A trivial writing error with a powerful writing lesson

There are writing errors everywhere you look*.  Some are trivial – routine typos that confuse nobody – while others change or conceal meaning and sometimes risk lives or cost the transgressor millions of dollars.  Today I’m going to explore an error that’s rampant in scientific writing.  It’s one that in each instance matters not at all, but that in the aggregate offers a powerful writing lesson.

Here it is.  What’s wrong with this sentence?

“The impact of the abiotic environment, via factors such as nutrient supplies, temperature, moisture, and other soil properties, on growth and reproductive strategies of herbaceous plants have been well documented”

Other than the fact that it’s turgid, I mean.  You probably spotted the problem right away, but just in case you didn’t, the same error is more obvious in this shorter sentence from a real CBC new report:

“Flooding in other areas have damaged cars”

Exactly: in an English sentence, the verb has to agree in number with the subject of the sentence – not with the noun that happens to lie closest to it.  So, the fact that “areas” is plural doesn’t mean the flooding sentence needs “have”: the subject is “flooding”, and that’s singular, so it’s “has”.  And in the atrocious sentence about the abiotic environment**, the subject is “impact”, so it’s “has been well documented”.

Subject-verb agreement errors are extraordinarily common.  I see them in almost every thesis chapter or journal manuscript I read (yes, even the ones I’ve written myself).  I’ll admit that they’re trivial: nobody could possibly misinterpret either example just because the writer got subject-verb agreement wrong.  And yet these trivial errors have a powerful lesson for us as writers.  That lesson: pay attention to sentence structure.

As scientific writers, we love long, convoluted sentences.  We love adverbial phrases, and noun strings, and dependent clauses, and nouns or noun phrases in apposition, and – hey, you in the back, wake up!  Yes, I know, the grammar you were taught in high school was boring, but I’m coming to a point.  These long, convoluted sentences can be difficult to follow.  That’s bad for the reader, of course, impeding clarity and making our writing tedious.  But it’s also bad for the writer.  Sentences like the abiotic-environment one betray the fact that even the writer lost track of what their sentence meant.  (They may well know what they mean to say; but not what the text they’ve written actually says.)  And if the writer doesn’t know what the text means, there isn’t much hope for the reader.

Why does this happen, and how do we fix it?

I suspect we love those long, convoluted sentences for two reasons; one good and one bad.  The good reason is that, when they’re carefully crafted, they let us express complicated and technical ideas with precision and with appropriate amounts of hedging.  The bad reason is that they sound science-y, and beginning as undergraduates we desperately want our writing to sound science-y. A lot of the worst attributes of scientific writing come, I think, from wanting to sound science-y: our torrid love affair with acronyms, with nominalizations***, with long noun strings, and much more.  And there’s a circularity problem, too: we want to sound science-y, and what we think is science-y is what we see in the literature, so we emulate that, so our literature can never improve.  Argh.

What about fixing the problem?  Well, I don’t quite know how we fix our discipline-wide obsession with tedious and turgid writing, but I do know how an individual writer can improve.  And the reason I say that subject-verb disagreement has a powerful lesson for us is that understanding where it comes from, and working to avoid it, can help our writing in so many other ways.  There are two steps to improving, and they’re both easy:

  1. Simplify sentence structure as much as you can. Scientific papers aren’t likely to sound like Hemingway; we really do need sentences that can convey nuance and hedge about limitations.  But replacing a long convoluted sentence with two short simple ones will usually improve our writing.  (Replacing a long convoluted sentence with one short simple one may improve it even more.)
  2. Once you’ve pared a sentence down as much as you can, pare it down – temporarily – even more. Each complex sentence as a simple core: a subject, a verb, and sometimes an object. Find it. For the abiotic-environment sentence, there’s “The impact (subject) have been documented (verb)”.  With the thickets of complexity stripped away, it’s much easier to notice and fix the errors.  It’s now completely obvious, for instance, that “have” should be “has”.  (It’s also now obvious that I wrote that sentence in the passive voice.  That realization should lead me to ask whether or not I should have.)  Once you’ve fixed the simple core, then you can gradually and carefully put the complexity back – but, with point #1 in mind, only as much of that complexity as you really need.

I know, analysing sentence structure is tedious.  But it’s not nearly as tedious as reading sentences whose writers skipped that step.  Is this a long way to stretch a simple “impact…have” error?  Perhaps – but it’s a very useful stretch.

© Stephen Heard  June 15, 2020

 This post is based partly on material in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.  And partly, of course, on my extensive experience reading, and writing, bad prose.

Image: Mitsakes were made. © opensourceway CC BY-SA 2.0 via flickr.com


*^To my disgust, even in my own writing; there’s an error of French grammatical gender in my new book, and there’s bound to be an error right here in this post.

**^Which I wrote myself, and it wasn’t even hard to write it incorrectly.  Bad writing is easy for me.

***^Look it up.  And then be amused by the fact that the word “nominalization” is in fact a nominalization.

10 thoughts on “A trivial writing error with a powerful writing lesson

  1. Peter Apps

    “As scientific writers, we love long, convoluted sentences. ” I don’t. I hate them with a burning passion.

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  2. Philip Moriarty

    There’s a lot to agree with here. When correcting/commenting on undergraduate and postgraduate work I similarly spend a great deal of time pleading for simple sentence structure. But we should also aim to make our writing engaging. And complete avoidance of lengthy — even occasionally convoluted — sentences means that the timbre and rhythm of the piece can get very tiresome, very quickly.

    I love this, from Gary Provost, who makes the point so much better than I ever could:

    ““This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety.

    Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.””

    (And if I read just one more scientific paper that kicks off with “In recent years, [phenomenon/material/property X] has become of increasing interest…”, I’ll pull out whatever few strands of hair that I have remaining.)

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Yes, completely agree with variation in sentence length! But in practical terms, I don’t think I’d ever succeed in having a scientific writer pare down ALL their sentences to short simple ones, so I suspect the variation takes care of itself.

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  4. John Pastor

    Those of us of an older generation remember diagramming sentences. I still find that this is a great way to find my mistakes like subject-verb agreement because most of the extraneous clauses get diagrammed off to the side and the core subject-verb-predicate of the sentence stands out. I just scribble these diagrams down on a piece of scrap paper next to my computer. To see diagrams of sentences by great writers, check out: https://www.amazon.com/Call-Me-Ishmael-Postcards-Sentence/dp/1524763586/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=sentence+diagrams&qid=1592233262&sr=8-1

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      John – I refrained from mentioning “diagramming” only because it brings back painful schooldays memories for many – but you are quite right, it’s an effective way to do the paring down! (Also, I love the Melville/Kafka contrast in the postcards you link to.)

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      1. John Pastor

        I loved diagramming sentences – it was sort of like turning grammar into geometry, which I also loved. Along those lines, I am going to read Francis Su’s book on mathematics which you featured in your next essay.

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        1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

          I think you’ll enjoy Francis’s book, John. I can see the appeal of diagramming to you (I was, amazingly, never taught it) – along the same lines, I really enjoyed organic chem as an undergrad. To me it was like a game with rules; I could make certain “moves” to get a path from structure A to structure B. But I was very much in the minority – as I suspect you are with diagramming 🙂

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