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 readily programmed; that is, it is possible to one can start from a common set of reagents and steercontrol all levels of selectivity by varying only the catalyst used or the order of in which the reagents and/or the catalyst usedare added, or both.

  • 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.

 

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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.

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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”:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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Sentences with two subjects separated by “and” can be ambiguous when the first subject contains a prepositional phrase. Here’s an example I ran across recently in a chemistry paper I was editing:

Data processing for reproduction of element maps and calculation of fluorescence counts  was performed with the software package.

The presence of the “for” phrase introduces ambiguity. What was performed with the software? Just the data processing, as implied by the use of the singular verb form “was”? Or did the author mean that the software was used for data processing and for calculation. That is, did the author mean

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In addition to being an editor, I’m also a knitter, and I occasionally teach knitting and write knitting patterns. When I first started writing patterns, I was surprised by the ways that my students could misinterpret instructions that seemed perfectly clear to me, and I quickly learned to word my instructions as clearly and precisely as possible. The same could be said of the Materials and Methods section of a scientific paper.

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Part of my job as an ESL editor is to help authors choose the best word to precisely convey his or her intended meaning—le mot juste. For example, the results of an experiment can indicate, suggest, imply, or mean something. A laboratory scientist can employ a technique, method, procedure, or system. Which word conveys exactly the right nuance?

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Scientific Style and Format: The Manual for Authors Editors, and Publishers (7th ed, pp. 586) recommends that text citations of figures be parenthetical. If your target journal follows this style guide, you’ll want to make a separate pass through your manuscript to check your figure citations and revise if necessary. Let’s look at some before-and-after examples:

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