By Sarah-Jane O'Connor 21/06/2019

Being a grammar nerd isn’t always the best way to win friends and influence people, but today I’m yet again reminded why it’s important to get our words right.

Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Authority released its annual HSNO Monitoring report, which includes data on hazardous substances and new organisms managed under the HSNO Act. This year, they’ve expanded their report by investigating data related to harm to people, such as poisoning.

This all sounds like good, important data to collate and communicate. Which is why it’s unfortunate that the EPA’s press release included this line:

“The HSNO Monitoring Report 2018 covers the period from 2006 to 2016, and includes data on hospitalisations and deaths from hazardous substances, aerial application of 1080, through to environmental pollution.”

Hospitalisations and deaths from hazardous substances and aerial application of 1080? You’d be totally forgiven for taking that meaning from the above sentence.

Of course, it’s not what they meant: there have never been any human deaths from aerial 1080 application in New Zealand*. But when a press release like that goes out, it’s not unexpected to see that confusion carried over into media reports, as in this Newstalk ZB bulletin:

“Between 2006 and 2016 household cleaning products were the leading cause of hospitalisations, ahead of 1080 poison and environmental pollution.”

Yes, you’d hope that a journalist or producer would scratch their head and wonder why they haven’t heard about all these 1080-related hospitalisations before. But the reality in newsrooms – especially when turning around quick stories for bulletins – is that journalists are busy, possibly lacking in expert background knowledge, and expect to be able to trust the information coming from government agencies. And they should be able to.

There’ll understandably be a lot of frustration among those people who have worked hard to communicate the risks and benefits of 1080, especially when applied aerially, in New Zealand. Maybe not many people heard that bulletin, but now the text is online I won’t be surprised to see it hauled out to support anti-1080 sentiments.

A fix would be very simple. If I was writing that press release (and I write a lot of science-related summaries for work, so I think about this a lot) I would have turned that sentence around: “…includes data on environmental pollution, aerial application of 1080, and hospitalisations and deaths from hazardous substances.” That way, no-one can confuse my meaning. Better yet, I’d separate out those concepts entirely, so as not to mistakenly connect 1080 and hospitals in my readers’ minds.

I would like to see the EPA correct this press release online (since I wrote this, the release has been edited), and put a bit more thought and resource into communicating its science, especially on such serious topics as poisonings. There’s already enough confusion and misinformation online, let’s not have science-based agencies adding to it through clumsy sentence structure. Words matter, and we can at least take care and consideration with ours.


*One hunter reportedly died in 1966 from accidental 1080 poisoning after eating tainted jam, though it was never discovered how the poison came to be in the jam.

If you’re curious about what the EPA report does say about 1080: from 2008 to 2016, the size of 1080 treatment areas (hectares) has declined, with the exception of 2014 and 2016 during beech mast events, and there were 12 1080-related breaches of the HSNO Act in 2017. No human poisonings, though.

0 Responses to “In science communication, words matter”

  • Thank you Sarah-Jane for bringing this to the attention of the EPA, and having them amend their press release. I suppose the original bad grammar was just another example resulting from declining educational standards in NZ. Whatever – as they say!

  • Ron. It maybe fashionable to blame education but I thing mistakes like this are more likely the result of: non-specialists writing the press-releases, time pressure on journalists, and lack of editorial oversight.

    Thanks Sarah-Jane. You are thoughtful as always.

  • “I suppose the original bad grammar was just another example resulting from declining educational standards in NZ.”

    Yes, everything these days is a sign of the sad decline of intellectual discourse and capability and this is wholly attributable to the poor state of the education system. For instance, people seem more inclined to jump to unsupported conclusions on the basis of a limited understanding and their predisposition to a particular view.

    The failure to understand the difference between a causal relationship and a mere correlation is another increasingly common sign of this decline.

    We should all lament the failings that arose the moment Latin was dropped from the curriculum.

  • A significant part of the problem is the need to “sex” up reports to attract media attention. Clickbait to get the profile up. The publish or perish mentality writ large. That means that no longer are abstracts or summaries carefully measured or composed. They have to be sensationalised. That is why so many organisations seem to have PR or media relations people. They are likely to be the source of the bad English, but only because they are following the directives.

  • As a B to B magazine editor in the food production space, I frequently receive articles and press releases that haven’t received the benefit of a sub-editor’s pencil (figuratively speaking). I often shorten sentences, or rearrange them to ensure the subject and object are clear. With respect to press releases, many appalling sentences are created by the drive to place the “important” subject at the beginning of a sentence and convey the whole message in one sentence. Malapropisms sometimes create a serious puzzle for editors too, my latest was someone using “organisms” for “organisations”. Yes, English was not their native language. Those of us who were drilled in grammar despair of a lack of basic knowledge, or interest, in writing clear English.