Let’s look at another way to tighten your scientific writing: Hunt for unnecessary nominalizations—nouns formed from verbs. Usage expert Bryan Garner calls them “buried verbs” and says that they “ought to be a sworn enemy of every serious writer.”1 An overstatement? Perhaps. Nominalizations are not grammatically wrong, but replacing them with verbs is a quick and easy way to streamline your prose.
One nominalization that I encounter nearly every day in my scientific editing is the use of the noun “measurements” instead of some form of the verb “to measure.” Let’s look at some examples, with suggested revisions in italics:
(1) Measurements of background signals were made.
Background signals were measured.2
(2) Iodine isotope ratio measurements were conducted by acceleration mass spectrometry.
Iodine isotope ratios were measured by acceleration mass spectrometry.
(3) Electrical resistivity measurements and magnetization measurements were carried out.
Electrical resistivity and magnetization were measured.
“To measure” is not the only verb that frequently gets nominalized in scientific writing. Here are some examples for other verbs (nominalizations in red, corresponding verbs in green):
(4) Exposure of the catalysts to NO was carried out at 50 L (1 L = 10–6 Torr).
The catalysts were exposed to NO at 50 L (1 L = 10–6 Torr).
(5) Product analysis was carried out by gas chromatography–mass spectrometry.
Products were analyzed by gas chromatography–mass spectrometry.
(6) Drying of the diluted suspensions was carried out at 80 °C.
The diluted suspensions were dried at 80 °C.
(7) The geometry optimizations in the ground states were carried out by the DFT method.
The ground-state geometries were optimized by the DFT method.
(8) Product identification was carried out by X-ray diffraction analysis.
Products were identified by X-ray diffraction analysis.
Did you notice that all the example sentences in this post contain one of the following phrases: “were carried out,” “were made,” and “were conducted”? You can use your word processing software to seek out these red-flag phrases3 and then revise as necessary. Now that you’re aware of them, you’ll start seeing them everywhere.
1 Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3d. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 120.
2 You could revise this sentence even further by supplying an actor and using the active voice instead of the passive voice: “We measured background signals.” However, some journal referees object to the use of first person (“I” or “we”) in scientific writing. That’s a subject for another post!
3 For more examples of these “filler verbs” in scientific writing, see Matthew Stevens, Subtleties of Scientific Style (Thornleigh, Australia: ScienceScape Editing, 2007), p. 14.
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