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4 posts from November 2011

November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving Greetings

Mary Lynn Skutley


By Mary Lynn Skutley


An often repeated piece of advice for writers is to “know your audience. “    In fact, I knew someone who tacked a photo of her target reader above her desk.  That picture—of a dark-haired, mid-career professional man who was curious and open but by no means an expert—helped her write a lively book with minimal technical jargon. 


We write to you weekly, dear readers, but we often wonder who you are and how we can better help you.   Reviewing some “top five” statistics from last month, we know most of you are from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Malaysia, or Australia.  Many of you sign on from Phoeniz, AZ, Edmonton, CA, Washington, DC, Chicago, IL, or Singapore.    And most of you identify English, Spanish, Chinese, German, or Dutch as your primary language.  (Although Hausa, Persian, Norwegian, Japanese, and Portuguese are among the other languages you may speak.)


In a perfect world, we would sit beside you and talk about your work.  We might ask about your intent, or suggest a few rephrasings, or simply admire the clarity of your prose.   Most important to us is connecting, encouraging, and letting you know you are an important member of this far-flung community of writers.  Thanks for inviting us to join you at your desk these past few years, and for being a part of our audience.  

 

November 17, 2011

The Grammar of Mathematics: Percentage or %?

Timothy.mcadooby Timothy McAdoo

As Chelsea so succinctly noted in her recent post about how statistical terms are introduced and used in APA Style manuscripts, “in the social sciences, the worlds of grammar and mathematics intersect.” Thus, when you first start to write about statistical results, you may encounter style questions that you’ve not considered before. In today’s post, I answer one such question:

Question: How do you decide whether to use the percentage symbol (%) or the word percentage?

Answer: Use the symbol only when it is preceded by a numeral; otherwise, spell out the word percentage.

For example,

What percentage of wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? In Experiment 1, we used a computer simulation to address this timeless question. The woodchucks (who would chuck) chucked 86.4% of the wood available during the test. This was a larger percentage than we hypothesized. Two woodchucks (33.3% of the virtual subjects) would not chuck wood (see Table 1).

You’ll find these guidelines on page 118 of the Publication Manual. On the same page, the Manual also notes just one exception: "In table headings and figure legends, use the symbol % to conserve space."

Table 1


November 14, 2011

Brevity Is the Soul of Lingerie (and Abstracts)

by Anne Breitenbach

AnneBreitenbachComing back at long last to my promised series on abstracts, let’s begin with the first clause of the Publication Manual description in section 2.04: “An abstract is a brief, comprehensive summary of the contents of the article.” Our focus in this post is the “brief” part of that instruction. Your job as abstract writer is to give the prospective reader the essential information as succinctly as possible. Although you’re not quite reduced to haiku, you are restricted to what's crucial. 

In Chapter 2, which covers manuscript structure and content, section 2.04 gives us a number of specifics.  It notes that if you are preparing a paper for a specific journal, then that journal may well provide information on the abstract somewhere in the instructions to authors. Read that information. Abide by it. The most common instruction is likely to be about length. For APA journals, for instance, the instructions read, “All manuscripts must include an abstract containing a maximum of 250 words.”  If yours exceeds a limit, it may be cut arbitrarily wherever the limit falls, or it may be hacked apart by a copyeditor who has firm instructions on what to take out and what to leave in, which may well not agree with your opinion. Likewise, if you are creating an abstract for an instructor or in accordance with university guidelines, you should check and see whether they have guidelines you need to abide by.  

But back to section 2.04, here are some “don’ts”:

  • Do not include [oops. I’m afraid I just hit 250 words in these two paragraphs and so am out of space. Yes, that’s what 250 words look like. Not very long is it?] information that doesn’t appear in the manuscript. 
  • Do not evaluate in the abstract—instead, report [“I did” not “I believe”].
  • Do not get bogged down with nouns when there’s a sturdy verb available [“used” not “the utilization of”].
  • Do not use passive voice when active makes sense [“Bill ate five sandwiches” not “Five sandwiches were eaten by Bill”].
  • Do not repeat the title; in fact, don’t repeat—space is too precious.


The Manual also gives suggestions on other ways to save space. 

  • Instruction on abbreviations is a bit oblique. Section 4.22 states, “In all circumstances other than in the reference list and in the abstract [italic added], you must decide whether (a) to spell it out a given expression every time it is used in an article or (b) to spell it out initially and abbreviate it thereafter.”  So presumably abbreviations should be used in abstracts as a matter of course. 
  • Section 4.31(b) tells you to set numbers in the abstract as numerals.


Changes That Your Professor May Not Know About

Previous editions of the Publication Manual gave more extensive instructions on specifically how to keep the abstract brief.  This has led to a bit of a Catch-22, as in the sixth edition, in an effort to actually be brief, we removed some of those guidelines. We thus now have a gray area where the ghosts of old rules, still remembered by many a professor and editor, haunt the newer, less circumscribed instructions on keeping abstracts short and clear.

Here are some examples of ways in which guidelines about abstracts in the sixth edition differ from those given in the fifth edition:

  • In previous editions, writers were instructed to include initials with the surnames of authors cited in the abstract. That instruction is now gone.
  • Previously, the Manual included instructions stipulating use of the third person rather than first in the abstract (the opposite of the usual preference; see section 3.09). That specific instruction is gone, but the example given in the paragraph on being coherent and readable is written in the third person. Thus, presumably third person is still acceptable in the abstract but is not required.
  • The whole instruction-rich section on being “self-contained” is gone. That section had included advice on defining abbreviations and unique terms and spelling out names of tests. Although those suggestions are still useful ways of saving space in an abstract, they are no longer specified in the Manual.

So be brief, be clear, and be prepared. 

November 03, 2011

The Proper Use of Et Al. in APA Style

Chelsea blog 2 by Chelsea Lee

Academic writing is full of little conventions that may seem opaque to the uninitiated. One of these is the Latin phrase et al., an abbreviation meaning “and others.” It is used to shorten lists of author names in text citations to make repeated referencing shorter and simpler. Note that et al. is italicized in this post when I am using it as a linguistic example, but it should not be italicized when you are using it as part of a reference citation.

General Use of Et Al.

Below is a chart showing when to use et al., which is determined by the number of authors and whether it is the first time a reference has been cited in the paper. Specifically, articles with one or two authors include all names in every in-text citation; articles with three, four, or five authors include all names in the first in-text citation but are abbreviated to the first author name plus et al. upon subsequent citations; and articles with six or more authors are abbreviated to the first author name plus et al. for all in-text citations.

Number of authors

First text citation (either parenthetical or narrative)

Subsequent text citations (all)

One or two

Palmer & Roy, 2008

Palmer & Roy, 2008

Three, four, or five

Sharp, Aarons, Wittenberg, & Gittens, 2007

Sharp et al., 2007

Six or more

Mendelsohn et al., 2010

Mendelsohn et al., 2010

 

Avoiding Ambiguity

However, sometimes abbreviating to the first author name plus et al. can create ambiguity. Here are two example references, as also discussed in a previous post about reference twins.

Marewski, J. N., Gaissmaier, W., & Gigerenzer, G. (2010). Good judgments do not require complex cognition. Cognitive Processing, 11, 103–121. doi:10.1007/s10339-009-0337-0
Marewski, J. N., Gaissmaier, W., Schooler, L. J., Goldstein, D. G., & Gigerenzer, G. (2010). From recognition to decisions: Extending and testing recognition-based models for multi-alternative inference. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 17, 287–309. doi:10.3758/PBR.17.3.287

The first in-text citations to each of these would be as follows:

  • (Marewski, Gaissmaier, & Gigerenzer, 2010)
  • (Marewski, Gaissmaier, Schooler, Goldstein, & Gigerenzer, 2010)

For the subsequent in-text citations we would usually abbreviate these studies to the first author name plus et al.; however, doing so here would produce two Marewski et al. (2010) citations, leaving the reader unable to tell which one you mean (if the citations were from different years we would not have this problem, because the years would tell them apart). The solution here is to spell out as many names as necessary (here, to the third name) upon subsequent citations to tell the two apart: 

  • (Marewski, Gaissmaier, & Gigerenzer, 2010)
  • (Marewski, Gaissmaier, Schooler, et al., 2010)

Notice that for the first reference, this means that all citations to this source include all three names. For the second reference, the two remaining names can be abbreviated to et al.

A Quirk of Et Al.

Finally, be careful of a quirk of et al., which is that it is plural—that is, it must replace at least two names (or, put another way, it cannot stand for only one name). So, if you have worked through a reference and only one name is left to abbreviate, you must spell out all the names every time to tell the two apart.  Here is an example with three authors, although the principle holds no matter how many total authors there are:

Berry, C. J., Henson, R. N. A., & Shanks, D. R. (2006). On the relationship between repetition priming and recognition memory: Insights from a computational model. Journal of Memory and Language, 55, 515–533. doi:10.1016/j.jml.2006.08.008
Berry, C. J., Shanks, D. R., & Henson, R. N. A. (2006). On the status of unconscious memory: Merikle and Reingold (1991) revisited. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 32, 925–934. doi:10.1037/0278-7393.32.4.925

The correct in-text citations would be written as follows for all citations of these two references:

  • (Berry, Henson, & Shanks, 2006)
  • (Berry, Shanks, & Henson, 2006)

Avoid the following common incorrect ways of citing these references in text:

  • (Berry, Henson, et al., 2006), (Berry et al., 2006a)
  • (Berry, Shanks, et al., 2006), (Berry et al., 2006b)

A Final Note

If it happens that all the author names are exactly the same and the studies were published in the same year as well, the method of citation described in the reference twins post applies. Namely, use et al. as usual but also include lowercase letters after the year (2010a, 2010b, etc.) to tell the references apart.

For more information and examples on citing references in text, see Chapter 6 of our sixth edition Publication Manual (pp. 174–179). You may also be interested in our primer on how in-text citations work and our piece on common et al.-related errors.

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