Category Archives: Grammar

“A” or “An” with abbreviations? It depends.

Scientific papers tend to contain lots of abbreviations—acronyms, initialisms,* gene symbols and protein designations, element and isotope symbols, chemical formulas, and so on—and authors sometimes have difficulty choosing the correct indefinite article (“a” or “an”) to use with  abbreviations. Continue reading “A” or “An” with abbreviations? It depends.

Top five posts of 2012

Is improving your scientific writing among your goals for the new year? If so, you might start by revisiting the five most-read posts on The Scientist’s English for 2012:

1. Adverb placement 

2. Dangling infinitives

3. Shortening your paper or abstract

4. Illogical comparisons

5. Implied antecedents for “those” and that” 

I look forward to providing more tips in 2013. In the meantime, I’d like to direct you to a wonderful series of articles on scientific writing, published in 2010 in the journal Clinical Chemistry: “The Clinical Chemistry Guide to Scientific Writing.” The great thing for ESL authors is that these articles—which cover all the components of a typical scientific paper, including figures and tables—have been translated into Chinese, Spanish, and Portuguese. For additional online information about scientific writing, visit the links in the sidebar on the right, under “Scientific Writing Advice.”

Compound adjectives formed with “adsorbed” and “immobilized”

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. Continue reading Compound adjectives formed with “adsorbed” and “immobilized”

Dangling “followed”

Pick up any usage book and you’ll be sure find a discussion of dangling participles. Participles are formed from verbs but act as adjectives, and as such, they require an appropriate noun to modify. When they fail to meet this requirement, they are said to dangle. Here, I’m going to focus on a specific participle that often dangles in scientific writing: the past participle “followed.” Let’s look at some sentences.

Metal precursors were introduced into separate polymer blocks, followed by removal of the templates by pyrolysis.

What noun does “followed” modify—that is, what was followed by removal of the templates? Neither the nearest noun, “blocks,” nor the noun at the beginning of the sentence, “precursors,” will work. The author intended “followed” to modify a noun that doesn’t actually appear in the sentence, “introduction”: Continue reading Dangling “followed”

Adverb placement: Predominantly, mainly, mostly

The placement of adverbs—which modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs—can substantially change the meaning of a sentence. You’ve probably run across example sentences illustrating the importance of correctly placing the adverb “only”:

Only I drive red cars; no one else drives them.

I only drive red cars; I do not park them.

I drive only red cars; I do not drive green cars.

I drive red-only cars; I do not drive multicolored cars.

I drive red cars only; I do not drive red motorcycles.

Perhaps because “only” is so often used as an example in grammar books, many writers place it correctly. However, in the course of my scientific editing, I routinely encounter other misplaced adverbs;  the usual culprits are “predominantly,” “mainly,” and “mostly.” Let’s look at some examples: Continue reading Adverb placement: Predominantly, mainly, mostly