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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) October 1, 2015
- The best writing in scientific papers
- Do scientists want beauty (in writing)?
- Another grammar point: Fixing the defect in English
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.