride.

One of my pet peeves is when someone uses “standard time” as a general way to refer to all time. Like, they invite me to a meeting at 3 p.m. EST—Eastern Standard Time—but the meeting is in July, when we’re using daylight saving time, so really they should have written 3 p.m. EDT. I know what they mean, of course, but part of me really wants to show up an hour early and demand to know where everyone else is.

I used to press that point. I’d respond to the meeting invitation with a note that wasn’t intended to be snarky but, in retrospect, totally was. I’d write, “Assuming you mean 3 p.m. EDT, that time works for me.” Then I’d get an “Oops, heh heh, you’re right” in reply, and I’d feel like I’d done the world a service.

Is that smug? Is that obnoxious? Is that the reason I had no friends in middle school? Maybe. But I just couldn’t agree to a meeting time that was technically wrong. I told myself I was just being accurate, which is what a good scientist does.

Then, one day, a colleague threw me a curveball. I wrote my usual “assuming you mean 3 p.m. EDT” reply, and they responded, “No, I meant EST.” Now I was doubly confused. Either (a) my colleague wanted to meet at a time that was different from the time on the actual clock in our time zone, (b) they didn’t know what EST and EDT meant, or (c) this was their passive-aggressive way of telling me to knock it off.

Now I had a choice. Either I could show up at 3 p.m. EDT and say no more, having already made a good-faith attempt to correct the error, or I could Get Into a Whole Thing. And as eager as I am to right the planet’s least consequential wrongs, I’m conflict-averse enough to avoid Getting Into a Whole Thing.

So, what did I learn from this experience? I learned that accuracy is important. But I also learned that attempting to enforce precision can sometimes lead to less clarity rather than more. And if you think this lesson doesn’t apply to you, consider whether you winced just now when I used “accuracy” and “precision” interchangeably.

I was thinking about this recently when I read a lament on Facebook from a scientist whose paper received a harsh peer review that criticized the paper’s English grammar and syntax. The reviewer appeared to have ignored the science, or at least found it irreproachable, yet recommended that the journal reject the paper on editorial grounds.

The responses overwhelmingly favored the frustrated scientist. Everyone agreed that a paper has to be comprehensible, of course, but subject-verb agreement and split infinitives seemed like the pickiest possible criticisms.

I was naturally inclined to take the scientist’s side, too. Journal articles are meant to communicate research results, not to showcase linguistic artistry. Small language errors can be corrected, sure, but they shouldn’t make the difference between acceptance and rejection.

More importantly, mandating flawless English can sideline the work of brilliant scientists for whom English is not their first language. Dismissing a scientist’s work on the basis of imperfect grammar is a form of implicit bias that favors those who just so happen to have been born into English-speaking households.

Yet I couldn’t shake my pedantic nature. I’m the sort of person who shows the newspaper to my wife so we can cluck our tongues at a misspelling of the word “its.” I’ve bristled at poorly proofread resumes and job applications, including a cover letter that opened with the salutation, “Dead Dr. Ruben.” I’ve read at least a dozen articles on whether to use one or two spaces after a period at the end of a sentence. (Conclusion: One space is correct, but thanks to my just-past-typewriters-era training, it feels so wrong.)

So while I couldn’t condone rejecting a scientific article for frivolous reasons, I couldn’t confidently call grammar frivolous. Not when I’m the sort of person who types text messages in complete sentences.

But I’ve learned that although obsessing over details can make you feel incisive, it can also obfuscate what you hope to clarify. When I told my colleague that he meant to write “EDT,” for example, all I did was confuse the situation further. Because of a single letter in an email, we almost Got Into a Whole Thing.

Noticing every detail can make us good scientists, but it can also make us insufferable colleagues. There’s only so much benefit one can derive from telling everyone else that they’re wrong. It’s helpful and important to be correct—but even when correcting others is important, it can sometimes be unhelpful.

It’s time we mix our demand for minutiae with a little common sense. It’s time we hold ourselves to high standards of courtesy as well as academic rigor. It’s time we stop the cutthroat posturing and help one another.

And just to be clear, that’s standard time.

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