When you submit a paper to a scientific journal,  you want the editor and the referees to focus on the science not the writing, which should transmit your meaning without attracting attention to itself. Correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling are important, of course, but your writing should also sound natural to native speakers.  One way to achieve this is to avoid subtle errors in word usage. One that I frequently encounter in my ESL editing is the use of “concerning” as an adjective:

There was a concerning trend toward long-term late deterioration in the laminectomy-alone group.

Although some dictionaries list “concerning” as an adjective meaning “giving concern” (Merriam Webster’s Unabridged lists that sense as “archaic”), it will sound odd to many native speakers—even though it seems completely analogous to the unobjectionable adjectives “alarming” and “disturbing.” A Google Scholar search of “a concerning trend” returns only approximately 500 hits, as opposed to >3500 for “an alarming trend” and >7000 for “a disturbing trend.” I would suggest revising the above sentence to one of the following:

There was a disturbing trend toward long-term late deterioration in the laminectomy-alone group.

In the laminectomy-alone group, there was a trend toward long-term late deterioration, which is a cause for concern.

Here are a few more examples from the published literature, with suggested revisions in italics:

We observed a concerning trend toward a higher incidence of postoperative bleeding in patients who received clopidogrel within 5 days of undergoing coronary artery bypass grafting.

We observed a worrisome trend toward a higher incidence of postoperative bleeding in patients who received clopidogrel within 5 days of undergoing coronary artery bypass grafting.

Although we have not yet seen this phenomenon with ZD1839, this is still a concerning result that will require additional study.

Although we have not yet seen this phenomenon with ZD1839, this alarming result will require additional study.

This concerning state of affairs led to a surge in research activities to discover and develop new antibiotics to combat the increasing threat of bacterial resistance.

Concern about this state of affairs led to a surge in research activities to discover and develop new antibiotics to combat the increasing threat of bacterial resistance.

It’s a minor point, but if you want to avoid distracting fastidious readers, stick to using “concerning” as a preposition meaning “in reference to” or “about,” as in “Controversy concerning the mechanism of cell-penetrating peptides has recently arisen. ”

In future posts, I’ll talk about other minor usage errors that often crop up in scientific writing by non-native speakers of English.

Update(3/1/2014): American writer Ben Yagoda recently addressed this use of “concerning” in a post on the website of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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