Don’t torture your readers

9 02 2009

This may seem a little off-topic for ConservationBytes.com, but I thought it pertinent to communicate how bad English hampers the understanding, popularity and implementation of good conservation science. I’ve started a list of common errors, unnecessary jargon, bad phrasing, archaic usage and overly complex constructions that I often see in conservation writing. Many of these are personal preferences, but I try to justify my suggested alternative in each case. Some of these apply to general English writing, others to science only, and others just to conservation/ecological fields. My hope is that students and young researchers can use my advice to improve the clarity of their writing. This first list is only preliminary – later posts in this theme will appear as I record more examples.

  • CONDUCT (as in ‘… we conducted the experiment…’) – What is wrong with ‘do/did’? I have never seen a scientist ‘conduct’ anything, but I have seen a few good operas.
  • PERFORM – See ‘conduct’. While some scientists would probably be more effective Thespians, let’s keep the theatre out of science.
  • VERY (as in ‘… there are very few species…’ – ‘Very’ has no place in scientific writing – I defy anyone to quantify what it means (i.e., it has an entirely subjective interpretation).
  • QUITE – See ‘very’.
  • SITUATED (as in ‘… our study area was situated in…’) – Simplify to ‘is/was’. Much easier, isn’t it?
  • SIGNIFICANT (as in ‘…this result has significant implications for…’; ‘… significant scientific advances…’; ‘… the functional significance of…’; ‘… can play a significant role…’ – This is probably the most abused word in science today. All the former examples mean nothing and are entirely dependent on the subjective position of the reader. Used without a statistical meaning per se (but more on the abuses of ‘significance’ as an arbitrary statistical paradigm in a later post), ‘significant’ and her sisters (e.g., ‘significantly’, ‘significance’) have no more place in scientific writing than ‘very’. Students often invoke this word simply to sound more scientific. Rubbish.
  • TO BOLDLY GO (i.e., any split infinitive; I couldn’t resist using one of the more infamous split infinitives) – I believe the jury is out really on the acceptable use of split infinitives, and I may be losing the battle, but an infinitive (for those of you who are grammatically challenged, an ‘infinitive’ is the base form of the verb prior to conjugation) can never be split by an adverb in English. How many times have you seen ‘… to significantly affect…’, ‘… to adequately measure…’ or ‘… to properly test…’. Sorry, all wrong (should be ‘… to affect significantly…’, etc.)
  • 10m (as in ‘… transects were set every 10m along…’) – You cannot write ’10metres’, so why, oh why, do people insist on sticking unit abbreviations next to the number? It should be ’10 m’!
  • i.e./e.g. – These abbreviations, id est and exempli gratia, literally mean ‘that is’ and ‘for the sake of example’, respectively. They are two words abbreviated each, so a full stop is required after each letter. Absolute correctness normally dictates the addition of a comma after the final full stop, but many journals drop the comma for whatever reason.
  • cf.confer (compare). It is one word, so its abbreviation requires a single full stop after the ‘f’.
  • its/it’s – Why is it so difficult for people to understand this one (especially in Australia)? In almost every other circumstance, an apostrophe followed by an ‘s’ indicates possession to a singular noun, as in ‘…the transect’s divisions’, ‘…the nearest neighbour’s value…’, etc. When the noun in question is plural, then the apostrophe sits nicely outside the terminal ‘s’ (e.g., ‘… the species’ attributes…’). This is a quasi-universal law EXCEPT for its/it’s. In this case ‘it’s’ is the contraction of ‘it is’, so ‘its’ becomes the possessive form. So, you can write ‘…its burrow…’, but ‘…it’s burrow…’ is incorrect. Still confused? There’s a simple way to remember – whenever you see ‘it’s’ in front of something, say ‘it is’ to yourself and see if the phrase makes sense. If it doesn’t, then it should be ‘its’.
  • CONTRACTIONS (e.g., ‘can’t’, ‘won’t’, ‘it’s’) – These are colloquial forms and should never be used in a scientific manuscript.
  • IN ORDER TO (as in ‘… in order to compare the plots…’) – What’s wrong with just ‘to’? I have rarely seen a situation requiring ‘in order to’. Unnecessary verbiage.
  • HAS BEEN SHOWN TO (as in ‘… is a species that has been shown to demonstrate a…’). There is simply no need for this verbiage. Simply state ‘…is a species that demonstrates a…’ and then reference the statement properly at the end of the sentence.
  • ABBREVIATIONS, ACRONYMS AND INITIALISMS – Use sparingly, if at all. They are often discipline-specific and have no meaning outside relatively small circles.
  • UTILISE – Just write ‘use’. For some reason people believe ‘utilise’ sounds more technical. Rubbish.

CJA Bradshaw

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