Attending to grammar numbers and other mechanics

Sticklers unite, you have nothing to lose but your sense of proportion, and arguably you didn't have a lot of that to begin with. Maybe we won't change the world, but at least we'll feel better.

- Lynne Truss (2003)

Proper grammar, formatting, and citations are essential to effective written and oral communication. These fundamentals help avoid misunderstandings and reduce the chances of error in fact or interpretation.

Attention to detail is a little like housekeeping. When it is done well, no one is aware of it. When it is not, everyone can tell. If you skip this step, readers will notice. They may be willing to overlook small inconsistencies, but major blunders will distract their attention away from the primary purpose of the writing. No longer concentrating on the technical content, they start searching for more errors instead.


The difficulty is not to write, but to write what you mean.

- Robert Louis Stevenson

If effective scientific communication is like a well designed and smoothly operating machine, then grammar - the accepted system of rules by which words are formed and put together to make sentences - forms the nuts and bolts that hold it all together. The individual fasteners of punctuation, capitalization, and such may seem simple and unexciting to look at, but they are undeniably important if the machine is to hold together and function properly.

In this section, we suggest ways of avoiding and correcting some common mechanical mistakes that scientific writers tend to make. For further advice, style manuals of special utility for biomedical writers include Science and Technical Writing (Rubens, 2002), Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2001), American Medical Association Manual of Style (Iverson, 1997), and Scientific Style and Format (Council of Science Editors, 2006).

A dozen fumblegrammar rules for scientists

1. It is recommended by the authors that the passive voice be avoided.

2. Subjects and verbs even when separated by a word string has to agree.

3. Writing science carefully, dangling participles must not appear.

4. If you reread your writing, you will find that a great many very repetitious statements can be identified by rereading and identifying them.

5. Avoid using "quotation" marks "incorrectly" and where they serve no "useful" purpose.

6. The naked truth is that editors will read the riot act to any Tom, Dick, and Harry that uses clichés; avoid them like the plague.

7. In formal scientific writing, don' t use contractions or exclamation points!!

8. If we've told you once, we' ve told you a thousand times, a writer who uses hyperbole will come to grief.

9. In science writing, and otherwise, avoid commas, that are, really, unnecessary.

10. Subjects and their verbs whenever you notice and can do so should be placed close.

11. Remember it is better not to, if you can avoid it, split an infinitive.

12. Proofread your manuscript carefully to be sure you didn' t any words out.

— Adapted from Safire (1990)

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