Tag Archives: Passive voice

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”

Measurements were made

Let’s look at another way to tighten your scientific writing: Hunt for unnecessary nominalizations—nouns formed from verbs. Usage expert Bryan Garner calls them “buried verbs” and says that they “ought to be a sworn enemy of every serious writer.”1 An overstatement? Perhaps. Nominalizations are not grammatically wrong,  but replacing them with verbs is a quick and easy way to streamline your prose.

One nominalization that I encounter nearly every day in my scientific editing is the use of the noun “measurements”  instead of some form of the verb “to measure.”  Let’s look at some examples, with suggested revisions in italics: Continue reading Measurements were made