Compound adjectives constructed from a noun plus the past participle of a verb are used frequently in English. Consider, for example, the sentence

The skiers raced down the snow-covered slopes.

Here, “snow-covered” is a compound adjective constructed from the noun “snow” and the past participle of the verb “to cover.” The compound describes the slopes; the slopes were covered. Covered with what? Covered with snow.

Here’s another:

The bishop placed the jewel-encrusted crown on the queen’s head.

“Jewel-encrusted” is a compound adjective modifying “crown”; the crown was encrusted with jewels.

Now let’s look a couple of analogous sentence from the scientific literature.

The surface-adsorbed nitrogen was quantified by means of a transient-response experiment.

Here, “surface-adsorbed” is a compound adjective constructed from the noun “surface” and the past participle of the verb “to adsorb.” The compound modifies “nitrogen; the nitrogen was adsorbed. Where was it adsorbed? On the surface.

Seems pretty straightforward, right? Apparently it’s not though, because I frequently encounter sentences like the following:

A typical DSC consists of a dye-adsorbed electrode, a platinum counter electrode, and an electrolyte solution.

This sentence is analogous to all the sentences we’ve looked at so far. “Dye-adsorbed” is a compound adjective modifying “electrode.” The electrode is adsorbed. What is it adsorbed on? The dye. Except, of course, the intended meaning is exactly the opposite: the dye is in fact adsorbed on the electrode.

How should we revise such sentences? In this case, the best option is probably

A typical DSC consists of a dye-sensitized electrode, a platinum counter electrode, and an electrolyte solution.

However, you might also consider dye-stained, dye-doped, dye-bearing, dye-impregnated, dye-modified, dye-covered, or dye-loaded—depending on which modifier best conveys your meaning.

A similar problem arises with compound adjectives involving the past participle “immobilized”:

The carbohydrate-immobilized sensor exhibited a large decrease in frequency.

This sentence implies that the sensor was immobilized on the carbohydrate, when in fact it was the carbohydrate that was immobilized on the sensor. Here are several more sentences with incorrectly constructed compound adjectives, along with suggested revisions in italics:

  • FGF2-adsorbed macroporous hydroxyapatite bone granules stimulated in vitro osteoblastic gene expression and differentiation.

FGF2-treated macroporous hydroxyapatite bone granules stimulated in vitro osteoblastic gene expression and differentiation

  • The heparin-immobilized nanoparticles exhibited enhanced fluorescence.

The heparin-bearing nanoparticles exhibited enhanced fluorescence.

  • We prepared DNA-immobilized nanoparticles.

We prepared nanoparticles bearing immobilized DNA.

We immobilized DNA on nanoparticles.

  • We spread a monolayer of Au nanoparticles on a flat pyridine-adsorbed silver electrode.

We spread a monolayer of Au nanoparticles on a flat pyridine-covered silver electrode.

  • We determined the peroxide sensitivity of the enzyme-mediator-adsorbed electrode.

We determined the peroxide sensitivity of the electrode bearing the adsorbed enzyme mediator.

  • The spore-immobilized beads were cured in FeCl3 solution for 1 h.

The beads with immobilized spores were cured in FeCl3 solution for 1 h.

So when you are describing experiments involving immobilized or adsorbed species, take care that you have constructed your compound modifiers correctly.

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