Borrowing from a digital library

North Carolina Digital Library

I have written numerous posts about the general concept that libraries are about more than books. That doesn’t change the fact that libraries are still very much about books. It’s just that nowadays, an increasing number of titles are available as ebooks. Or quite often, only as ebooks. Libraries lend ebooks. And audiobooks, for that matter.

North Carolina Digital Library

Screen shot of North Carolina Digital Library

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Bad news from a good undergraduate paper

Research using a laptop
Research using a laptop

Research using a laptop

Ever since I came across an online article claiming Benjamin Franklin as America’s first environmentalist, I have been looking for information that I can use in one of my other blogs.

I just took notes on another online article called “What Would Ben Franklin Do? Influences of America’s First Environmentalist “ by Lauren Siminauer and noticed that at the time of publication she was “finishing her bachelor’s degrees in biology and psychology at the University of Virginia.

I have written quite a lot about research, sources, and using the library for writing term papers. Since Simenauer has essentially gotten one of her undergraduate papers published online, it makes a good opportunity for making specific comments about how how an undergraduate student did her research—and how she should have. Continue reading

The card catalog: birth and death of a technology

Card catalog
Card catalog

Card catalog at the University of Michigan

If you’re older than about 40, chances are that you grew up using the card catalog to find library materials and had some trouble getting used to the new computer catalogs.

If you’re younger than about 30, chances are you never used one, and perhaps have never even seen one.

And yet the concept of the card catalog is still with us. Just for fun I looked up “online card catalog” on Google.  The search found more than 72 million results. I see that on average Google still gets 90 searches a month on that term.

There is no such thing as an online card catalog! Where will you find catalog cards online? Not in an online catalog! Yet some of the sites on the first result page for that search are actually called “online card catalog”! Continue reading

How to loose your credibility

Lose vs loose
Lose vs loose

Lose vs loose

Loose and lose are similar. They’re easy to misuse and easier to mistype. I like to refer to mixing them up as “misused pears.” Some people might wonder, “who cares?” The answer is that, if those who care include potential employers, clients, customers, or other people who can directly influence your livelihood, you’d better care.

In other words, you lose credibility with careless word choices. “Lose” always points to a kind of failure: failure to keep or win. “Loose,” on the other hand, has a connotation of freedom. If your jeans are loose, you’re free to move comfortably. Or if you take a dog’s collar off, you let it run loose.

So if careless word choices cause you to lose credibility, then I suppose careful writing will help you loose it. And you thought my title was a mistake!

In this post, though, I’m not concerned with choosing the right word out of two or three homonyms. There are other easy ways to lose credibility. Here are two

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Less? or fewer?

Less and fewer are both opposites of more, but properly they’re not interchangeable. They’re used with two different kinds of nouns.

There are some things you can count: pens, typographical errors, coffee cups, and lots, lots more. Use “fewer” with these nouns. If I make more typos late in the day, then it follows I make fewer typos in the morning.

I can’t stand coffee, so I never have more cups of coffee than zero. But cups of coffee can be counted. Coffee cannot. So it isn’t a “count noun”; it’s a “mass noun.” Where it’s proper to say someone drinks fewer cups of coffee, that person drinks less coffee. “Less” is properly used with mass nouns.

It is therefore incorrect to use “less” with count nouns. Lots of people do, anyway. It really grates on people who care about good usage, which, as I said, may include individuals whose opinion of you ought to matter.

There are some potentially confusing gray areas. For example, a cup of coffee might be called simply a coffee. A caterer therefore might tell an employee to set out fewer coffees. That’s not the only noun that makes careful speakers or writers stop and think.

There are also some traditional and well-accepted exceptions to the rule that “less” can’t be used with anything that can be counted: expressions of time, distance, or money. A project takes less than three weeks. One town is less than 50 miles from another. The bill came to less than $400.

Anything expressed as a percentage is a minefield. For example, should a poll report that less than 15% of respondents gave a particular answer, or fewer than 15%?

Someone submitted just such a question to the Chicago Manual of Style Online. Grammatically, should the adjective refer to respondents (countable), or percentage (not countable)? Notice that “of respondents” is the unmodified object of a preposition.

Take it away, and structurally the phrase says _____ than 15 percent. The respondents can be counted, but that’s beside the point. The comparison points to the uncountable percentage. “Less” is correct.

The Manual’s editor used somewhat different reasoning to reach the same conclusion. He or she also points out that grammarians only began to condemn of using “less” to refer to countable objects in the 18th century.

Perhaps in the not too distant future the usage will become so common that hardly anyone objects any more. That time has not yet come.

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Literally? Really?

Misuse of literallyThere may be word in the English language more abused than “literally.” The dictionary within reach has five different meanings for “literal.” The most important for this post is “without exaggeration, metaphor, or embellishment.”

Sir Walter Scott misused it in 1827 when he wrote, “The house was literally electrified; and it was only from witnessing the effects of her genius that he could guess to what a pitch theatrical excellence could be carried.” Electric lights were not yet used in theaters. The house could not have been literally electrified. It’s a metaphor.

Perhaps Scott intended to be humorous. Many authors love to play with words. As long as too many of them don’t run the same wordplay into the ground, it can be great fun.

Today, there is nothing literary about using “literally” to describe something exaggerated and embellished. There’s nothing fresh or new about it. It has become tiresome.

And yet it has become so commonplace that even the Oxford English Dictionary has stated that informally, “literally” can be “used for emphasis rather than being actually true, such as ‘we were literally killing ourselves laughing.'”

Accepting “15 items or less” instead of “15 items or fewer” will cause no harm to the English language. Accepting this “informal” abuse of “literally” will rob the word of its meaning and render it incapable of communicating it. That will cause harm to the English language.

I had intended to compile a list of examples. Fortunately, I don’t have to. It’s nearly midnight as I type this, and what I wrote a few paragraphs about my typing is literally true. That is, without embellishment or exaggeration, I’m making many more typos than I did earlier in the day.

Michael Schnurr, co-creator of Parks and Recreation, hates the abuse of “literally” as much as anyone. But he decided that the character of Chris Traeger was the sort of guy who would overdo everything.  Why not overdo abusing “literally.” So instead of compiling a list and having to type it, I’ll just show you a clip of Chris Traeger.

Go thou and do not likewise.

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Less Versus Fewer / Mignon Fogerty (Quick and Dirty Tips)
Chicago Manual of Style Online
Have We Literally Broken the English Language? / Martha Gill (The Guardian)
You literally don’t need to take ‘literally’ literally: After years of misuse the Oxford English Dictionary gives in and changes word’s meaning / Anna Edwards and Ryan Kisiel (Daily Mail)
Literally the most misused word / Christopher Muther (

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Photo sources:
Lose vs loose. Some rights reserved by GettysGirl4260.
Misuse of literally. Source unknown

Statistical literacy: an important part of information literacy

Comic statistical graph
Comic statistical graph

Ouch! The header should be “Percentage of charts that look like Pac-man,” shouldn’t it?

The mass media often misuse statistics when they report about such subjects as health, science, education, and the economy. Media outlets seem to be more concerned with pushing agendas than accurate reporting. Even if there is no agenda, emotionally vivid language in headlines and teasers create and maintain interest in the story.

I’m not writing media criticism, though. This post is as much about research and any of my others.  Not many Americans know much about statistics. And journalists have no more training in statistics than most of the rest of us.

Badly understood and misused statistics also influence public policy and legislation. Instead of playing the blame game, the general public ought to learn enough about statistics to view discussions that depend on them with respectful skepticism.  Continue reading