Use and Misuse of English in your publications

1. KEEP IT SIMPLE

Earlier chapters of this book outlined the various components that could and perhaps should go into a scientific paper. Perhaps, with this outline, the paper won’t quite write itself. But if this outline, this table of organization, is followed, the writing might be much easier than otherwise.

Of course, you still must use the English language if you want your work to have greatest visibility. For some, this may be difficult. If your native language is not English, you may face particular challenges in English-language writing; some suggestions for overcoming those challenges appear in Chapter 34. If your native language is English, you still may have a problem because the native language of many of your readers is not English.

Learn to appreciate, as most manuscript editors have learned to appreci­ate, the sheer beauty of the simple declarative sentence (subject, then verb, then object). You will thereby avoid most serious grammatical problems and make it easier for people whose native language is not English. You also will make it easier for readers who are busy—as almost all readers of scientific papers are.

2. DANGLING MODIFIERS

It is not always easy to recognize a dangling participle or related error, but you can avoid many problems by giving proper attention to syntax. The word “syn­tax” refers to that part of grammar dealing with the way in which words are put together to form phrases, clauses, and sentences.

That is not to say that a well-dangled participle or other misplaced modi­fier isn’t a joy to behold, after you have developed a taste for such things. Those of you who use chromatographic procedures may be interested in a new technique reported in a manuscript submitted to the Journal of Bacteri­ology: “By filtering through Whatman no. 1 filter paper, Smith separated the components.”

Of course, such charming grammatical errors are not limited to science. A mystery novel, Death Has Deep Roots by Michael Gilbert, contains a particularly sexy misplaced modifier: “He placed at Nap’s disposal the marriage bed of his eldest daughter, a knobbed engine of brass and iron.”

A Hampshire, England, fire department received a government memoran­dum seeking statistical information. One of the questions was, “How many people do you employ, broken down by sex?” The fire chief took that question right in stride, answering “None. Our problem here is booze.”

If you are interested in harness racing, you might know that the 1970 Ham- bletonian was won by a horse named Timothy T. According to the Washington Post account of the story, Timothy T. evidently has an interesting background: “Timothy T.—sired by Ayres, the 1964 Hambletonian winner with John Simp­son in the sulky—won the first heat going away.”

Also from the Washington Post, this headline: “Antibiotic-Combination Drugs Used to Treat Colds Banned by FDA.” Perhaps the next FDA regulation will ban all colds, and virologists will have to find a different line of work.

A manuscript contained this sentence: “A large mass of literature has accu­mulated on the cell walls of staphylococci.” After the librarians have catalogued the staphylococci, they will have to start on the fish, according to this sentence from a manuscript: “The resulting disease has been described in detail in salmon.”

A book review contained this sentence: “This book includes discussion of shock and renal failure in separate chapters.”

The first paragraph of a news release issued by the American Lung Associa­tion said, “ ‘Women seem to be smoking more but breathing less,’ says Colin R. Woolf, M.D., Professor, Department of Medicine, University of Toronto. He presented evidence that women who smoke are likely to have pulmonary abnormalities and impaired lung function at the annual meeting of the Amer­ican Lung Association.” Even though the annual meeting was in the lovely city of Montreal, we hope that women who smoke stayed home.

And finally, some favorites from an email discussion list: A student wrote that she was seeking housing “for me, my two dogs and my rabbit that has a washer dryer.” (We hadn’t realized that rabbits do laundry.) A technician said she was looking for a “large or medium dog kennel for a researcher.” (Hmmm, is office space that scarce?) And another list member wrote that “due to moving, internship salary, and a lack of need for it,” she was highly motivated to sell the item that she was advertising. (Gee, if you don’t need your internship salary, we know someone who would like it.)

3. THE TEN COMMANDMENTS OF GOOD WRITING

  1. Each pronoun should agree with their antecedent.
  2. Just between you and I, case is important.
  3. A preposition is a poor word to end a sentence with. (Incidentally, did you hear about the streetwalker who violated a grammatical rule? She unwittingly approached a plainclothesman, and her proposition ended with a sentence.)
  4. Verbs has to agree with their subject.
  5. Don’t use no double negatives.
  6. Remember to never split an infinitive.
  7. Avoid cliches like the plague.
  8. Join clauses good, like a conjunction should.
  9. Do not use hyperbole; not one writer in a million can use it effectively.
  10. About sentence fragments.

Actually, the following story from one of us (R.A.D.) may change some minds about the use of double negatives: During the last presidential election, I vis­ited my old hometown, which is in the middle of a huge cornfield in northern Illinois. Arriving after a lapse of some years, I was pleased to find that I could still understand the natives. In fact, I was a bit shocked to find that their lan­guage was truly expressive even though they were blissfully unaware of the rule against double negatives. One evening at the local gathering place, appropri­ately named the Farmer’s Tavern, I orated at the man on the next bar stool about the relative demerits of the two presidential candidates. His lack of interest was then communicated in the clear statement; “Ain’t nobody here knows nothin’ about politics.” While I was savoring this triple negative, a morose gent at the end of the bar looked soulfully into his beer and proclaimed: “Ain’t nobody here knows nothin’ about nothin’ nohow.” Strangely, this quintuple neg­ative provided the best description I have ever heard of my hometown.

4. METAPHORICALLY SPEAKING

Although metaphors are not covered by the above rules, we suggest that you largely avoid similes and metaphors. Use them rarely in scientific writing. If you use them, use them carefully. We have all seen mixed metaphors and noted how comprehension gets mixed along with the metaphor. (Figure this one out: A virgin forest is a place where the hand of man has never set foot.) A rar­ity along this line is the “self-canceling metaphor.” A favorite was ingeniously concocted by the eminent microbiologist L. Joe Berry. After one of his sugges­tions had been quickly negated by a committee vote, Joe said, “Boy, I got shot down in flames before I ever got off the ground.”

Watch for hackneyed expressions. These are usually similes or metaphors (for example, timid as a mouse). Interesting and picturesque writing results from the use of fresh similes and metaphors; dull writing results from the use of stale ones.

Some words have become hackneyed, usually by being hopelessly locked to some other word. One example is the word “leap”; a “leap” is insignificant unless it is a “quantum leap.” Another example is the verb “wreak.” One can “wreak havoc” but nothing else seems to get wreaked these days. Since the dictionary says that “wreak” means “to bring about,” one should be able to “wreak a weak pain for a week.” To wreak a wry smile, try saying “I’ve got a weak back.” When someone asks when you got it, you respond, “Oh, about a week back.” (At the local deli, we call this tongue in cheek on wry.) That person may then respond, “Wow. That boggles the mind.” You can then cleverly ask what else gets boggled these days.

5. MISUSE OF WORDS

Also watch for self-canceling or redundant words. Recently someone was described as being a “well-seasoned novice.” A newspaper article referred to “young juveniles.” A sign in a stamp and coin dealer’s shop read “authentic replicas.” If there is any expression that is dumber than “7 a.m. in the morn­ing,” it is “viable alternative.” (If an alternative is not viable, it is not an alter­native.)

Certain words are wrongly used thousands of times in scientific writing. Some of the worst offenders are the following:

amount. Use this word when you refer to a mass or aggregate. Use “number” when individual entities are involved. “An amount of cash” is all right. “An amount of coins” is wrong.

and/or. This is a slipshod construction used by thousands of authors but accepted by few experienced editors. Bernstein (1965) said, “Whatever its uses in legal or commercial English, this combination is a visual and mental monstrosity that should be avoided in other kinds of writing.” it. This common, useful pronoun can cause a problem if an antecedent is not clear, as in the sign that read: “Free information about VD. To get it, call 555-7000.”

like. Often used incorrectly as a conjunction. Should be used only as a prep­osition. When a conjunction is needed, substitute “as.” Like I just said, this sentence should have started with “As.” only. Many sentences are only partially comprehensible because the word only is positioned correctly in the sentence only some of the time. Consider this sentence: “I hit him in the eye yesterday.” The word only can be added at the start of the sentence, at the end of the sentence, or between any two words within the sentence, but look at the differences in mean­ing that result.

quite. Next time you notice this word in one of your manuscripts, delete it and read the sentence again. You will notice that quite is quite unnec­essary.

varying. The word “varying” means “changing.” Often used erroneously when “various” is meant. “Various concentrations” are defined concentrations that do not vary.

which. The word “which” is properly used in a “nonrestrictive” sense, to introduce a clause that is not essential to the rest of the sentence; “that” introduces an essential clause. Examine these two sentences: “CetB mutants, which are tolerant to colicin E2, also have an altered. . . .” “CetB mutants that are tolerant to colicin E2 also have an altered. . . .” Note the substantial difference in meaning. The first sentence indicates that all CetB mutants are tolerant to colicin; the second sentence indicates that only some of the CetB mutants are tolerant to it. while. When a time relationship exists, “while” is correct; otherwise, “whereas” would be a better choice. “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” is fine. “Nero fiddled while we wrote a book on scientific writing” is not.

Those of us who have struggled to make ourselves understood in a for­eign language might especially appreciate this story: A graduate student had recently arrived in the United States from one of the more remote countries of the world. He had a massive English vocabulary, developed by many years of assiduous study. Unfortunately, he had had few opportunities to speak the language. Soon after his arrival, the dean of the school invited a number of the students and faculty to an afternoon tea. Some of the faculty members soon engaged the new foreign student in conversation. One of the first questions asked was, “Are you married?” The student said, “Oh, yes, I am most entranc­ingly married to one of the most exquisite belles of my country, who will soon be arriving here in the United States, ending our temporary bifurcation.” The faculty members exchanged questioning glances—then came the next ques­tion: “Do you have children?” The student answered “No.” After some thought, the student decided this answer needed some amplification, so he said, “You see, my wife is inconceivable.” At this, his questioners could not hide their smiles, so the student, realizing he had committed a faux pas, decided to try again. He said, “Perhaps I should have said that my wife is impregnable.” When this comment was greeted with open laughter, the student decided to try one more time: “I guess I should have said my wife is unbearable.”

All seriousness aside, is there something about the use (rather than abuse) of English in scientific writing that merits special comment? The following is a tense answer.

6. TENSE IN SCIENTIFIC WRITING

One special convention of writing scientific papers is very tricky. It has to do with tense, and it is important because proper usage derives from scientific ethics.

When a scientific paper has been validly published in a primary journal, it thereby becomes knowledge. Whenever you state previously published findings, ethics requires you to treat the work with respect. You do this by using the pres­ent tense. It is correct to say “Streptomycin inhibits the growth of M. tubercu­losis (13).” Whenever you state previously published findings, you should use the present tense; you are referring to established knowledge. You would do this just as you would say “The Earth is round.” (If previously published results have been proven false by later experiments, the use of past rather than pres­ent tense would be appropriate.)

Your own present work must be referred to in the past tense. Your work is not presumed to be established knowledge until after it has been published. If you determined that the optimal growth temperature for Streptomyces every- color was 37°C, you should say “S. everycolor grew best at 37°C.” If you are citing previous work, possibly your own, it is then correct to say “S. everycolor grows best at 37°C.”

In the typical paper, you will normally go back and forth between the past and present tenses. Most of the abstract should be in the past tense, because you are referring to your own present results. Likewise, the materials and methods and the results sections should be in the past tense, as you describe what you did and what you found. On the other hand, much of the introduction and much of the discussion should be in the present tense, because these sections often emphasize previously established knowledge.

Suppose that your research concerned the effect of streptomycin on Strep- tomyces everycolor. The tense would vary somewhat as follows.

In the abstract you would write, “The effect of streptomycin on S. everycolor grown in various media was tested. Growth of S. everycolor, measured in terms of optical density, was inhibited in all media tested. Inhibition was most pro­nounced at high pH levels.”

In the introduction, typical sentences might be, “Streptomycin is an antibi­otic produced by Streptomyces griseus (13). This antibiotic inhibits the growth of certain other strains of Streptomyces (7, 14, 17). The effect of streptomycin on S. everycolor is reported in this paper.”

In the materials and methods section you would write, “The effect of streptomycin was tested against S. everycolor grown on Trypticase soy agar (BBL) and several other media (Table 1). Various growth temperatures and pH levels were employed. Growth was measured in terms of optical density (Klett units).”

In the results you would write, “Growth of S. everycolor was inhibited by streptomycin at all concentrations tested (Table 2) and at all pH levels (Table 3). Maximum inhibition occurred at pH 8.2; inhibition was slight below pH 7.”

In the discussion you might write, “S. everycolor was most susceptible to streptomycin at pH 8.2, whereas S. nocolor is most susceptible at pH 7.6 (13). Various other Streptomyces species are most susceptible to streptomycin at even lower pH levels (6, 9, 17).”

In short, you should normally use the present tense when you refer to pre­viously published work, and you should use the past tense when referring to your present results.

The main exceptions to this rule are in the areas of attribution and presenta­tion. It is correct to say, “Smith (9) showed that streptomycin inhibits S. nocolor.” It is also correct to say, “Table 4 shows that streptomycin inhibited S. everycolor at all pH levels.” Another exception is that the results of calculations and statis­tical analysis should be in the present tense, even though statements about the objects to which they refer are in the past tense; for example, “These values are significantly greater than those of the females of the same age, indicating that the males grew more rapidly.” Still another exception is a general statement or known truth. Simply put, you could say, “Water was added and the towels became damp, which proves again that water is wet.” More commonly, you will need to use this kind of tense variation: “Significant amounts of type IV procol­lagen were isolated. These results indicate that type IV procollagen is a major constituent of the Schwann cell ECM.”

7. ACTIVE VERSUS PASSIVE VOICE

Let us now talk about voice. In any type of writing, the active voice is usually more precise and less wordy than is the passive voice. (This is not always true; if it were, we would have an Eleventh Commandment: “The passive voice should never be used.”)

As noted in Chapter 11, passive voice sometimes functions well in the methods section. Elsewhere in a scientific paper, however, it rarely should be chosen.

Why, then, do scientists use so much passive voice? Perhaps this bad habit results from the erroneous idea that it is somehow impolite to use first-person pronouns. Because of this idea, the scientist commonly uses verbose (and imprecise) statements such as, “It was found that” in preference to the short, unambiguous “I found.”

Young scientists should renounce the false modesty of their predecessors. Do not be afraid to name the agent of the action in a sentence, even when it is “I” or “we.” Once you get into the habit of saying “I found,” you will also find that you tend to write “S. aureus produced lactate” rather than “Lactate was pro­duced by S. aureus.” (Note that the “active” statement is in three words; the passive requires five.)

You can avoid the passive voice by saying, “The authors found” instead of “it was found.” Compared with the simple “we,” however, “the authors” is pretentious, verbose, and imprecise (which authors?).

8. EUPHEMISMS

In scientific writing, euphemistic words and phrases normally should be avoided. The harsh reality of dying is not improved by substituting “passed away.” Laboratory animals are not “sacrificed,” as though scientists engaged in arcane religious exercises. They are killed and that’s that. The CBE Style Man­ual (CBE Style Manual Committee 1983) cited a beautiful example of this type of euphemism: “Some in the population suffered mortal consequences from the lead in the flour.” The Manual then corrects this sentence, adding consid­erable clarity as well as eliminating the euphemism: “Some people died as a result of eating bread made from the lead-contaminated flour.” An instructor gave graduate students the “mortal consequences” sentence as a test question in scientific writing. Most were simply unable to say “died.” On the other hand, there were some inventive answers. They included “Get the lead out” and “Some were dead from the lead in the bread.”

9. SINGULARS AND PLURALS

If you use first-person pronouns, use both the singular and the plural forms as needed. Do not use the “editorial we” in place of “I.” The use of “we” by a single author is outrageously pedantic.

A frequent error in scientific papers is the use of plural forms of verbs when the singular forms would be correct. For example, you should say, “10 g was added,” not “10 g were added.” This is because a single quantity was added. Only if the 10 g were added 1 g at a time would it be correct to say, “10 g were added.”

The singular-plural problem also applies to nouns. The problem is severe in scientific writing, especially in biology, because so many of the words are, or are derived from, Latin or Greek. Commonly these words retain their Latin or Greek plurals; at least they do when used by careful writers.

Many of these words (for example: data, media) have entered popular speech, where the Latin “a” plural ending is rarely recognized as a plural. Most people habitually use “data is” constructions and probably have never used the real singular, datum. In The Careful Writer, Bernstein (1965) objected to this usage, terming it “a common solecism.” Today, although debate on the subject persists, both the plural and the singular usages are commonly acceptable, at least in informal contexts. For instance, Merriam-Webstefs Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition) gives “the data is plentiful” as an example of accepted usage. Whether to use data as a plural or a singular can depend on whether you are referring to a group of individual pieces of data or the data as a single mass. Often, in deciding whether to use data with a plural verb or a singular one, the best approach is to follow your discipline’s conventions in this regard and the pre­dominant usage in your target journal.

This “plural” problem was commented upon by Sir Ashley Miles, eminent microbiologist and scholar, in a letter to the editor of ASM News (44:600, 1978):

A Memoranda on Bacterial Motility. The motility of a bacteria is a phe­nomena receiving much attention, especially in relation to the struc­ture of a flagella and the effect on it of an antisera. No single explanatory data is available; no one criteria of proof is recognized; even the best media to use is unknown; and no survey of the various levels of scientific approach indicates any one strata, or the several stratae, from which answers may emerge. Flagellae are just as puzzling as the bacteriae which carry them.

10. NOUN PROBLEMS

Another frequent probl em in scientific writing is the verbosity that results from use of abstract nouns. This malady is corrected by turning the nouns into verbs. “Examination of the patients was carried out” should be changed to the more direct “I examined the patients”; “separation of the compounds was accomplished” can be changed to “the compounds were separated”; “transfor­mation of the equations was achieved” can be changed to “the equations were transformed.”

An additional problem with nouns results from using them as adjectives. Normally, there is no problem with such usage, but you should watch for spe­cial difficulties. For example, there is no problem in understanding “liver dis­ease” (even though the adjective “hepatic” could be substituted for the noun “liver”). The problem aspect is illustrated by the following sentences from an autobiography: “When I was 10 years old, my parents sent me to a child psy­chiatrist. I went for a year and a half. The kid didn’t help me at all.” There once was an ad (in the New York Times, of all places) with the headline “Good News for Home Sewers.” It could have been an ad for a drain-cleaning compound or for needle and thread.

The problem gets still worse when clusters of nouns are used as adjectives, especially when a real adjective gets into the brew. “Tissue culture response” is awkward; “infected tissue culture response” may be baffling. (Just what is infected?) Baffling too are these gems from job ads: “newborn hospital photo­grapher” and “portable toilet route driver.” Sometimes you can resolve the con­fusion by inserting a hyphen to show which words function together as an adjective. Consider, for example, the headline “Technology can help drought hit farmers.” (How odd to use technology to aid drought in hitting farmers!) Inserting a well-placed hyphen yields a much more reasonable headline: “Tech­nology can help drought-hit farmers.”

11. NUMBERS

Preferred usage regarding numbers varies among style manuals and among journals. The Chicago Manual of Style (2010) favors spelling out “whole num­bers from one through one hundred” and using numerals for other numbers. However, it notes that many publications, for example in science, spell out only single-digit numbers. In the “revised or modern scientific number style” (Style Manual Subcommittee, Council of Science Editors 2014), single-digit whole numbers, with few exceptions, appear as numerals too.

If style for numbers is not specified otherwise, here are some widely accept­able guidelines to follow: One-digit numbers should be spelled out; num­bers of two or more digits should be expressed as numerals. You would write “three experiments” or “13 experiments.” Now the exception: With standard units of measure, always use numerals. You would write “3 ml” or “13 ml.” The only exception to the exception is that you should not start a sentence with a numeral. You should either reword the sentence or spell out both the number and the unit of measurement. For example, your sentence could start “Reagent A (3 ml) was added” or it could start “Three milliliters of reagent A was added.” Actually, there is still another exception, although it comes up rarely. In a sen­tence containing a series of numbers, at least one of which is of more than one digit, all of the numbers should be expressed as numerals. (Example: “I gave water to 3 scientists, milk to 6 scientists, and beer to 11 scientists.”)

12. ODDS AND ENDS

Apropos of nothing, one might mention that English is a strange language. Isn’t it curious that the past tense of “have” (“had”) is converted to the past par­ticiple simply by repetition: He had had a serious illness. Strangely, it is possi­ble to string together 11 “hads” in a row in a grammatically correct sentence. If one were to describe a teacher’s reaction to papers turned in by students John and Jim, one could say: John, where Jim had had “had,” had had “had had”; “had had” had had an unusual effect on the teacher. That peculiar word “that” can also be strung together, as in this sentence: He said, in speaking of the word “that,” that that “that” that that student referred to was not that “that” that that other student referred to.

The “hads” and the “thats” in a row show the power of punctuation. As a further illustration, here is a little grammatical game that you might want to try on your friends. Hand a slip of paper to each person in the group and ask the members of the group to provide any punctuation necessary to the follow­ing seven-word sentence: “Woman without her man is a savage.” Some mem­bers will quickly respond that the sentence needs no punctuation, and they are correct. A few pedants in the group will place balancing commas around the prepositional phrase: “Woman, without her man, is a savage.” Grammatically, this is also correct. Other group members, however, will place a dash after “woman” and a comma after “her.” Then we have “Woman—without her, man is a savage.” It too is a correct response.

Seriously, we should all come to understand that sexism in language can have “savage” results. Scientific writing that promotes stereotypes is not scien­tific. Good guides have been published to show us how to avoid use of sexist and other biased language (Schwartz et al. 1995; Maggio 1997). Some style manu­als also provide guidance regarding this issue.

Let us end where we started by again emphasizing the importance of syn­tax. Whenever comprehension goes out the window, faulty syntax is usually responsible. Sometimes, faulty syntax is simply funny and comprehension is not lost, as in these two items, culled from want ads: “For sale, fine German Shepherd dog, obedient, well trained, will eat anything, very fond of children.” “For sale, fine grand piano, by a lady, with three legs.”

But look at this sentence, which is similar to thousands that have appeared in the scientific literature: “Thymic humoral factor (THF) is a single heat- stable polypeptide isolated from calf thymus composed of 31 amino acids with molecular weight of 3,200.” The prepositional phrase “with molecular weight of 3,200” would logically modify the preceding noun “acids,” meaning that the amino acids had a molecular weight of 3,200. Less logically, perhaps the calf thymus had a molecular weight of 3,200. Least logical of all (because of their distance apart in the sentence) would be for the THF to have a molecular weight of 3,200—but, indeed, that was what the author was trying to tell us.

If you have any interest whatsoever in learning to use English more effec­tively, you should read Strunk and White’s (2000) The Elements of Style. The “elements” are given briefly (in less than 100 pages!) and clearly. Anyone writing anything should read and use this famous little book. (You can read an early edition, by Strunk alone, at www.bartleby.com/141/.) After you have mastered Strunk and White, proceed immediately to Fowler (1965). Do not pass go; do not collect $200. Of course, if you really do want to get a Monopoly on good scientific English, buy that superbly quintessential book, Scientific English (Day and Sakaduski 2011).

Source: Gastel Barbara, Day Robert A. (2016), How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, Greenwood; 8th edition.

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