Some of you may recall Kyle Wiens, the tech company CEO who created a bit of a online fuss last year with his article in the Harvard Business Review, "I Won't Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here's Why". In it, he argued that "good grammar is credibility", and that attention to grammar in writing is representative of attention to detail in all aspects of work. Well, he's at it again, this time with "Your Company is Only As Good As Your Writing". He defends himself from some of the criticism he received as a result of the previous article, but also addresses some of the challenges that companies, particularly technology companies, face with both internal and external communication. It's a worthwhile read, particularly because he also describes the internal "manual" that he and his colleagues developed to encourage good writing. When it was finished, they polished it up and put it online as the "Tech Writing Handbook". Though it may not be as useful to scientists who are only focused on writing academic papers, it certainly has the potential to help out anyone who has made (or is thinking of making) the jump to technical writing. Enjoy the tips and happy writing!
Many researchers come to us because English editing has been included in the list of changes requested before their papers can be published. However, this is frustrating for many, and understandably so, because they had their manuscripts reviewed for English errors prior to initial submission!
It is important to recognize that there are large differences in the quality of service that editors provide. Since research funding is often scarce, it can be tempting to go with an editor who will only charge 60-80 euros for a 20+ page manuscript. However, the editing will probably be light and focus exclusively on glaring errors, such as incorrect verb tenses, obvious idiom problems, and spelling mistakes. This type of editing will clean up the manuscript to a certain extent. However, it will do nothing to deal with the types of issues that most often provoke reviewers to ask for English editing: those pertaining to sentence structure and fluidity.
For example, take the following sentence, which came to us in an "edited" manuscript:
“Because of their abundance in most terrestrial habitats, their foraging decisions may have important consequences at the ecosystem level.”
At first glance, it seems correct - there are no problems with subject/verb agreement, incorrect verb tenses, or improper preposition use. However, if you look more closely, the sentence is actually rather confusing. It appears to be saying that “their foraging decisions” - the grammatical subject of the sentence - are abundant in the environment and thus have important consequences for ecosystems, which makes no sense.
Now consider our alternative:
“Because ants are abundant in most terrestrial habitats, their foraging decisions may have important consequences at the ecosystem level.”
A small but important change suddenly makes the meaning clear – the ants are the ones that are abundant, and it is their foraging decisions that are of consequence. These types of more complicated, yet crucial, grammatical issues often get ignored by those doing quick, cheap editing. In fact, we have recently spent a lot of time on this blog discussing similar issues (see our series on "Reader Expectations") because addressing this kind of problem is extremely important, but often overlooked, in helping readers (and reviewers!) follow your thoughts.
As a consequence, while we may charge as little as 60 euros if the editing is light and the manuscript short, we will not accept a job only to do it halfway; some manuscripts clearly need more thorough editing. It is for this reason that we offer price estimates only after having looked at a text. Additionally, if a manuscript has already been submitted, we like to look at reviewers’ comments to see examples of the types of corrections they are requesting. Knowing exactly what kinds of problems need to be addressed helps us, and ultimately our authors, to improve the language of the text as much as possible. It's self-serving for us to say so, but it really is true: investing a little more in your editing budget upfront will help you save time and money in the long run!
Among grammarians, few topics cause more debate than the Oxford comma. Disagreements about its use have been known to incite feuds rivaling those of the Hatfields and the McCoys, the Ghibellines and the Guelphs, or the houses of York and Lancaster - okay, okay, I kid. However, this simple comma has the power to raise tempers and ignite passionate debate more than any other grammatical topic I can think of. When news broke last year that the Oxford University Style Guide was abandoning its own comma, thousands (millions?) of its devoted fans took to social media outlets in lamentation, collectively breathing a sigh of relief when the report turned out to be false. Just what is this particular item of punctuation used for, and why do people care about it so much?
The first part of the question is easy to answer. The Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma, is the final comma used in a series or list, together with "and" or "or". Therefore, a sentence with a correctly used Oxford comma would be:
"We studied the drug's effect on the subjects' appetites, sleep patterns, and length of life." The same sentence without the Oxford comma would be "We studied the drug's effect on the subjects' appetites, sleep patterns and length of life."
Here you're starting to think, "Okay, but what's the big deal? Both of those sentences mean exactly the same thing!" In this case, you're right - both of these sentences would be interpreted by most reasonable readers to mean the same thing. However, consider the following examples:
"We quantified the expression of the two new genes, Maj10, and Mak20."
"We quantified the expression of the two new genes, Maj10 and Mak20."
In the first example, the commas are used to identify individual items in a list, and the reader can see that we've quantified the expression of four genes: two new genes (presumably identified previously in the text), plus Maj10 and Mak20. However, it's not clear in the second example if "the two new genes, Maj10 and Mak20" makes up a list of four different genes, or whether the comma is used simply to set off additional information that describes the noun before it ("genes"). If the latter is true, we have only two genes, named Maj10 and Mak20. See the problem? If we chose not to use the Oxford comma in our writing, sentence #2 could describe either situation. Some readers may infer that we studied four genes, while other readers, expecting to see an Oxford comma in this situation, will infer that we studied only two genes. By contrast, sentence #1 is clearly a list of four genes.
Now that we know what it is, then, let's deal with the second half of the question: why does it cause such emotionally charged debates? For the sake of full disclosure, I should reveal that I am a proud member of Team Oxford Comma, for two reasons. First, because Mr. Stanich taught me to use it when I was 11, and when I asked him "Why?", he said "Because". Old habits die hard. The real reason, however, is that it eliminates confusion. If I use the Oxford comma correctly and consistently, my readers will have no difficulty in interpreting sentence #1 as a list of four genes and sentence #2 as an identification of two genes. They will reason, rightly so, that if I'd meant #2 to be a list of four genes, I would have put an Oxford comma in it. Instead, if I use the Oxford comma haphazardly, or not at all, sentence #2 will, at best, sidetrack my readers with unnecessary head-scratching, and, at worst, lead them down the exact opposite path from what I intended.
Most writers who advocate minimal usage of the Oxford comma are journalists, following AP style guidelines. When you think about it, this makes sense - writing for a newspaper requires packing as much information as possible into limited physical space, and taking out individual punctuation marks could make a difference. In academic publishing, however, the benefit (space for 10-15 extra characters) doesn't come close to outweighing the cost (imprecision and potential reader confusion). If you're trying to communicate a complex, involved research project to unknown readers, why handicap yourself? Team Oxford Comma for the gold!
The difference between "less" and "fewer" is simple, but the two are often confused in usage. Here's the secret:
"Fewer" means "a smaller number of something", so use it for anything you can attach numbers to.
"Fewer samples were taken from site B than from site A (12 vs.15)."
"In the treatment group, fewer mice exhibited symptoms than in the control group (25 vs. 38; Table 1)."
Use "less" if you're not referring to individuals you can count, but rather to a decrease in a particular quality or concept.
"We had less success in raising viable embryos using this technique."
"We observed less change over time in group A than in group B."
The same rules also apply to "few" vs. "little", e.g.,
"Few of the incubated samples displayed fungal growth." (Few samples of many potential samples)
"We observed little growth in the experimental group." (Growth is the quality being observed, not something to be counted.)
Still confused? Put your questions in the comments!
Few subjects cause as many headaches for language learners as new verb tenses, and for students of English, the present perfect tense is a frequent source of exasperation. Because it's used to express actions in the past that are still relevant to the present, we use it often in scientific discourse to discuss past research or hypotheses. Indeed, it's used abundantly in the Introduction and Discussion sections of scientific papers when authors describe how past work is relevant to their own. However, when describing anything that has already taken place, the simple past tense also plays an important role. If you're feeling a bit unsure about when to use each tense, and how to use them together, here are some simple guidelines to help you:
1. Use the simple past for actions that occurred one or several times in the past, but do not continue to occur today.
"This technique was used until the 1980s, when technological improvements rendered it obsolete."
"The data supported our hypothesis."
2. Use the present perfect when describing an action or body of research that took place in the past, but pertains to your research today.
"This technique has been used since the 1980s, and has been shown to be highly efficacious (Smith, 1984; Jones, 1995; Zhang et al., 2002)."
Here, it is implied through the use of the present perfect that this technique was used in the past, continues to be used today, and during that entire time has been highly efficacious.
"Until now, most published data have been consistent with this hypothesis."
Instead of referring to a single set of data that tested one hypothesis at a specific moment in time, as in #1, here we're referring to data collected over a period of time that have continually supported the hypothesis until the present day.
3. If you are referring to a single study, you may use the simple past, but if you refer to multiple studies or an on-going body of work, the present perfect is better.
Simple past: "In their 2010 paper, Kapolsky and Slater highlighted the need for more precise methods."
Present perfect: "The research of Kapolsky and Slater (2010; 2011) has highlighted the need for more precise methods."
"Research" is an somewhat abstract term, encompassing various experiments that Kapolsky and Slater have performed (and, implicitly, continue to perform) that are relevant to the subject topic.
4. Use the two tenses together when you're expressing past actions that occurred over a period of time and that are still relevant today (present perfect), punctuated by a single, completed event (simple past).
"Ever since she introduced her famous hypothesis in a 2000 Nature paper, Jenson's work has been highly regarded."
"She introduced" is in the simple past because it happened once, and the action was completed. The present perfect is used in the second clause because the hypothesis has been highly regarded in the past and continues to be highly regarded today.
Wondering about examples from your own work? Post them in the comments and we can help!
Scientific documents are often packed full of numbers, and determining the clearest, most efficient way to represent them in your documents can be a pain. Obviously, the most concise way to express numbers is to use numerals, e.g., 5, 9, 11, 54, 101; however, when used too freely, an abundance of numerals tends to impede readers' understanding. Consider the following phrases: "9 4-cell-stage embryos", "54 2-hour samples", "75 500-individual groups".
Reading them, the mind automatically stumbles a bit; is that "9 embryos that are at the 4-cell stage" or "embryos comprised of 94 cells"? Clearly, some level of compromise is required between "all numerals, all the time" and "every number written as a word", but how best to optimize the tradeoff? Luckily, if we are going to keep our writing concise (and we are), but not sacrifice ease of expression (and we are not), we need only follow a few simple guidelines:
1) Numbers less than 10 (1-9) are usually written out, while 10 and above are expressed as numerals.
Therefore, in the example above, one correct way to write it would be "nine four-cell-stage embryos". "But wait!", you say, "I see '4-cell-stage embryos' all the time! In dozens of papers!" Exactly. In your particular field, conventional usage may have trumped standard grammar rules, so that "nine 4-cell-stage embryos" is perfectly acceptable. It's always a good idea to check with the journal you have in mind to see if they have a preference for either style. For the other two examples, we'd have "54 two-hour samples", but I'd rewrite "75 500-individual groups" to "75 groups of 500 individuals each". Yes, we've added text, but we've dramatically increased clarity.
Important Note: Rule #1 may be broken for the sake of consistency. If numbers less than and greater than 10 appear together in a sentence, express them all as numerals, e.g., "We sampled leaves at 4, 6, 10, 25, and 36 days after germination." "From site A and site B, we obtained 8 and 11 samples, respectively."
2) Numbers at the start of a sentence should always be spelled out.
This one is fairly inviolable. The sentence "25 samples were included in this study" would correctly be "Twenty-five samples were included in this study". However, "278 sites were tested for contaminants" is a little trickier. Instead of burdening your reader with "Two hundred seventy-eight sites were tested for contaminants" , try a quick rewrite: "We tested 278 sites for contaminants." The same goes for "4-cell-stage embryos" - if it starts a sentence but you don't want it spelled out completely, rewrite your sentence!
3) Use numerals for measured quantities
"40 mL water", "5 g tissue", "2.5 min"
4) Leave a space between a number and its unit, except for percentages and degrees.
So, we have "70%" and "70°C" (no space), but "70 mL", "70 days", and "70 mg".
There are more, but these four rules should get you through most of the numerical situations you'll encounter in your scientific writing. (See what I did there?) Remember, the rules of grammar exist to increase the clarity and ease of understanding of any given document. Instead of viewing them as archaic, pointless shackles on your personal expression, try envisioning them as useful tools towards your ultimate goal: easy communication with your readers!
Grammar Guide #1: The Correct Usage of Which vs. That, or, How Restrictive Clauses Can Open Up New Worlds in Your Writing
Scientific writing is difficult. Nowadays, scientists are under immense pressure to conduct and publish groundbreaking research as quickly as possible, write compelling grant proposals, and stay abreast of the latest developments in their field; these challenges are increased exponentially for those whose native language isn't English. It's no wonder that careful attention to grammar often goes by the wayside, even for those who have spoken English since infancy. Enter our "Grammar Guide" series: short, to-the-point guidelines to help you navigate the murky waters of English grammar with confidence and make its intricacies work to your advantage. First up, which vs. that.
We're starting off at a somewhat advanced level, but scientific writing is complicated and knowing when it's appropriate to use "which" vs. "that" can increase the clarify and precision of your writing. The difference may seem small at first, but incorrect usage can sabotage the meaning of your sentence. Let's look at an example to see what I mean:
1) "We sorted all the samples that were collected at the Lake Lucas site into categories based on morphology."
2) "We sorted all the samples, which were collected at the Lake Lucas site, into categories based on morphology."
Without knowing anything about the grammatical differences involved, you can see straight away that the "which" clause is separated from the rest of the sentence by commas. This is important, and can help you remember the essential difference between the two. Here it is:
"That" specifies a particular group of the overall subject and is crucial to the understanding of the sentence (in grammatical terms, a restrictive clause).
"Which" is followed by information that is descriptive but not necessary to understand the sentence (a non-restrictive clause). Here, the commas help to set off this clause as an aside to the main action of the sentence.
In other words, "we sorted all of the samples that were collected at the Lake Lucas site into categories" tells you that all of the sorted samples were collected at Lake Lucas and only the samples from Lake Lucas were sorted. It restricts the action of the sentence to the subset described by "that". There might be other samples, collected at other sites, that may or may not have been sorted, but we don't know anything about them from this sentence.
In the sentence "we sorted all the samples, which were collected at the Lake Lucas site, into categories", the clause introduced by a comma and "which" is more of a "by the way, here's some additional information about the samples". You can leave it out and still understand the true meaning of the sentence: "We sorted all of the samples into categories". Here, "which" is non-restrictive and descriptive: all of the samples were sorted, and they all came from Lake Lucas.
If this still seems nit-picky to you, consider the difference between these two descriptions:
1) All of the mice, which had been tested for antibodies, were given 50 mL of the solution.
2) All of the mice that had been tested for antibodies were given 50 mL of the solution.
In 1), all of the mice in the experiment were given 50 mL of the solution (and they had all been tested for antibodies). In 2), only the mice that had been tested for antibodies were given the solution (and we can infer that there are other mice, which had not been tested and were therefore not given the solution). By changing one word, we've completely changed the reader's understanding of the experimental set-up!
Recap: Clauses introduced by "which" are always set off by commas and are used to describe additional information that is nice to know about the subject. Clauses introduced by "that" are not set off by commas and they specify a subset of the subject on which the action was performed.
If you're more of a visual person and are still feeling a bit muddled on the topic, here's another short explanation, complete with color-coded Venn diagrams. Feel free to add questions or examples in the comments!
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