Beware of which and that

Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.

- Samuel Johnson

Exercise 6.4. Which and that

Improve the following sentences in whatever ways seem sensible and correct, paying particular attention to "which" and "that."

1. It is relevant to mention here that novel paleontological findings have uncovered the strong probability that the genus Can-tius, an early genus of primates of a primitive nature, had a large pedal digit that could grasp and which possibly may have figured in the evolutionary scenario of all of today's more modern primates.

2. It should be noted that the use of low molecular weight dextrans should be avoided in these patients which appear to pass through the damaged endothelium of pulmonary vessels.

3. Occasionally a parasite will be noted by the client on a fish which is more worrisome to the owner than to the fish.

4. According to this interpretation it is then concluded by the authors of this present study that ten thousand five hundred tons of lead, that are in addition to the ninety thousand tons which are presently being emitted, will be emitted into the atmospheric envelope during the course of the next calendar year.

5. Our efforts did not result in the location of the proposal which was missing.

This pair of words causes much confusion. Sometimes the words can be used interchangeably; more often, they cannot. A phrase or clause introduced by that is restrictive; it cannot be omitted without changing the meaning of the sentence. Such essential material must not be set off with commas.

A nonrestrictive clause adds information, but does not limit what it modifies. Because it can be omitted without changing the meaning, a nonrestrictive clause is separated from the rest of the sentence by commas. Technically, the word which can be either restrictive or nonrestrictive. One could write "dogs which were treated recovered" or "dogs, which were treated, recovered," depending upon the sense of the sentence.

Many scientists overuse which as a connective, perhaps in a misguided attempt to make their writing more formal. As a result, correct comma use suffers. This simple rule of thumb is almost always correct: use that without commas with all restrictive clauses and which with commas with all nonrestrictive clauses.

Restrictive that clause: Dogs that were treated with antibiotics recovered.

Nonrestrictive which clause: The researcher's decision, which did not come easily, was final.

When we read the words which or that, we interpret such words to refer to whatever went immediately before them in the sentence. If either word becomes separated from its true subject, confusion results. To cure the confusion, move the which or that next to the word to which it refers. Alternatively, rewrite the sentence to avoid using which or that. (This is an especially desirable route if the sentence is very long and/or complex.) Consider breaking the sentence into smaller ones.

Potentially confusing: Tumors were palpable in the animals that remained. [Which remained, the animals or the tumors?] Ways to clarify the meaning: In the animals that remained, tumors were palpable. Tumors that remained were palpable in the animals.

Focus fuzzy nouns and qualifiers

Sometimes, words like those listed below have a definite meaning. More often, they indicate that the thought needs to be sharpened. Think carefully about what is really meant, and substitute a more precise word.

area character conditions field level nature problem process situation structure system

Likewise, vague qualifiers (such as fairly, few, minimal, much, quite, rather, several, slight, very) usually can and should be omitted, since they add nothing.


Hardly anyone will say that your writing has improved. Rather, they'll remark on how much smarter you seem lately.

Scientists are infamous for their plodding writing style. Frequently, their problem arises from poor verb use. Most of the time, they have chosen weak and overused verbs, or hidden perfectly good verbs in noun form. In other cases, they have overused the passive voice, and/or lost track of subject-verb agreement.

Choose livelier verbs

Scientists often write as though only seven verbs exist: demonstrate, exhibit, present, observe, occur, report, and show. Certainly most scientific papers would be seriously crippled if these verbs were removed from the language. Consider this example:

The mean hepatic weights observed to occur in normal and thyroidec-tomized rats were 154 and 27 mg, respectively. The kidney was also observed to exhibit a four-fold difference in the two groups, but as we have shown, no significant difference was demonstrated in the spleen.

All of these verbs are overused, hackneyed, and trite. Whenever possible, substitute more vigorous verbs.

Furthermore, to be technically accurate, these lazy verbs should not be coupled with nonhuman subjects. For example, a scientist will write "the results demonstrate," an action that results, being inanimate, cannot do. Likewise, a researcher may say, "The tissue exhibited necrotic foci." A tissue cannot present anything for inspection, as the sentence literally implies. This misuse is so widespread that most readers have come to accept it. Nonetheless, this problem should provide additional incentive to substitute alternate wording whenever it can be done gracefully. The substitution will usually improve the writing in other ways as well.

Inaccurate: Results show dog weight increased and reduced angulation occurred.

Better: Dogs weighed more and angulation decreased.

Inaccurate: As Figure 1 indicates, disease was seen to occur in 72 of the demented group.

Better: Disease developed (Fig. 1) in 72 patients with dementia.

As a supplement to any other grammar-checking programs you may have -or as a fairly powerful checker on its own - consider using your computer's "search" or "find" command to flag the warning words and lazy verbs that appear in this section (or at least those you recognize as potential problems in your own writing). Each time that one is highlighted, examine the sentence in which it appears. You will soon become sufficiently sensitized that you no longer need the mechanical help to alert you to their presence so that you can avoid or fix them.

Unmask disguised verbs

Habitual use of nouns and pronouns is a common cause of monotonous, verbose science writing. Abstract nouns formed from verbs and ending in "-ion" are a particularly common offender. Such words are really verbs in disguise, richer and more concise than the lazy verbs they are capable of replacing. Consider using them directly as verbs or in their infinitive form. (For more help with this, see 'Active and passive voice".) Experiment with their use as adjectives, adverbs, and participles, as well.

Overuse of abstract nouns: Following activity termination, the patient experienced an amelioration of his condition.

More forceful equivalent: After the patient stopped moving, his condition improved.

Exercise 6.5. Fuzzy words and disguised verbs

A. Improve the following sentences in whatever ways seem correct and appropriate. Be alert for lazy verbs.

1. By early adulthood, more of the males than females were observed to exhibit severe symptoms characteristic of the occurrence of copper deficiency.

2. Under standard conditions, diazepam was chosen for inhibition of the initial rate of protein phosphorylation, as Figure 1 demonstrates.

3. The site of action of soap is observed to be at the cell surface.

4. Stanozolol caused prolongation of appetite, as the results demonstrate.

5. Isolation of A. hydrophila occurred.

B. Use infinitives to replace verbal nouns, and improve the wording of the following sentences.

1. The physicists' hope is for the solution of the question of whether science can harness alternative energy sources.

2. Transformation of the data was necessary for the statistical analyses relevant to resolution of the hypotheses.

Buried verbal nouns: Results showed protection by the vaccine, but degeneration of lymphocytes occurred. Resurrected verb: The vaccine protected the patients, but their lymphocytes degenerated.

Sometimes, words that are perfectly good on their own still can indicate the potential for trouble. For decades, the following "warning words" (adapted from Woodford, 1968) have remained relevant as indicators that unclear, ambiguous, or prosaic prose lurks nearby.

accomplished conducted facilitated involved performed achieved done given made proceeded attained effected implemented obtained produced carried out experienced indicated required

These overused, colorless verbs occur most commonly as the past participle. They usually should be eliminated in favor of a more vital verb hidden (often in -ion form) in the sentence.

Colorless: The provision of assistance implemented in 2007 resulted in the production of a viable method for establishment of a basis for long-term improvement.

Better: Assistance begun in 2007 led to a method that produced long-term improvement.

Active and passive voice

"Voice" is the form of transitive verbs that shows whether the subject acts or is acted upon. When the subject of a sentence performs the action expressed by the verb, the voice is said to be active. When the subject undergoes the action of the verb, the voice is passive. The phrase it was carried is passive; we carried it is active.

The passive voice usually consists of some form of the verb to be plus the past particle of an action verb. (Forms of to be include is/are, was/were, has/have been, had been, may be, and will be. The past participle often but not invariably ends in -ed or -en.) Passive phrases include were studied, is being considered, and will be examined.

Who or what did the studying, considering, or examining? In the passive voice, the agent can be left unnamed. (It can, however, still be expressed with by if desired.) When the agent performing the action is unknown or irrelevant in the context, the passive voice is appropriate.

Darwin's most influential work was published in 1859.

Twenty-five genera of Capnodiaceae are recognized in the tropics.

The passive voice can also be used to emphasize something or someone other than the agent that performed the action. You might write Johnson caught a fresh specimen to emphasize Johnson or a fresh specimen was caught by Johnson to emphasize the specimen.

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