First off, let’s consider the use of “outcrops” as a verb. This came up recently on this blog when commenter Tom Skaug pointed out that I was incorrectly using that term. He’s right of course, and has the dictionary citations to prove it. Technically, we should say that a particular rock unit “crops out” on a hillside. Mea culpa. I appreciate the correction. That being said, I know a lot of geologists who speak as sloppily as I write. Using “outcrop” as a verb is reasonably common slang in my circles.
Next, let’s consider some plural words. When reviewing an article recently, I saw the words “maximums” and “minimums” written out by a science writer. I suggested to the editor that these should be “minima and maxima” instead. The editor countered that real people (i.e., non-scientists) don’t speak that way, and that the accepted parlance among the general public is just to tack an “s” on the end of a word to make it plural. However, in Latin, the language that gives us these words, the plural would end with the addition of an “a.” When you look it up in a dictionary, both plural forms are listed. To add insult to injury, my computer’s automatic spell-checker function is putting the red zigzag under my correct Latin versions, and NOT underlining the “-s” versions. I’m beset on all sides! Still, to me, “minimums” sounds clunky and clumsy, while “minima” is elegant and sleek, like a well-designed scientific instrument.
Okay, here’s another one. Occasionally, graffiti appear on the walls of the bathrooms here at the community college where I teach. When I spot a new scrawl, I write an e-mail to the cleaning staff alerting them to the vandalism. But what do I do when there’s just one little new jotting? Graffiti are plural; the correct singular of this Italian word is “graffito.” But that sounds vaguely ridiculous, right? “Dear Cleaning Staff, There is a new graffito in the men’s bathroom on the east side of the Shuler Building’s second floor.” I feel silly, and maybe a little pompous, if I use the correct singular form of this word. Anybody else have a word like that, where they know how to use it correctly, but they use it incorrectly on purpose for the ease of communication? (…Or possibly to avoid offending someone?)
Along similar lines, data are plural, while datum is singular. Most scientists are comfortable discussing a single datum, and are careful to only use “data” when there’s more than one chunk of information being discussed. But the general public doesn’t parse this distinction as finely. You’ll see “data” used to refer to what really is a lone datum.
Natural gas – I was thinking about this one while driving into work the other day, and the radio newspeople were talking about that big explosion a few weeks ago in San Bruno, California. It got me thinking about the term “natural gas.” What a dumb, non-descriptive term. I mean, do we ever refer to “natural liquid” or “natural solid?” Natural gas is annoyingly non-specific. I get it: it’s a cocktail of different gases, mostly methane, with a dash of ethane and maybe a few other volatile compounds too. If it were pure methane, we would call it “methane,” but it’s often not pure. It’s a mixture. So we can’t call it just “methane,” because that wouldn’t be accurate. The mixture occurs naturally, so we call it natural gas. We trade specificity for meaningless but accurate inclusiveness. Blech. The role of “natural gas” as a fossil fuel is ascendant; we’re going to be talking about it for some time to come. I think we need a better name for the stuff. Suggestions?