A couple months ago, I posted about unnecessary nominalizations in scientific writing and shared some search strings that you can use to ferret out and revise such constructions.  Since then, I’ve been compiling a list of some additional red-flag phrases that tend to signal nominalizations. Here are some of the frequently encountered phrases on my list:

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This week’s tip? Beware of illogical comparisons. When you use “in contrast with,” “compared with/to,” “like,” or “unlike,” make sure that the items you are comparing fall into the same category.  Here’s an example of an illogical comparison:

In contrast to Figure 1, which shows the conventional process, no intermediate ion-pair is formed during the novel process shown in Figure 2.

In this sentence, the word order results in an illogical comparison between “Figure 1” and “intermediate ion-pair.” To revise, make sure that the “in contrast to” phrase is immediately followed by the second of the two items being compared:

In contrast to the conventional process (Fig. 1), the novel process shown in Fig. 2 does not involve formation of an intermediate ion-pair.

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Grammar Handbooks

Alexander, L. G. Longman English Grammar. London: Longman, 1988.

Crews, Frederick. The Random House Handbook. 4th ed. New York: Random House, 1984.

Fernald, James G. English Grammar Simplified. New York: HarperPerennial, 1968.

Fowler, H. Ramsey. The Little, Brown Handbook. 3rd ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1986.

Hodges, John C., and Mary E. Whitten. Harbrace College Handbook. 9th ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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:

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“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:

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I have 20 feet of shelf space filled with reference books that I’ve collected over the years. However, most of the books are gathering dust because I rely on a few workhorses, kept within arm’s reach, for my daily scientific editing work. As a science author, you’re likely to find these references just as useful as I do.

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