In science writing—as opposed to, say, literary criticism or cultural studies—a premium is placed on precise, clear language. Unambiguous communication of information is in fact the fundamental goal of science writing. One way to achieve this goal is to consistently use the most precise language possible: choose a precise word or phrase and use it consistently. Consider the following (simplified) sentences taken from the abstract, introduction, discussion, and conclusion of a chemistry paper:

We investigated the antiatherogenic properties of the compound.

We investigated the antiatherosclerotic properties of the compound.

We investigated the antiatherosclerosis activity of the compound.

We investigated the atherosclerosis-preventing activity of the compound.

Did the authors mean to distinguish between “atherosclerosis” and “atherogenesis,” between “activity” and “properties”? Is “antiatherosclerosis activity” somehow different from “atherosclerosis-preventing activity”? Or is the variation simply an attempt to avoid repetition?

Don’t ask your readers to guess the answers to such questions. Unless you mean to distinguish between various terms, choose the most precise term and use it consistently throughout your paper. If the distinction is intentional, delineate it clearly and observe it consistently.

Here are two more example sentences:

Lycopene activates the PPARγ-LXRα-ABCA1 pathway.

Lycopene activates the PPARγ-LXRα-ABCA1 cascade.

Is it a cascade or is it a pathway? Is a cascade different from a pathway? If so, is the difference relevant to the study being described? If not, then the variation in terminology serves no purpose and could be eliminated.

One last example:

Methods for the simultaneous determination of PAHs in urine have recently been developed. For example, Clemens et al. simultaneously analyzed more than 20 PAHs by gas chromatography–mass spectrometry, and Federici et al. simultaneously quantified 13 PAHs by liquid chromatography–tandem mass spectrometry.

Unless the distinction between determination,  analysis, and quantification is important, why not stick with determination?

Methods for the simultaneous determination of PAHs in urine have recently been developed. For example, Clemens et al. simultaneously determined more than 20 PAHs by gas chromatography–mass spectrometry, and Federici et al.  simultaneously determined 13 PAHs by liquid chromatography–tandem mass spectrometry.

This revision places the emphasis where it belongs, on the various methods that have been used for determination of urinary PAHs.

When imposed foolishly, consistency may be “the hobgoblin of little minds,”  but its judicious use in the name of clarity is a service to your readers.

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