I recently had a run-in (OK, a minor disagreement) with a reviewer who wanted me to scrub all contractions from my manuscript – and who specifically objected, not to some fancy or newly-coined acronym but standard, common English contractions like didn’t, it’s, and we’ll.
Reviewer: “Do not use contractions. Change didn’t for did not.”
Me: <sigh> It’s remarkable how many of the things people think are rules about scientific writing have the effect of making the writing duller…https://t.co/tfSsrfe2IG
— Stephen Heard (@StephenBHeard) October 15, 2018
I’m on record as opposing this so-called rule of scientific writing (and I linked to that record in my frustrated tweet) – because I think the (moderate) use of common contractions makes our writing less stiff, more natural, and more engaging. Those are worthy goals, and I think contractions can be one tool in our toolbox. (To be clear: I’m talking only about standard, common contractions, of which English has about 40 – not about unusual or novel contractions like internat’l (for international) or complex acronyms or initialisations like ANOVA, cAMP, or GC/MS.)
Those who’d like to prohibit contractions in scientific writing usually make one of two arguments: that contractions make our writing sound inappropriately informal, or that they represent an obstacle to understanding for readers of English as an additional language (EAL readers). You probably know what I think of the first argument. But what about the second? If it’s true, it’s an important concern. Today, I’m hoping you’ll tell me if it’s true.
If English is your first language, please don’t leave me just yet. Instead, skip down the last poll question, which is for you; and then, please share this post with your EAL colleagues and friends.
If you’re an EAL reader, I’m glad you’re here. Will you tell me a few things? I’ll ask a few simple poll questions, and invite you to say more in the Replies.
Poll questions for EAL readers:
Look, I know the results from these polls won’t constitute highly scientific data, and they won’t merit publication in a science studies or linguistics journal. Online poll results never do. But what’s frustrating is that if good data on this exist, I’ve been unable to find it – either because it doesn’t exist, or because it exists in disciplinary literature that’s difficult for me as a working scientist to find or read. But the lack of data doesn’t stop people from holding strong opinions about the use of contractions in scientific writing*. This is true, actually, of a shocking number of things in the culture and practice of science. But before I start a full-fledged rant about that, let me return to the point: as a writer and an editor, I’d like to know if I should change my stance on contractions. I hope your responses to this post will help me.
Of course, it’s an accident of history that today, it’s non-native speakers of English who find find linguistic obstacles in reading the scientific literature. Once, much of our literature was in German, or French, or Russian; once even longer ago, we all had to learn to read (and to write) Latin. And this historical perspective makes we wonder if contractions in English are somehow uniquely difficult. French, for example, also use lots of contractions (and as a mediocre reader and writer of French, I find contractions don’t make my top-100 problems-with-French list). So, if you’re a native English speaker, it’s your turn:
So, this is your chance to have your say, and please spread the word. Am I wrong about contractions?
© Stephen Heard October 23, 2018
*^As, apparently, does my reviewer… but then, I can’t except myself from this generalization either. My pro-contraction stance is informed only by instinct, one quick Twitter poll, and my own experience as an additional-language reader of French.