Tag Archives: Danglers

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.”

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”

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

A lost cause? Dangling “using”

With St. Jude and the late Robert Schoenfeld (former editor of the Australian Journal of Chemistry) at my side, I’m fighting a rearguard action against the ubiquitous dangling participle “using” in scientific English. I would be hard-pressed to find a single scientific paper that doesn’t contain a sentence like

Ab initio calculations were performed using the Gaussian program.

The metal content was determined using inductively coupled plasma–optical emission spectroscopy.

Using a PTFE fiber filter, the scrubbed off-gas was sampled.

Who or what is doing the “using” in these sentence? A participle like “using” must have a noun or pronoun to modify, and the only candidate nouns in these sentences—”calculations,” “content,” and “gas”—do not use programs, spectroscopy, or filters. Sentences like these certainly won’t get your paper rejected by your target journal, but if you want to “impress discerning readers”1 (and discerning referees), try not to leave “using” unattached to the noun that’s doing the using. Continue reading A lost cause? Dangling “using”