Why do not we use contractions in scientific writing?

Scientific writing has a reputation for being dense, even occasionally impenetrable. Partly that’s because we write about intellectually complex matters using (necessarily) a highly technical vocabulary. But our writing becomes denser still because we love condensed words: acronyms, initialisms, and abbreviations*. As an example, consider this sentence:

To evaluate the role of extracellular cAMP in sperm capacitation, 10–15 × 106 spermatozoa/mL were incubated in 0.3% BSA sp-TALP at 38.5°C and 5% CO2 atmosphere for 45 min in the presence of 0.1, 1 or 10 nM cAMP (Osycka-Salut et al. 2014 Molec Human Reprod 20:89-99).

I’m not picking on these authors – such sentences have become completely unremarkable in our literature. What’s interesting about this, though, is that there’s a peculiar exception to our passion for condensed words: a general refusal to use common contractions (don’t, it’s, we’re, etc.) in scientific writing. Until recently, I’d never wondered why this was; I’d just scrubbed my writing of the contractions I’d use routinely in speech or in less formal writing.

There doesn’t seem much doubt that as a community, we frown on the use of contractions in scientific writing. All the top Google hits for “contractions scientific writing” are warnings against their use. For example, here they’re on a list of “common mistakes in scientific writing”, while here we learn that “contractions are almost completely avoided in scientific text”.

But why do we frown on contractions? I’ve heard two arguments, and neither convinces me. Here they are (and if you have other arguments, please share them in the Replies):

  • First, and most common, is the argument that contractions should be avoided because their informality is unprofessional or unscientific – which (presumably) is a problem because it compromises the reader’s assignment of authority to the text. It takes only a little thought, though, to realize that this logic is completely circular: we avoid contractions in scientific writing because they sound informal, but they sound informal to us only because we’re used to avoiding them in scientific writing! Neither English nor science has an enforcing Academy to dictate that scientific writing that uses contractions lacks authority. There’s only us, and we can (and I hope we do) assign authority to text on the basis of other things.
  • Second is an argument I ran into recently that contractions make text more difficult for non-native speakers of English to understand. I hadn’t thought of this possibility**, so it stopped me short. I took an informal Twitter poll, though, and the non-native speakers who responded were unanimous: contractions are not a problem. A representative opinion: Of things to get your head around when learning English, that was a minor issue.” If we want our writing to be accessible to non-native speakers (and we do), we needn’t worry about contractions; we should work to reduce awkward and complex structures and challenging vocabulary. Conveniently, those are the same goals that will make our reading more accessible to native speakers as well!

So if the case against contractions is weak, what about the case for them? Well, the Chicago Manual of Style argues (with respect to other forms of writing) that “used thoughtfully, contractions in prose sound natural and relaxed and make reading more enjoyable”. This is exactly right. If your reaction is “but reading scientific literature isn’t supposed to be enjoyable”, well, you’re not alone – but I really wish we could get past that, because there’s no reason we can’t find pleasure in our literature. Of course contractions alone won’t make a tedious paper fun, but a more natural, readable writing style can only help.

It’s odd that all my career, I’ve gone along with the conventional wisdom, removing contractions from my scientific writing without thinking twice (or even once) about it. But now that I’ve noticed the issue and thought things over, some modest rebellion seems in order. Therefore, I’m newly resolved to use contractions in my own scientific writing – at least until an editor tells me I can’t.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) October 1, 2015

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This post is based on material from The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, my guidebook for scientific writers. You can learn more about it here.


*An acronym is a set of initial letters pronounced as a word (think ANOVA for analysis of variance, or WIMP for weakly interacting massive particle). An initialism is similar but is pronounced as a series of letters (think DNA for deoxyribonucleic acid). An abbreviation is a looser category of shortenings (such as et al. for et alia). You may be forgiven if you think the distinctions are pedantic – but if you do, why are you still reading this footnote?

**Which is a bit embarrassing, because my writing book includes a chapter about writing by non-native English speakers, and another about the close relationship between writing and reading. Oops.

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18 thoughts on “Why do not we use contractions in scientific writing?

  1. David Mellor

    What other rules do we blindly follow for no logical reason? The rare moments of insight where we see these arbitrary rules, both in science and our culture in general, are so fun to uncover!

    As for the supposed reason for this rule, the last time I thought of it explicitly was when my graduate advisor scrubbed contractions from my writing. At the time, I had assumed mostly the first reason about professionalism and authority, which is of course circular, but I also assumed it was for the benefit of future readers. Using the same (flawed?) logic about non-native speakers, are contractions more likely to cause confusion to readers in the future as the language evolves. Certainly reading scientific, or any, literature from 50, 100, 200, etc years ago becomes increasingly challenging, and anything we can do to minimize that should be encouraged. But as your small poll suggested, do contractions actually affect readability? I have no idea.

    Finally, as the title of your post demonstrates, avoiding contractions does help us avoid “sloppy” writing (which of course is only a problem if it actually reduces clarity).

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks for commenting, David! Interesting point about old literature being hard to read. I haven’t found much problem with our literature back to the mid-1800s, but earlier than that it can be a challenge (try the first volumes of Philosophical Transactions, which are online and interesting reading – see this post: http://wp.me/p5x2kS-55). But this argument might depend on contractions being more labile in time than uncontracted words. Do you think that’s true? (I have no idea, myself).

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  2. William Stuart

    In elementary school, I was taught not to use contractions in writing is because they are a verbal form. This applies to all forms of writing, not just scientific papers. Traditionally, the only reason we have written contractions is for direct quotes.

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  3. Arne Mooers (@ArneMooers)

    Interesting post. I wonder if the results of an informal twitter poll are enough to reject the notion that contractions are difficult for allophones. Data on whether readers (all readers) are more or less likely to miss contractions vs. non-contractions – especially negations – would be interesting too. For example, contractions in speech and those on the page may be processed differently. I dunno.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      You’re right, Arne (of course), my Twitter poll isn’t enough. In general, I’m really intrigued that one thing we don’t apply scientific methods to is our own scientific writing! In other words, we don’t study questions like “are contractions difficult for allophones” scientifically. (There is a literature on this, but much of it is narrative and qualitative). I had a post about this very issue, a while back: http://wp.me/p5x2kS-2h.

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  4. PlainT

    Interesting. I always thought it was so that the writing would sound more objective: loosening up a paper or writing informally injects the author’s personality into the text, which doesn’t have a place in a presentation of facts. At least, that’s the current paradigm, and in fact I think that this impersonal style a key feature of science writing because humans have biases, even when we read objective facts. In more journalistic science writing, I always appreciate a more loose informal writing style; I’m okay though with reading an article and not knowing anything about the author’s age, gender, background, or personality.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks for commenting! That might well be part of it. I agree that the paradigm has been that “the author’s personality…doesn’t have a place in the presentation of facts”. I would actually argue that it needn’t be that way. Enlivening our prose can help communication, and the notion that something actually IS objective because it’s written to SOUND objective is a dubious one! Our infatuation (now thankfully fading) with the passive voice has the same roots in a yearning for objectivity; but there too, I think it’s a rhetorical trick more than genuine objectivity. What do you think about that issue?

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      1. PlainT

        You bring up passive voice vs. active voice. Yes, I think that it’s a good thing to say “We recorded EEG from human patients with diffuse traumatic brain injury” instead of “EEG was recorded from human patients with diffuse traumatic brain injury”, not just because c’mon, a robot didn’t perform these experiments! But also because it’s clearer where this project begins and who exactly collected which data. Also, yes, excellent point: research is done through the lens of one researcher, and the number of papers that were later debunked because something supposedly “objective” was, in fact, NOT objective, attests to the fact that we’re humans doing this research. This has most direct and egregious consequences in social science reporting (“Men tend to like X, women tend to like Y, probably because of Z”) but can also translate into hard sciences. I’d agree that maybe by acknowledging that there is a human bias and a human hand behind the work we are actually getting a more accurate picture, as a tradeoff with more authoritative-sounding facts.

        Nevertheless, a good scientist CAN tease out what’s good science and what’s not even when said science written very formally. And when some of the author’s personality emerges in their writing, there are many consequences: to say that it unilaterally helps communication is maybe an oversimplification of all possible outcomes of having more personable writing. Some people even argue for further depersonalization: they argue that even having authors LISTED on a paper reveals too much (gender, race/ethnicity, etc.). So there are arguments to go both ways. Unfortunately, it may be the case that in science writing, injecting personality will benefit people who “fit in” to the image people have of a scientist, in this undefined way. And can you imagine a peer reviewer telling you your writing needs more personality before submitting? How would one go about fixing that?

        Actually this is why blogging is so great for scientists, because articles are so de-personalized that there’s no room for passion, while blog posts can be about anything and can be a great place to insert subjectivity. Many scientists likely need multiple outlets for our work for this reason! 🙂

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  5. Manu Saunders

    Great post. I agree, we tend to write naturally as we speak so it is much easier for writer & reader to follow…and it would definitely have a small bonus for cutting word counts! I’m all for moving past pedantic anti-contractionism! 🙂
    But, as with the old passive/active voice argument, I think moving from one extreme to another wouldn’t help…there is a context for both ways. In contractions of 2 words, each approach (what is the opposite of contraction??) implies a different emphasis, a unique tone of voice that can actually be useful in discussion/argument science writing. For example, “I can not stress this enough…” makes you take a little bit more notice than “I can’t stress this enough…”

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  6. sleather2012

    The ‘contractions’ I really object to are acronyms, things like GPA for green peach aphid, CPB fro Colorado potato beetle, FMs for field margins, and the like – all of which interrupt my flow of thought when reading a paper as I have to try and remember what they stand for…perhaps a sign of age? 🙂

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I used to be a horrible overuser of such acronyms/initialisms, because they made it much easier for me as the writer. This was (of course) horribly misguided; things should be hard for the writer so that they’re easy for the reader! I now advise that one should almost never invent a new acronym (although it’s fine to use uber-familiar ones like DNA, ANOVA)!

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      1. Perlkonig

        Actually, you can have it both ways. Write with whatever weird acronym you want, but then do a search and replace after the first draft. You’re right, sleather, that for most things it’s easier for the reader to process a long phrase than a completely opaque acronym.

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  10. 123231312311

    Emotions compromise the integrity of the text by biasing the reader. A formal tone must be maintained throughout to avoid this.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      This assertion is not uncommon (and is quite familiar to watchers of Star Trek). It seem to place very little trust in the reader! In the extreme, yes, we don’t want text dripping with emotion in every phrase. But I don’t understand how (for example) letting the reader see your joy of discovery is inevitably going to seduce that reader into misunderstanding nature. (I’m also not sure how this relates to the use of contractions).

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