Since or Because?

protest against donald trump

Since Donald Trump has become president, there have been many protests across the USA.

In normal English, the term “since” can mean “because” or a period of time after an event. Both uses are fine. However, in the above sentence, the meaning of the author is not clear. Does the author mean the protests happened because Donald Trump became president, or does the author mean the protests happened after Donald Trump became president?  The two concepts are closely related (and perhaps the author means both), but in academic writing, a sentence like this should be avoided. It is important for the meaning of the language to be precise so that the ideas are clearly expressed.

To avoid ambiguity in academic writing, it is best to use “since” only to refer to time and use “because” elsewhere. Hence, the author would write

Because Donald Trump has become president, there have been many protests across the USA.

to convey the cause of the protests, and

Since Donald Trump has become president, there have been many protests across the USA.

to convey when the protests happened.

The Oxford Comma

Consider the following sentence:

We fed the puppies, Bobbles, and Fluffy.

In English, for lists of more than three items, the items are separated by commas, that is, all except for the last item, which must be separated by the word “and.” The “and” signals that this is the end of the list. However, is it also necessary to use a comma in this case?

We fed the puppies, Bobbles and Fluffy.

In British English and much English taught in Asian countries, it is not necessary. The  “and” takes the job of the separator, so a comma is seen as redundant.

I used to write this way as well. However, not using the Oxford comma can lead to situations in which the text is ambiguous. This is because a comma has more than one purpose in English. In addition to separating a list, a comma can separate two parts of a sentence.

So the above sentence could be interpreted to mean that we fed two puppies, one named Bobbles, and one named Fluffy, when we really meant that we fed the puppies, and then we fed two more pets, one pet named Bobbles and one pet named Fluffy, who are different from the puppies.

A recent court case that hinged on the Oxford comma was recently decided in the favor of delivery drivers who wanted overtime pay. The regulations were written in a similar way to the above. The regulation that stated what is not covered by overtime is as follows:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish products; and

(3) Perishable foods

They meant that both packing for shipment and distribution are not covered by overtime pay. However, this sentence could be read as packing for shipment and packing for distribution are not covered by overtime pay. Hence, distribution must be covered.

The court ruled that the comma was needed, and therefore overtime should be paid to the drivers who distributed the goods.

It is hence best to use the Oxford comma, especially in academic writing, where the precise interpretation of text is essential. It is also recommended even when writing in British English.

I notice you don't use an oxford comma. I too like to live dangerously.


Spelling Errors to Watch For

A trail through the woods
A “trail,” not a “trial.”

A spell checker is an excellent tool, but it is not foolproof. For instance, if a misspelled word is also an English word, the spell checker will not catch it. I often see the following errors in my edits:

  • “form” instead of “from”
  • “expect” instead of “except”
  • “leaning” instead of “learning”
  • “trail” instead of “trial”
  • “filed” instead of “field”

If any of these words pop up in your paper, it is worth having a quick check for their common misspellings.

Three Tips for a Shorter Paper Title

four cute and fluffy kittensConsider the title “A novel method for kitten clustering based on fluffiness.” To ensure it is as short and concise as possible without losing information, I suggest looking at the following three issues.

  • Avoid starting the title with an article.
    • Starting the title with an article can affect alphabetic indexing. For instance, if many titles begin with “A,” there will be many titles listed at the beginning of the index. To avoid this, some indexing systems list titles with the article at the end: “Novel kitten clustering based on fluffiness, A.” However, this is a complicated solution. It is best to avoid articles altogether, and indeed, some journals specifically forbid it.
    • New title: “Novel method for kitten clustering based on fluffiness.
  • Do not use the term “novel” or “new.”
    • It is often said that “publication implies novelty.” This means that all work  that has not been rejected at the peer-review stage is novel (or new), as that is a requirement for publication. Hence, it is unnecessary to specify that the work is novel.  Of course, novelty is not necessarily true for articles published in “sound science” journals, but these are an exception.
    • New title: “Method for kitten clustering based on fluffiness.
  • Do not use terms such as “method,” “algorithm,” “technique,” “framework,” or “process” unless necessary.
    • At least in computer science, almost ALL papers are about some sort of method, algorithm, technique, framework, or process. Hence, it isn’t necessary to specify this either. In a few cases, these types of terms cannot be avoided. For instance, the term “framework” might be needed, as a framework is broader in scope than a method, and this fact might be important.  However, if framework is just a synonym for method, it should be eliminated.
    • New title: “Kitten clustering based on fluffiness” or even “Fluffiness-based kitten clustering.

Using these tips, we went from the nine-word title “A novel method for kitten clustering based on fluffiness” to the three-word title “Fluffiness-based kitten clustering” without losing any critical information about the content of the paper.