Liz Wager on the Large Hadron Collider – a qualified success?

Liz WagerNews of the Large Hadron Collider, which is due to smash its first atoms on 10 September, makes me wonder not about subatomic particles but about adjectives. When I teach researchers how to report their work, I generally advise them to be wary of qualifying adjectives as they seem out of place in scientific papers. To describe something as a “large study” seems more dignified than to say it was a “very large study”. Mark Twain got it right (as usual) when he advised writers to “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

Yet describing a piece of equipment 27 km long as “large” doesn’t seem to do it justice (although, according to Wikipedia, the “Very Large Hadron Collider” is already being discussed).

And how to teach non-native English speakers the subtle distinction between big and large? Several centuries of history and class struggle are distilled into our instinctive feeling that big (which probably comes from Old Norse) is common and childish while large (which comes from Latin) is clever and grown-up.

Try switching big and large in common phrases and you’ll see what I mean. To say “I am a big fan of your books” speaks solely of one’s literary tastes but to say somebody is a “large fan” might indicate their girth. I suspect that the “big” in Big Bang has only crept in because of the nice alliteration, and to call anything 27 km long “big” would be even sillier than to call it “large.”

Presumably in French, the latest Hadron Collider is “grand,” and in German it is “gross” (since being in Switzerland it must be multilingual). This gives another source of musing about the richness of English in which not everything which is large can be grand, and where gross has grown so large as to be undesirable. Oh the joys of our language! I’m delighted the physicists can worry about smashing atoms. I’m far too busy deconstructing sentences and savouring the adjectives, and for this experiment I don’t need any equipment.

About Liz Wager

Liz Wager is a freelance writer, trainer and publications consultant who works
for a number of pharmaceutical companies, communication agencies, publishers and academic institutions. She is also the Secretary of COPE (the Committee On Publication Ethics) and a member of the BMJ’s Ethics Committee.