Category Archives: Grammar

Need to shorten your paper?

Recently, I was asked to help an author shorten a paper by 10% to meet the word-count requirements of the target journal. The paper was already quite short and contained little extraneous information. However, by using the techniques illustrated here with example sentences, I accomplished the task without eliminating anything important. Consider the following sentences: Continue reading Need to shorten your paper?

Judicious consistency

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.

Continue reading Judicious consistency

More red flags

A couple months ago, I posted about unnecessary nominalizations in scientific writing and shared some search strings that you can use to ferret out and revise such constructions.  Since then, I’ve been compiling a list of some additional red-flag phrases that tend to signal nominalizations. Here are some of the frequently encountered phrases on my list: Continue reading More red flags

Books on grammar, usage, and writing

Grammar Handbooks

Alexander, L. G. Longman English Grammar. London: Longman, 1988.

Crews, Frederick. The Random House Handbook. 4th ed. New York: Random House, 1984.

Fernald, James G. English Grammar Simplified. New York: HarperPerennial, 1968.

Fowler, H. Ramsey. The Little, Brown Handbook. 3rd ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1986.

Hodges, John C., and Mary E. Whitten. Harbrace College Handbook. 9th ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982. Continue reading Books on grammar, usage, and writing

Dangling infinitives

The Miss Thistlebottoms of the world are always going on about dangling participles,1 but few usage experts mention dangling infinitives.2 What’s a dangling infinitive? It’s an infinitive, “to” + verb, that is not correctly attached to the agent (a noun or pronoun) that carries out the action specified by the verb. When a sentence starts with an infinitive phrase, the subject of the main clause should be the agent that carries out the action specified by the infinitive:

To prepare an NMR sample, we dissolved the crystals in CDCl3.

Here the pronoun “we” carries out the action specified by the infinitive “to prepare.” Infinitive constructions also work correctly when the subject is implied, as in an imperative sentence:

To prepare an NMR sample, [you] dissolve the crystals in CDCl3.

where the implied subject pronoun “you” is doing the preparing.

In scientific writing, however, we tend to use passive voice, especially in the experimental section of a paper; and the use of the passive eliminates the agent that is needed to carry out the action in the infinitive:

To prepare an NMR sample, the crystals were dissolved in CDCl3.

Now we have a problem: “crystals” is the subject of the main clause, but crystals do not prepare NMR samples. Continue reading Dangling infinitives