19 April 2007

This just in: authors prey on careless copy editor!

A predator preys on other animals. It is sloppy English to call the action of a predator predating. To predate means 1. To mark or designate with a date earlier than the actual one: predated the check. 2. To precede in time; antedate.

Nevertheless, predate is used in place of prey frequently in scientific papers, especially by non-native English writers. The latest example I have noticed comes from the pages of the prestigious Journal of Molluscan Studies of the Malacological Society of London and published by the Oxford Journals of the Oxford University Press. In the journal's February 2007 issue, an article by A.G. Beu and H. Zibrowius1 has this sentence (near the end of the 1st page): "...lived there for an extensive period, predating the pinninds' mantle." What they mean is that the carnivorous Cymatium specimens recovered from inside the mantle cavities of several species of bivalves were preying on the latters' mantle tissue. This is followed by 3 additional sentences in which snails stated to be predating on bivalves.

I would not have expected the editors of the Oxford University Press to be fooled by such a commonplace error, but apparently they are not evolving fast enough.

Note added 23 September 2008: I stand corrected!

1Cymatium (Gastropoda: Ranellidae) living inside the mantle cavity of the pterioidean bivalves Atrina, Pinna and Pecten. J. Mollus. Stud. 2007 73: 113-115.

9 comments:

Frank Anderson said...

This one drives me absolutely bonkers. I have undergraduates that make this mistake all the time, and I can't help cringing when I hear it in a student's oral presentation.

Tim Pearce said...

Right. You can use "preyed on", although it has the potential to end a sentence with a preposition, so I prefer "depredated" as an alternate to "predated" (meaning eaten).
On the other hand, I have used predated in its correct sense and had people mistake that it meant eaten. In a yet unpublished study looking at timing of arrival, I concluded that Cepaea hortensis predated the Vikings in North America. Someone acted surprised that snails were eating the Vikings!

umit said...

That was a good one...

Cyndy Parr said...

This has always been a big pet peeve of mine. I don't care for depredated myself, as you can usually avoid the end-of-sentence preposition with "preyed on."

By the way, hello, Tim!

AYDIN ÖRSTAN said...

Harry Lee sent this in an e-mail:

"I have seen this abuse of 'predate' and cringed for a few years running but never from the pen of a senior scientist (a presumption) or in a first-tier journal. Are we facing epidemic spread or are we 'behind the curve' (another malaprop?) of the evolution of language?"

AYDIN ÖRSTAN said...

My dictionary gives the meaning of "depredate" as "to plunder or lay waste to", something Vikings would do, but not snails.

pascal said...

Could you use "preying?" As gastropods were preying on the bivalves. It's the gerund of "prey on/upon." But dictionary.com also lists a definition as "to plunder or pillage," so it looks like snails and Vikings werre preying upon something...

Snail said...

Don't get me started!

People keep using that word. I do not think it means what they think it means.

Maxine said...

Good post. I have written about it on Nautilus, the Nature authors' blog at:
http://blogs.nature.com/nautilus/2007/04/language_clinic_to_prey_is_not.html