Tag Archives: grammar

Two trivial writing mistakes that really grate on me

Like most academics, I read a lot. And I mean a lot: student papers, draft manuscripts and thesis chapters, manuscripts I’m peer reviewing, grant proposals, blog posts, and yes, newspapers and magazine articles and novels. So I see polished writing, and unpolished writing, and rough-draft writing. And I have that academic instinct to spot writing errors. I see lots of those, believe me – including, of course, in my own writing.

Some errors impede communication, and some are trivial. You’d think I’d rant about the former and forgive the latter, but I’m afraid I’m not that rational. Continue reading


Why don’t we capitalize taxonomic names used as adjectives?

Sometimes important matters keep me up at night: how we’ll end the pandemic, how I can best contribute to the fight against climate change, what I should cook for dinner tomorrow. Other times, it’s the little mysteries.

The beautiful dragonfly above, the lined hooktail, is a member of the dragonfly family Gomphidae.  Or, if I were to phrase that differently, the lined hooktail is a beautiful gomphid dragonfly.  Did you notice the peculiarity there?  “Gomphidae” (noun), but “gomphid” (adjective). Why? Continue reading

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.  Continue reading

Who’s in charge of the English language?

Image: Oxford English Dictionary, Mrpolyonymous CC BY 2.0 via flickr.com.  But no, the Oxford Dictionary is not in charge.

Who’s in charge of the English language?  Nobody, of course.  You might think that would make our writing easier; but actually, it makes it considerably harder.

Here’s something you see all the time: someone either asks a question about the rules of English, or insists that somebody else is breaking them.

  • “Can I start a sentence with an abbreviated genus name?”
  • “When do I use which and when do I use that?”
  • Decimate really means to kill only one in ten.”
  • “Everyone knows you can’t split an infinitive.”

If English were a set of rules, with some body in charge of enforcing them, then all questions like those first two would have simple, short, unambiguous answers, and all opinions like the latter two would be objectively either right or wrong.  But English isn’t a set of rules.  Continue reading

Defenders of the passive voice

I mention in my book, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, that there are few better ways to get academics arguing than to bring up the topic of the passive voice.  I’m reminded of this every time I get into a discussion of voice, either online or in person, in my department.  As you’d expect for a topic provoking argument, there are strongly held opinions on both sides: that scientific writing should use the active voice, or that the passive voice should be used instead*.

In general, I’m a passionate advocate for the active voice (although I acknowledge that a reasonable person can disagree).  Either on Twitter or in real life, I’ll often say something about avoiding the passive, and almost always somebody will come back with an objection.  These objections take a number of forms, both among different objectors but also within a single objector’s argument.  Two things interest me about patterns in those objections. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Dealing with the defect in English

Image credits: Dinosaur comics #2079, © Ryan North

(This post will be of interest mainly to grammar buffs, language pedants, and people writing books.  You’ve been warned!)

English is a wonderful language, a difficult language, and a frustrating language. It has 350,000 different words, or maybe 1,000,000 (depending who you ask) – but it’s missing two really important ones: a pair of gender-neutral 3rd-person singular pronouns. We have he/she and his/her, but no nongendered equivalents. That’s a real problem for a writer who wants his or her (see?) language to be inclusive, and in the 21st century it’s surely a defect in our language*. Continue reading