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Inactivated English

The other night, as is sometimes the case, I offered a little advice about a poorly written statement on a FB site called “China Science” that is not a news or professional site but one that merely announces, explains and popularizes or promotes recent finding of Chinese scientists and industries without citations.  As such, the target readers are common people rather than scientists, although a number of professionals from various fields follow that page.

The passage that I advised that was unclear and obfuscating their communication was “China’s inactivated Covid-19 vaccine….”[1] I wrote: “My dears, “inactivated” makes no clear sense to English speakers in your statement. In this context we would use instead the term “experimental” meaning it is a treatment that has not yet been fully approved and implemented for use with human patients.”

This simple technical editor’s note unexpectedly gathered a lot of attention including from that type of troll that will object to any criticism of anyone’s writing no matter how kindly given or constructive.  Someone also replied with a “screenshot-ed” Wikipedia definition of “inactivated vaccine.” It is a jargon phrase that one can only properly use as two words together and they don’t help anyone to clarify the statement. We will come back to this but I responded with a further explanation as follows: “That may be but nonetheless it is an incoherent statement to laypeople without an explanation of this jargon usage. As a language consultant I would advise that there is no need to use jargon incomprehensible to target readers. In common parlance this is an experimental vaccine and it does not assist anyone in trying to describe it in any other terms. And in any case the vast majority of vaccines are derived from the same process. Moreover if one insists to include the term ‘inactivated’ it must be used as a coherent unit as per the jargon “inactivated vaccine” not ‘inactivated X vaccine.’ There is an order to modifiers in English that needs to be followed for clarity, for example one never separates a color term modifying a subject from the item it modifies: compare ‘sick, brown cow’ vs. ‘brown, sick cow.’ To a native English speaker and to a professional editor like myself there is only one correct choice.”

The point – actually two points  – that I come back to are two particular bad habits in so far as being a better, more articulate, precise and clear writer of English. The first is an attitude by some scientists and researchers that because they are specialists in their own field that gives them the ability to suspend the norms and standards of the language are communicating in. As an excellent writer should I expect the laws of physics to be suspended because I am a great writer? I think not. Likewise that attitude does not assist them or help them to elucidate their findings. By relying on jargon, particular jargon that ignores norms of the language, it only limits your audience but if you goal is to be one of an elite group that only three other people understand who are studying the exact same thing then you are doing great.

The second point is that the culture of writing and its development in China as opposed to the West is entirely different. In China, emperors and the highest level figures of society write (or wrote) and it was everyone else’s responsibility to struggle to understand what they meant. That is an elitist perspective of writing that absolutely doesn’t help you to communicate your point. In the West by contrast writers need to write with excellence sometime to save their own lives even. Writing was the job of a particular, not especially influential at first, profession, the court scribe, in which a usually ruthless, demanding and illiterate ruler sat in judgment of your work. Therefore it was ideal to explain with complete clarity what the hell you are talking about – leaving nothing to question or doubt. That is how writing developed originally in English and it has been a positive aspect of communication to take responsibility as a writer to do your absolute best to clarify without question the points you are trying to communicate.

Just for the hell of it lets offer a full edit that satisfies both laypeople and specialists in the field:

“(One of) China’s experimental #Covid19 #vaccine(‘s) has shown potential in protecting against SARS-CoV-2 by inducing high levels of neutralizing antibody concentrations in the subjects of experiments on test animals, according to a study published in the journal, Cell. (Full Citation and link) This vaccine is an ‘inactivated vaccine’ meaning that it is using dead particles of the virus to induce said antibodies to form. For those who don’t know this is one of two possible processes of vaccine derivation, the other using a live sample of any given virus for which the vaccine is created.”

Actually, in retrospect, the person in charge of posting to this page (that I have never seen offer a citation), probably simply cut and pasted a descriptive sentence about the findings directly from the professional journal. If that was the case even then those specialists would be well advised to use their jargon correctly just as I would be well advised not to expect apples to be floating aimlessly through my skies.

[1] The full statement is “China’s inactivated #Covid19 #vaccine has shown potent protection against SARS-CoV-2 by inducing high levels of neutralizing antibody concentrations in animal experiments, according to a study published in the journal Cell.” A an editor there are least four issues with this full passage but using inactivated in this way is really the issue most in need of help.

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