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.”
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 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.
- 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.
As a general rule, a pronoun should refer clearly to a single, explicitly stated antecedent and should agree with that antecedent in number. In my scientific editing, I encounter one particular violation of this rule in nearly every paper that crosses my desk. Here’s an example:
The ZnO peaks for the samples that were dried for 5 days are smaller than that for the sample that was dried immediately.
The singular demonstrative pronoun “that” must have a singular antecedent, but the sentence contains no singular nouns. The author clearly meant “that” to refer to “ZnO peak,” which is implied but not explicitly stated. You might be inclined to leave this sentence unrevised, thinking that everyone will know what you mean. However, what about the following sentence? Continue reading Those and that: Implied antecedents
“Omit needless words.” So say William Strunk and E.B. White in their classic little book on good writing, The Elements of Style. Remembering this piece of advice, one of Strunk and White’s elementary principles of composition, will serve you well as you prepare to submit your latest scientific article for publication. There are many ways to pare your sentences to make “every word tell,”1 but let’s start with the expletive construction “it is known that.” Although expletive constructions have their place in good writing,2 their use often leads to unnecessary wordiness and can sometimes even confuse readers momentarily. Consider the following example: Continue reading “Omit needless words”