Category Archives: Writing Tips

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

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