Improving word choice style and syntax

On the whole, I think the pain which my father took over the literary part of the work was very remarkable. He often laughed or grumbled at himself for the difficulty which he found in writing English, saying, for instance, that if a bad arrangement of a sentence was possible, he would be sure to adopt it . . . When a sentence got hopelessly involved, he would ask himself "now what do you want to say?" and his answer written down, would often disentangle the confusion.

- Charles Darwin's son, Francis (Darwin, 1897)

Like Charles Darwin, most of us need to go over our writing to disentangle confusion, particularly in word choice, syntax, and style. Syntax refers to the relationships between the words and other elements in a sentence. Style means the way something is done, or its basic "personality." Thus we speak of a scientific writing style characterized by clarity and organization, an editorial style that presents written material in a certain way, or a typographic style with various artistic elements.

The importance of these three aspects of scientific writing springs from the precision which science requires. More than one interpretation of a sentence or phrase is unacceptable, so careful attention must be paid to both word choice and word arrangement.

This step may have been what you have been expecting - and dreading -from the start. Admittedly, it can be hard work, but stick with us. Mastering the fundamentals of scientific style demands no special inspiration or genius that stamps a person as different from all others. It is simply a skill akin to doing crossword puzzles or solving logic puzzles. It is a word game in which the winning combination is a sort of functional beauty that arises from barrier-free communication.

Don't get so close to the supposed difficulties that you lose sight of the pleasure in it . . . for there is pleasure to be derived from any effort of creative activity, including this one. Like the hand-turned table you might build or the picture you might paint, each article you write is an original vehicle of self-expression. The material you choose to include, the arrangement of your arguments, the criticisms you raise, and the conclusions you reach, all reflect your own personality and intellect.

Calvin And Hobbes Scientific Writing
CALVIN AND OBBES © 199 Watterson. Dist. By UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

Calvin and Hobbes © 1993 Watterson. Reprinted with permission of Universal Press Syndicate. All rights reserved.


"When I use a word," said Humpty Dumpty, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."

- Lewis Carroll

How nice it would be if word choice were as simple in our own world. Instead, like the bugs that plague computer programs, these flaws creep into scientific writing unnoticed (Weiss, 1990; Dupre, 1998). Almost always, there is more than one way to get rid of them. Like programmers, writers and editors may do anything to eliminate a bug - except add a new bug.

Recognize and minimize jargon

Jargon is a term derived from a medieval French word for the chattering and twittering of birds. It consists of highly specialized technical slang arising from

Table 6.1. Types of scientific jargon



Careless extension of language rules

Acceptable words used in grammatically unacceptable ways

Spoken fads

Words or phrases formed by dropping parts of a word or phrase

The kidneys were ground and the grindate was chilled.

The material was rechromatographed.

The mass was biopsied.

The substance was reacted with acetic acid. (An intransitive verb such as "react" does not take an object, and has no passive voice.)

The feline developed leukopenia. (Words like feline, canine, or bovine are adjectives; when you mean cat, dog, or cow, say so.)

No histology was found in the liver. (Histology is a medical discipline; it is jargon to use it as a synonym for abnormality.)

Inoculize, prioritize, verbalize, visualize, or any such attempt to make a verb by adding "-ize." (We have even encountered "formalinized samples" as a description of samples placed in formalin.)

Reactionwise, stepwise, or any such "-wise" except likewise.

Phrases with "experience" tacked on the end, as in "a learning experience."

Prepped (prepared)

Jugular ligation (jugular vein ligation)

Osteopath (osteopathic physician)

Vet (veterinarian)

the overuse and misuse of obscure, pretentious, or technical words or phrases. Eventually, the changing English language may even fully embrace it. Until that time, however, a jargon word or phrase can pose an insidious trap for a scientific writer because its familiarity makes it seem acceptable before conservative usage embraces it as being correct.

Like other slang, jargon follows cycles of popularity, and fads are common. With a little reflection, you can probably add new examples to the ones we've listed in Table 6.1. Many of these arise by back formation, with a legitimate word or grammatical construction that gives rise to illegitimate offspring. Modern dictionaries describe many of these words and phrases as "variants." This just means that many people are prone to the error.

When conventional words or phrases within a discipline are overused, the result is also jargon (Table 6.2). A list of these terms could go on and on. The basic idea is to substitute shorter, everyday terms for polysyllabic synonyms of Greek, Latin, or Romance language derivation.

Table 6.2. Suggestions to replace common overused words and phrases

Instead of

Use at this point in time dorsal or lateral recumbency due to the fact that employ, utilize high degree of accuracy implement in the event that method neonate oftentimes plethora postoperatively prior to retard sacrifice, euthanatize subsequent to now on its back or side because use accurate do if way newborn often excess after surgery before slow humanely kill or destroy after

Eliminating jargon does not mean removing all technical terms, however. Technical terms are often polysyllabic, yet also concise because to convey their precise meaning in any other way would require many more words. When technical terms are used, be sure they are used correctly. Avoid using scholarly words or phrases in a pseudo-scholarly way. Such jargon results in statements that are inaccurate as well as verbose. Words such as spectrum, strategy, parameter, and approximated have a meaning in the disciplines in which they arose. Used in a pseudo-scholarly way in other disciplines, they can be misleading.

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