Item is [colour] in colour vs. Item is [colour]
December 1, 2014 7:06 AM   Subscribe

What is the difference in English between [1] "The flowers are white" and [2] "The flowers are white in colour"? Scientific texts (such as botanical descriptions) seem to prefer [2] and add "in colour" after the colour name though it is redundant. Form [1] wins the Google fight by a large margin and the Ngram for "white in color" shows a downward trend since the 1920s. Is it now OK to drop the "in colour" in contemporary (scientific) texts?
posted by elgilito to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
In that context, "in colour" is superfluous in almost every case and can be omitted.
posted by blue t-shirt at 7:27 AM on December 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

Off the top of my head, flower names that are also colors include Violet, Lavender, Fuschia, Pink, and Rose, and I'm sure there are more, so I'm thinking that it's probably wise to disambiguate in this way, particularly in botanical texts.
posted by taz at 7:44 AM on December 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree with blue t-shirt, "in color" is largely superfluous. I would add, though, that you might use it in a scientific context when you are giving a series of attributes, as in:
" The precipitate was white in color with a granular texture and an acrid smell."
but honestly, the difference between that and
" The precipitate was white with a granular texture and an acrid smell."
is pretty minimal. The "in color" slightly changes the rhythm of the sentence to put a bit more emphasis on the color, for me.
posted by neatsocks at 8:06 AM on December 1, 2014

There is no difference. "White in color" is used either for style purposes (maybe the rhythm of the sentence is better or it meets an arbitrary word count or enables a certain spacing in a layout), or as one of those tedious over-technicalisms certain people are so fond of, like saying "utilize" instead of "use", "signage" instead of "signs", "He gifted me a book" instead of "He gave me a book", etc.

I can see certain academic texts sometimes using "in color", for example to clarify that, for example, "Sherman's Blue Pied Warbler is grey in color", or the like. (I totally made up that bird.)

Or potentially if there's an idiomatic use of the color that could be confused for a literal description of something's color? But again this is rare and probably more apt to crop up in scientific literature or technical descriptions. For example "The red lights used in Omaha, Nebraska, are bright orange in color." "Red light" is used idiomatically to mean any stop light, regardless of the specific color of the light bulb used.
posted by Sara C. at 8:12 AM on December 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

If I were preparing some scientists notes for a Holmesian or Lovecraftian purpose, I'd be all over "in color". If I were writing in my lab notebook, they'd be white.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:12 AM on December 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

What Taz said.

I'm sometimes blue, but not in color. Well, I was blue in color for a little while when I had that crouton caught in my windpipe.

It's best to be clear when you write. Maybe not clear of color, though. Unless, you know, you are drained of pigment. Now, white is different. I usually use the upper case W when I'm talking about my wife's side of the family. They are actually pinkish in color, so for them, White is an attitude marker more than a pigment identifier.

I suppose this whole thing disambiguates itself if you think about what you need to say. Like when you are making a list of attributes: the bag was white and weighed forty pounds. The bag was white in color, not, as he had been led to believe, red. It's weight was forty pounds. (See, this sort of thing, can be cute.) The box on my chest was heavy in weight and rough in texture. (I dunno. I think this can be overdone, but if you're going to call the tune you might as well try to get your reader to dance.)
posted by mule98J at 8:46 AM on December 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

I think that this convention makes sense for consistency's sake when describing something clinically according to list of attributes. To borrow neatsock's example, if you're defining that it's the texture which is granular and the smell which is acrid, it is clearest to specify that it's the color which is being described as white.
posted by desuetude at 10:02 AM on December 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

"in colour" is only needed with colour names that could be misread as nouns: coral, ivory, lime, olive etc
posted by Lanark at 12:32 PM on December 1, 2014

It's redundant ... but there's a good reason to make a practice of doing this: to avoid any ambiguity. Many color names have other meanings: "yellow" means cowardly, "green" means envious or inexperienced, "blue" means sad, etc. Also, think of it being read aloud: "The flowers are white" could easily be misheard as "The flowers are wide." You'd be less likely to mishear "The flowers are white in color."
posted by John Cohen at 2:02 PM on December 1, 2014

I wonder if it doesn't skew also with the readership of the journal (and/or attendance of the conference). I could imagine that, with an expected audience containing a lot of scientists whose first language is not English, being particularly unambiguous is doing everyone a favor (not to mention, easing the paper's passage through peer review). The ngram analysis you link is not specific to academia, and a pretty small fraction, so probably not terribly relevant to your question. Consider also the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon as another explanation.
posted by axiom at 9:06 PM on December 1, 2014

Thanks for all the answers. I think that Desuetude's answer is close to the mark, at least for scientific papers and botanical descriptions (where ambiguity is less an issue). The latter are indeed organized as lists of attribute-value pairs in sentence form. While some of the attributes are redundant ("oblanceolate in shape", "white in colour"), others are not ("1 cm in diameter") so it makes sense for writers to enforce the attribute-value system for all attributes.
posted by elgilito at 8:23 AM on December 2, 2014

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