Category Archives: Syntax

Don’t omit needed words

In a review article I was reading recently to get some background information for an editing job, I encountered a sentence that I couldn’t decipher even after having read it several times. It serves as  a good example of how omitting words can lead readers down the garden path to a misinterpretation, or several possible misinterpretations. Here’s the sentence:

The cytosol contains enzymes that channel reducing equivalents from NADPH to small thiol-containing species and thiol/disulfide oxidoreductase enzymes (e.g., glutathione and thioredoxin) to reverse disulfide formation and other oxidative modifications of proteins. Continue reading Don’t omit needed words

“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.”

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”