Word Specificity In Scientific Writing

This listing includes some of the troublesome words, terms, and expressions most frequently found in the
experimental sections of manuscripts.  Any glossary of word usage assumes that what is acceptable for some
uses may not be for others. Some expressions and terms, though not incorrect, are not precise. In reporting and
recording research, try to be as accurate and precise in describing it as in doing it. International readers,
especially, should use standard words in their established meanings.

Above ("the above method," "mentioned above," etc.) -- Often, you are referring to something preceding, but
not necessarily above; a loose reference, convenient for writers, but not for readers. Try to be more specific.
You know exactly what and where, but your readers may have to search (sometimes through much preceding

Affect, effect -- Affect is a verb and means to influence. Effect, as a verb, means to bring about; as a noun,
effect means result. However, these words are troubling even for native English speakers and writers.  Best to
consult a dictionary.

All of, both of -- Just "all" or "both" will serve in most instances.

Alternate, alternative -- The first means every other choice in a series; the second, one of two possibilities.  
As the other one of a series of two, an
alternate may stand for "a substitute," but an alternative, although used
in a similar sense, connotes a matter of choice that is never present with

And (to begin a sentence) -- Quite proper. You have been told not to do this in grade school. But teacher's
purpose was to keep you from using fragmentary sentences; either "and" or "but" may be used to begin
complete sentences. And both are useful transitional words between related or contrasting statements.  I advise
ESL writers not to use this transition.

Apparently (apparent) -- means obviously, clearly, plainly evident, but also means seemingly or ostensibly as
well as observably. You know the meaning that you intend, but readers may not. Ambiguity results. Use
obvious(ly), clear(ly), seeming(ly), evident(ly), observable or observably, etc., as needed to remove doubt.

Appear, appears -- Seem(s)? "He always appears on the scene, but never seems to know what to do."
"Marley's ghost appeared but seemed harmless."

As -- Dialectal when used in place of that or whether; do not use as to mean because or inasmuch as.

At the present time, at this point in time -- Wordy.  Say "at present" or "now" if necessary at all.

Below -- See comment about above.

But (to begin a sentence) -- Go right ahead (see "And" and "However").

By means of -- Most often, just "by" will serve and save words.

Case -- Can be ambiguous, misleading, or ludicrous because of different connotations; e.g., "In the case of
Scotch whiskey,...." Case also is a frequent offender in padded, drawn-out sentences. For "in this case," try "in
this instance."

Commas and punctuation -- Not precisely a word-usage matter except in relation to how words are put
together. Many prefer less punctuation (particularly fewer commas), but that demands careful writing, without
misplaced or dangling elements. Do not omit commas before the conjunctions in compound sentences. I
recommend, as do most journals, using final commas before "and" or "or" in series; check the journal.

Compare with, compare to -- Compare with means to examine differences and similarities; compare to
means to represent as similar. One may conclude that the music of Brahms compares to that of Beethoven, but
to do that, one must first compare the music of Brahms with that of Beethoven.

Comprise -- Comprise means to contain, include, or encompass, not to constitute or compose.  Do not use
comprise when you mean constitute!  Use and meanings now are so confused and mixed that "comprise" is best
avoided altogether.

Correlated with, correlated to -- Although things may be related to one another, things are correlated with
one another (see
proper prepositions).

Data -- Like strata (stratum), phenomena (phenomenon), and media (medium), data is plural, use with a plural

Different from, different than -- Different from! Also, one thing differs from another, although you may differ
with your colleagues.

Due to -- Make sure that you don't mean because of. Due is an adjective modifier and must be directly related
to a noun, not to a concept or series of ideas gleaned from the rest of a statement. "Due to the fact that..." is an
attempt to weasel out.

During the course of, in the course of -- Just use "during" or "in."

Either....or, neither...nor -- Apply to no more than two items or categories. Similarly, former and latter refer
only to the first and second of only two items or categories.

Etc. -- Use at least two items or illustrations before "and so forth" or "etc."

Experience(d) -- To experience something is sensory; inanimate, unsensing things (lakes, soils, enzymes,
streambeds, farm fields, etc.) do not experience anything.

Following -- "After" is more precise if "after" is the meaning intended. "After [not following] the procession, the
leader announced that the ceremony was over."

High(er), low(er) -- I see these quite often when I edit ESL papers.  Much too often used, frequently
ambiguously or imprecisely, for other words such as greater, lesser, larger, smaller, more, fewer; e.g.,
"Occurrences of higher concentrations were lower at higher levels of effluent outflow." One interpretation is that
greater concentrations were fewer or less frequent as effluent volume(s) increased, but others also are possible.

However -- Place it more often within a sentence or major element rather than at the beginning or end. "But"
serves better at the beginning.

Hyphening of compound or unit modifiers -- Often needed to clarify what is modifying what; e.g., a
small-grain harvest (harvest of small grain) is different from a small grain harvest (small harvest of all grain), a
fast acting dean isn't necessarily as effective as a fast-acting dean, a batch of (say, 20) 10-liter containers is
different from a batch of 10 [1-] liter containers, and a man eating fish is very different from a man-eating fish!
Grammatically, adjectives are noun modifiers, and the problem is when adjectives and nouns are used to
modify other adjectives and nouns. Adverbs (usually with "ly" endings), however, are adjective modifiers.

In order to -- For brevity, just use "to"; the full phrase may be used, however, [in order] to achieve useless

Irregardless -- No, regardless. But irrespective might do.

It should be mentioned, noted, pointed out, emphasized, etc. -- Such preambles often add nothing but
words. Just go ahead and say what is to be said.

It was found, determined, decided, felt, etc. -- Are you being evasive? Why not put it frankly and directly?

Less(er), few(er) -- "Less" refers to quantity; "fewer" to number.

Majority, vast majority -- See if most will do as well or better.  Vast means very great in size, number,
amount, or quantity.

Myself -- Not a substitute for me. "This paper has been reviewed by Dr. Smith and myself" and "The report
enclosed was prepared by Dr. Jones and myself" are incorrect as is "Don't hesitate to call Dr. Doe or myself";
me would have been correct in all instances. (Use of I also would have been wrong in those examples.) Some
correct uses of myself: I found the error myself. I myself saw it happen. I am not myself today. I cannot
convince myself. I locked myself out of the car.

Partially, partly -- Partly is the better, simpler, and more precise word when partly is meant.  Partly carries
the idea of a part distinct from the whole.  Partially implies "to a certain degree."

Percent, percentage -- Not the same; use percent only with a number.

Predominate, predominant -- Predominate is a verb. Predominant is the adjective; as an adverb,
predominantly (not "predominately").

Prefixes -- (mid, non, pre, pro, re, semi, un, etc.) -- Usually not hyphened in U.S. usage except before a
proper name (pro-Iowa) or numerals (mid-60s) or when lack of a hyphen makes a word ambiguous or
awkward. Recover a fumble, but perhaps re-cover a sofa. Preengineered is better hyphened as
pre-engineered, one of the few exceptions so hyphened. Breaking pairs such as predoctoral and postdoctoral
into pre- and post-doctoral "forces" hyphening of both otherwise unhyphened words.

Principle, principal -- They're different; make sure which you mean.

Prior to, previous to -- Use before, preceding, or ahead of. There are prior and subsequent events that occur
before or after something else, but prior to is the same kind of atrocious use that attempts to substitute
"subsequent to" for "after."

Proven -- Although a proven adjective, stick to proved for the past participle. "A proven guilty person must
first have been proved guilty in court."

Provided, providing -- Provided (usually followed by "that") is the conjunction; providing is the participle.

Reason why -- Omit why if reason is used as a noun. The reason is...; or, the reason is that... (i.e., the reason
is the why).

Since -- has a time connotation; use "because" or "inasmuch as" when either is the intended meaning.

Small in size, rectangular in shape, blue in color, tenuous in nature, etc. -- Redundant.

That and which -- Two words that can help, when needed, to make intended meanings and relationships
unmistakable, which is important in reporting scientific information. If the clause can be omitted without leaving
the modified noun incomplete, use which and enclose the clause within commas or parentheses; otherwise, use
that. Example: "The lawn mower, which is broken, is in the garage." But, "The lawn mower that is broken is in
the garage; so is the lawn mower that works."...That is broken specifies the particular mower being discussed,
whereas which is broken merely adds additional information to the sentence.  See
usage of 'that.'

To be -- I stress this point again, eliminate unnecessary use of 'to be' from your writing. "The differences were
[found] [to be] significant."

Varying -- Be careful to distinguish from various or differing. In saying that you used varying amounts or
varying conditions, you are implying individually changing amounts or conditions rather than a selection of
various or different ones.

Where -- Use when you mean where, but not for "in which," "for which," etc.

Which is, that were, who are, etc. -- I frequently eliminate these terms when editing.  Often not needed. For
example, "the data that were related to age were analyzed first" means that the data related to age were
analyzed first. Similarly, for "the site, which is located near Taipei," try "the site, located near Taipei" or "the site,
near Ames." Rather than "all persons who were present voted," just say that "all persons present voted."
Rephrasing sometimes can help. Instead of "a survey, which was conducted in 1974" or "a survey conducted in
1974," try "a 1974 survey."

While -- Preferably not if, while writing, you mean and, but, although, or whereas.

Remember that a research report should communicate and record information as accurately and concisely as
possible. The purpose is to report, not to impress with elegance. Excess wordage, tortuous construction,
unnecessary detail, duplication, repetition, third-person passive pseudo-objectivism, etc., obstruct rather than
facilitate communication. It's the message that is important, not sheer numbers of words. Use precise words
and expressions of unmistakable meaning; avoid the clouded, ambiguous, vague, and needlessly complex.

Finally, beware of misplaced or dangling modifiers and pronoun antecedent problems.  The difficulty here is that
you, as the author, know exactly to which each has reference even though not explicitly stated. Your reader,
however, doesn't have this advantage, and the result may be confusing, misleading, or funny.
Go To Step 4
Use - "Insulin-like growth
factor, platelet-derived
growth factor, and nerve
growth factor"

Not - "Insulin-like growth
factor, platelet-derived
growth factor and nerve
growth factor"
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