Category Archives: Writing Tips

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.”

Served as

It’s difficult to find a book on scientific writing that doesn’t inveigh against weak verbs and nominalizations, and in previous posts, I’ve suggested ways to find them in your papers and eliminate them (here, here, and here). In this post, I want to point out another one: “served as,” as in

Metallic nickel served as a catalyst for the growth of carbon nanotubes. Continue reading Served as

Appositional “or”

The conjunction “or” can be used not only to indicate two or more alternatives but also to indicate synonymous or equivalent expressions. When used for the latter purpose, “or” can be translated as “also referred to as,” “defined as,” or “in other words,” and sentences containing such an appositional “or” are punctuated differently than sentences in which “or” separates alternatives. Let’s look at some examples.

Infrared spectroscopy or electron paramagnetic resonance spectroscopy can be used to follow the kinetics of radical decay.

Here “or” is used to indicate two alternative techniques—infrared spectroscopy and electron paramagnetic resonance spectroscopy—either of which can be used to follow the decay kinetics.  In this type of sentence, “or” separates the two parts of a compound subject, and no additional punctuation is required. What about the following, apparently similar sentence? Continue reading Appositional “or”

Typographical conventions for mathematics

In the scientific manuscripts I edit, certain deviations from the generally accepted typographical conventions for mathematical text crop up frequently enough that I thought I would discuss a few of them in this post. First, let’s look at some of the basic conventions: Continue reading Typographical conventions for mathematics

Sentence of the Week, June 4, 2012

A series of weekly posts discussing revisions to a sentence from the scientific literature, highlighting various common grammar, syntax,  and usage issues—and ways to address them.

This week’s sentence is…

The sequence can readily be programmed; that is, it is possible to start from a common set of reagents and steer all levels of selectivity by varying only the order of reagents and/or the catalyst used.

Here’s one possible revision:

The sequence can readily be readily programmed; that is, it is possible to one can start from a common set of reagents and steercontrol all levels of selectivity by varying only the catalyst used or the order of in which the reagents and/or the catalyst usedare added, or both.

  • The adverb”readily” is now in its  natural location between the auxiliary verb (“can be”) and the main verb (“programmed”). For more on adverb placement, see Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed. (Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 23-24.
  • Changing “it is possible to” to “one can” prevents readers from momentarily misreading the expletive “it” as a pronoun referring back to “the sequence.”
  • “Control…selectivity” is more idiomatic than “steer…selectivity.”
  • It’s  the addition of the reagents, not the reagents themselves, that has an order. With the extra words required to convey that information precisely, the sentence is easier to read when the  two variations (catalyst and order of reagent addition) are mentioned in the opposite order.
  • “And/or” is generally frowned upon as being imprecise. For example, see The ACS Style Guide, 3rd ed. (American Chemical Society, 2006), p. 56.