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.
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.
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. Continue reading Compound adjectives formed with “adsorbed” and “immobilized”
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”
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: Continue reading Adverb placement: Predominantly, mainly, mostly
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: Continue reading Need to shorten your paper?