With St. Jude and the late Robert Schoenfeld (former editor of the Australian Journal of Chemistry) at my side, I’m fighting a rearguard action against the ubiquitous dangling participle “using” in scientific English. I would be hard-pressed to find a single scientific paper that doesn’t contain a sentence like
Ab initio calculations were performed using the Gaussian program.
The metal content was determined using inductively coupled plasma–optical emission spectroscopy.
Using a PTFE fiber filter, the scrubbed off-gas was sampled.
Who or what is doing the “using” in these sentence? A participle like “using” must have a noun or pronoun to modify, and the only candidate nouns in these sentences—”calculations,” “content,” and “gas”—do not use programs, spectroscopy, or filters. Sentences like these certainly won’t get your paper rejected by your target journal, but if you want to “impress discerning readers”1 (and discerning referees), try not to leave “using” unattached to the noun that’s doing the using.
Let’s look at some sentences in which “using” is firmly attached to a noun:
Using a hoe, Joe cleared the weeds from the garden.
We expect an introductory participial phrase to modify the noun that is the subject of the main clause of the sentence. The example sentence meets our expectations—Joe is using the hoe. A participial phrase can also fall at the end of a sentence:
From the comfort of her hammock, Mary lazily watched Joe using the hoe.
We generally expect participial phrases in this location to modify the nearest noun, “Joe” again here. However, we can allow a participial phrase to modify a more-distant noun, as long as the meaning is clear from contextual clues:
Using a hoe, Joe cleared the weeds from the garden. From the comfort of her hammock, Mary photographed Joe using her new camera.
The context clearly indicates that Joe hoes while Mary lolls on the hammock taking pictures. Even though the second “using” immediately follows “Joe,” we know that Mary, not Joe, is using the camera. We can also use common sense to determine meaning:
Joe cleared the weeds from the garden using a hoe.
Gardens don’t use hoes, so we quickly attach “using” to “Joe” rather than to the closer noun “gardens.”
What does all this have to do with scientific writing? The problem with “using” in scientific writing arises because scientists tend to use passive verbs rather than active ones, and the lack of an actor leaves “using” with nothing to cling to, regardless of word order:
The reaction products were identified using NMR spectroscopy.
Using NMR spectroscopy, the reaction products were identified.
Here, “using” has no appropriate noun to modify–it’s “dangling.” Compounds don’t use NMR spectroscopy. You might attempt to solve this problem by simply adding a “by”:
The reaction products were identified by using NMR spectroscopy.
By using NMR spectroscopy, the reaction products were identified.
However, this revision simply replaces a dangling participial phrase with a dangling prepositional phrase. Again, who is doing the using?
So how should we revise such sentences?
(1) By supplying an actor and switching to active voice.
We identified the reaction products using NMR spectroscopy.
We collected samples and conducted degradation experiments using spiked samples.
In the second example, we might want to add a “by” to prevent readers from momentarily misreading “using” as modifying “experiments,” because “we” is so far away:
We collected samples and conducted degradation experiments by using spiked samples.
(2) By replacing “using” with a preposition.
The reaction products were identified by means of NMR spectroscopy.
We collected samples and conducted degradation experiments with spiked samples.
Is the dangling “using” a lost cause? Probably. Twenty-five years ago, in the 1986 edition of The Chemist’s English, Robert Schoefeld wrote “I am very much opposed to the use of this word, although I know full well that if an expression, no matter how badly conceived, gains wide acceptance, an editor’s protests are to no avail.”2 However, I’m not quite ready to stop protesting yet.
1 Robert Schoenfeld, The Chemist’s English, 2d. rev. ed. (Weinheim: VCH, 1986), p. 9.
2 Schoenfeld, p. 8.