The "Grammar Hammer": Common Mistakes in Scientific Writing

The "Grammar Hammer":
Common Mistakes in Scientific Writing
Myron L. Toews, Ph.D., Professor
Pharmacology and Experimental Neuroscience
CU Biomed Sci Seminar
October 9, 2012
Scientific Writing
 Things we write
 Papers
 Grants
 Review articles
 Meeting abstracts
 Posters
 Seminar slides
 Lecture slides
 Manuscript and grant reviews
 Letters (requests, recommendations, complaints)
 Committee reports, meeting minutes
 Emails
 Same "grammar" applies to all
 There are "rules"
 We are "academics" and "scholars"-- WE should FOR SURE get it right!
Aspects of good scientific writing
Science: data, quality, controls, rationale, thoroughness
Significance: why should we care, was it worth doing
Sexiness: exciting, attention-getting, memorable, broad interest
Style: organization, consistency, clarity
 what belongs where--Methods, Results, Figures, Discussion
 effective figures, graphs, tables
 proper referencing and bibliography styles
Good grammar
 hyphens, commas, plurals, abbreviations
 verb forms, tense, voice, person
 proper words used correctly, clearly, concisely
Applies to EVERY SECTION of a manuscript
 and all other scientific writing
Good writing can make a bad paper seem good
More often, bad grammar can get in the way of an otherwise good paper
Grammar Matters!
 Grammar issues
 hyphens, commas, plurals, abbreviations
 verb forms, tense, voice, person
 proper words used correctly, clearly, concisely
 Applies to EVERY SECTION of a manuscript
 and all other scientific writing
 Good writing can make a bad paper seem good
 Bad grammar can get in the way of an otherwise good paper
A typical "Myron Mark-Up"
Pounded by the
Grammar Hammer
Locked up in the
Grammar Slammer
My Qualifications
I'm old
 Grammar mattered back when I went to school
• and I diagrammed sentences
 Papers used to be type-set and printed, not electronic
• and "editors" edited my writing
• and that annoyed me, so I learned the rules
2. I'm a reviewer and judge of lots of scientific writing
 Manuscripts, grant proposals, dissertations, posters
 And I so much wish that people would write right!!
 I now teach about half of UNMC Scientific Writing course
I'm obsessive-compulsive
 I like things done right
 Little stuff matters to me
 I like making lists
My Current (and Growing) List of
Common Complaints and Corrections
Spaces and hyphens between numbers and units
Hyphens in compound words
Proper plurals
Too many significant figures
Correct commas
Inappropriate use of "time" words
Person, voice and tense
My examples are
mostly from phys/pharm
Setting up sentences
Misused words and professional wording
A number of other small things
Good old rules
#1a. Space between numbers and units!!
 A space must be used between numbers and their units!
 Simple and obvious
 Now shows up in almost everything I review
 Only in the last few years
 Text-messaging and email generation "shortcut"?
 Regardless of the reason……
 Use that space bar!! Do it right!!
Space between numbers and units
 Temperatures need spaces
 between value and degree sign: 37 °C, not 37° C or 37°C
 but the degree sign for angles goes with the number: 90º angle
 Centrifugal forces need spaces
 on both sides of the "x"
 10,000 x g, not 10,000g or 10,000xg
 Other "places for spaces"
 around equals sign: n = 3, not n=3
 also around >, <, ~, etc
 around plus/minus: 29 ± 7, not 29±7
 Percentages may be the only exception
 5% serum, 0.01% bromophenol blue
 This is because % is not really a unit, just an indication that the
value is presented as the "ratio to 100"
#1b. Hyphens between numbers and units
 Hyphenate if the number-plus-units is used as an adjective
 Space if the number is an adjective and the unit is a noun
 35 mm or 35-mm??
 Cells were grown in 35-mm dishes.
 "35-mm" is a compound adjective modifying the noun "dishes"
 The diameter of the dish was 35 mm.
 Here "35" is the adjective and "mm" is the noun
 a 2-ml reaction volume; 2 ml were added to each tube
 The average 60-kg man weighs about 60 kg.
 The one exception is concentrations, which are not hyphenated
 a 50 mM buffer
 The 10 μM concentration inhibited but the 1 μM samples were
 But a space is required: 10 mM or 6 M, never 10mM or 6M !!
Hyphens between numbers and units
 All compound adjectives with numbers MUST be hyphenated
 numbers as words, just like numbers as numerals
 Numbers written out, but only when used as adjective
 two-site competition curve
 The data were best fit by a two-component curve.
 The data indicated that the reaction had two components.
 four-step pathway
 but "a pathway with four steps"
 a six-sided pentagon cannot be drawn
 Note that this includes both "number plus adjective" (six-sided) and
"number plus noun" (four-step)
 But only when the combination is used as an adjective in the
Hyphens between numbers and units
 Most other "quantity-related" words are also hyphenated
 semi-transparent plastic tubes
 bi-directional reaction
 multi-component signaling complex
 "Her half-finished manuscript lay beside her pillow".
 Some of these can be written as one word--no clear "rules"
 bidirectional, monophasic
More on hyphens with numbers
 Compound numbers are hyphenated if written as words
 Fifty-four patients were enrolled in the study.
 One-hundred percent of the knock-out animals survived the injury.
 Average cost per run was over three-thousand dollars.
#2. Hyphens in compound words
- terms with verbs used as adjectives
2a. A noun-verb combination used as an adjective is always
hyphenated!!—Myron's most frequent serious complaint!!
"The drug induced side effects"
 Is this a sentence by itself?
 "The drug induced side effects. These included headache,
nausea, gas, …"
 Here drug is the subject, induced is the verb (predicate),
side effects is the object of the verb
 Or is this only the subject of a sentence?
 "The drug-induced side effects of aspirin include GI distress."
 Here drug-induced is a compound adjective modifying side
effects which is the subject
 It's the HYPHEN that lets me know without having to read the whole
sentence first!
Using "noun-verb as adjective" terms in
biomedical science writing
 Common examples
 receptor-mediated
 Beta receptor-mediated responses are blocked by propranolol.
 The beta receptor mediated the response, because the response
was blocked by propranolol.
 concentration-dependent effects; ligand-independent transactivation
 drug-metabolizing enzyme; rate-limiting step
 ligand-binding domain
 but not in "receptors were measured by ligand binding"
 RNA-dependent DNA synthesis, exercise-induced asthma
 site-directed mutagenesis, FDA-approved drug
 Note this includes most forms of the verb: ed, ing, ent
 But only when used as an adjective
Other compound adjectives
 Adjective-verb combinations are hyphenated when used as
compound adjectives
 fast-thinking graduate student; long-winded professor
 high-minded journal editors; heavy-handed administrators
 The part of speech for the words determines the hyphen
 "blue-labeled" tubes
 if the labels on the tubes are blue
 but "blue labeled tubes"
 if the tubes are blue and also labeled (but labeled in red?)
 the red-labeled blue tubes = the blue tubes with red labels
Other compound adjectives
 Preposition-verb combinations used as adjectives are usually
 over-utilized phrases
 under-developed sexual organs in Turner's syndrome
 often written as one word--overlooked, upturned, inbred
 Prepositions often come after the verb form
 clearly spelled-out expectations
 but "expectations were spelled out clearly from the start"
 laced-up shoes, tightened-down fasteners, wrap-around insulation
Other compound adjectives
 Adverb-verb combinations used as adjectives are NOT hyphenated
 Adverbs always modify verbs or adjectives, so they don't need
special treatment when used that way
 Words ending in "-ly" are adverbs and not hyphenated
 a newly established pathway
 a highly regarded expert in the field
 Also "too", "very", and "much" combos are usually not hyphenated
 a very limited interaction
 a much appreciated faculty member
 It may not be wrong to hyphenate these, but it is not required
Other compound adjectives
 Adjective-noun combinations used as adjectives are seldom
 centrifuge tube rack
 graduate student meeting
 side effect profile
 But they can be hyphenated and often are
 open-door policy, closed-door meeting
 fixed-rate insurance
 long-term effects
Other compound adjectives
 Don't hyphenate if both words modify the same word
 a weak organic acid: a weak acid, an organic acid
 weekly planning meeting: a weekly meeting, a planning meeting
 strategy-planning meeting
 strategy modifies planning here, doesn't modify meeting
 an insulated Styrofoam container
 the container is insulated and it is made of Styrofoam
 the Styrofoam is not insulated, the container is
 a Styrofoam-insulated container
 the container is insulated, and the insulation is by Styrofoam
Other compound adjectives
 Hyphenate BOTH terms if they modify the same word
 Two modifiers before the verb form
 the Ca2+- and phospholipid-dependent enzyme PKC
 The epinephrine- and isoproterenol-induced responses were….
 Two modifiers after the verb form
 The drug-sensitive and -insensitive cells were compared for…
Hyphenation summary
 Always hyphenate
 All noun-verb combinations if used as adjective
 All number-verb, number-noun, number-adverb combinations
used as adjectives
 Sometimes hyphenate
 Some adverb-verb combinations if used as adjectives
 A few adjective-noun combinations if used as adjectives
 Don't hyphenate
 Adverbs, including –ly words and others
 Two adjectives that modify the same noun
#3. Proper plurals
The hypothesis (singular) that PKC is involved was only one of several
equally likely hypotheses (plural) that we could have proposed.
Separate hypotheses are proposed for each specific aim.
A separate hypothesis is proposed for each specific aim.
Know which is singular and which is plural….
…and then use the correctly matched verb form!!
Proper plurals
 The use of "data is/was…" vs. "data are/were…." is no doubt the
most frequently mis-used example
 The word "data " is absolutely and always plural !!!
 No matter how many smart people use it improperly !!!
There is no doubt that "datum" is the singular and "data" is the plural, and I
can think of no other example where "is/was" is used with a clearly plural
noun. Always use the plural form of the verb (are/were) with this plural noun.
Some argue that data is a "collective" noun like "family" or "class" or "group"
or "committee" and that singular can be used. But collective nouns are
singular forms used to describe a group and therefore use a plural form of the
verb, NOT plural forms of the noun used as if they were singular.
Proper plurals
"All data were obtained by my technician, because I don't even
remember how to hold a Pipetman anymore."
"Data presented are the averages of at least three experiments".
"The data is clinically important because it shows a difference between
the drug responses of the two groups of patients."
"The data was best fit by a single-site model."
"The datum at 5 min, but only that specific data point, that one single
value, was obtained with help from the last author."
Proper plurals
 Dulbecco's is one growth medium (singular), even though it
has many components
 RPMI and Weymouth's are two different media (plural), each
of which has multiple different components
 "Just because one type of growth medium works well for your
cells does not mean that any of several other media might not
work equally well.
 "Growth media were obtained from Gibco"
 only if more than one kind of medium was used!
minimum, maximum
minima, maxima
focus. locus
foci, loci
Singular forms all end
in consonants; plural
forms (almost) all end
in vowels
The "-is" vs. "-es" forms are
the only exceptions
"Most graphs have two axes—
one x-axis and one y-axis."
"There are three loci for drug
intervention: the most common
locus is the cell surface
receptor, a second important
locus is the intracellular
signaling pathway, and the
newest locus is targeting the
nucleus with gene therapy."
#4. Too many significant figures
 All of your "significant figures" should be "believable"
 Looking at your error bars is a good way to decide
 Instruments and spreadsheets give you lots of numbers that are
meaningless; don't use them unless you believe them!!
94 ± 14
3060 ± 310
4470 ± 500
700 ± 130
Proper use of numbers
 And remember spaces too!!!
94 ± 14
3060 ± 310
4470 ± 500
700 ± 130
#5a. Correct commas
in parenthetical statements
 "Parenthetical" loosely means that it could also be put in parentheses,
or that it is an "aside" or an "addition"; the sentence would be complete
without it.
 Commas always come in pairs when in the middle of a sentence!
 The inhibitor genistein, which is supposed to be selective for
tyrosine kinases, inhibited this serine kinase-mediated response.
 Propranolol, the prototypical beta antagonist, has many dangerous
side effects.
 One comma is OK only if the parenthetical statement ends the
 The reaction was inhibited by C3 toxin, a selective blocker of Rho.
 The reaction was inhibited by C3 toxin, a selective blocker of Rho,
and also by the Rho kinase inhibitor Y25632.
Commas in parenthetical statements
 One-word and simple multi-word parenthetical statements do not
NEED commas, and I strongly prefer that they NOT be used.
 The protein kinase inhibitor genistein did not alter the response.
 preferred
 The protein kinase inhibitor, genistein, did not alter the response.
 less appropriate
 The Ca2+- and phospholipid-dependent enzyme protein kinase C
mediates many of the effects of PI hydrolysis.
 preferred
 The Ca2+- and phospholipid-dependent enzyme, protein kinase
C, mediates many of the effects of PI hydrolysis.
 less appropriate
Commas in parenthetical statements
 "and" and "but" go outside the parenthetical statement commas
 The control cells, contrary to our hypothesis, showed less
 The control cells showed modest internalization but, contrary to our
hypothesis, drug-treated cells showed less internalization.
 NOT: The control cells showed modest internalization, but contrary
to our hypothesis, drug-treated cells showed less internalization.
 "… in males but, in contrast, not in females …"
 NOT "… in males, but in contrast, not in females …"
 "Treated animals survived longer and, as a result, produced more
#5b. Correct commas
in compound sentences
 If the compound sentence is so long that it needs a comma, then it
needs two independent clauses, each with a "subject" (noun)
and a "predicate" (verb)
 Or it should be two separate sentences
 Both sides of ", and" (with a comma) need to have a subject
and a predicate (be independent clauses)
 But "and" (without a comma) does NOT need to have a second
subject; but it can, if the sentence is not too long
 Incorrect
 The cells were pretreated with pertussis toxin for 24 hr to inactivate Gi,
and lysed by scraping in a hypotonic buffer.
 How to fix
 Take out the comma, or …
 Add a subject to the second clause to make it independent, or…
 Make it two separate sentences if "too long" is the problem
#6. Inappropriate use of "time words"
 Don't use "while", "since" or "as" except to indicate the relationship
of events in time
 I only learned about this when journal style editors changed them in
my papers, so I learned to do them right myself!
 We often use "while" when we mean "whereas" or "although"
 We often use "as" when we mean "because"
 We often use "since" when we mean "because"
 Use the proper word, not the time word, unless it is a time concept!
Inappropriate use of "time words"
 "While"
 Incorrect:
While staurosporine is a PKC inhibitor, it can also
inhibit other kinases. (The intent is not to indicate that these two
events are taking place at the same point in time.)
 Better:
Although staurosporine is….
Whereas staurosporine is.….
 Correct use of "while":
"While the cells were being incubated in
serum-free medium to induce cell cycle arrest, they were also being
exposed to pertussis toxin to inactivate Gi. (Here the point is that
the starvation and pertussis toxin treatments were going on
Inappropriate use of "time words"
 "As"
 Incorrect:
As C3 toxin is a highly selective Rho inhibitor, our
data implicate Rho as a mediator of synergism. (The intent is
NOT to indicate that these two events are taking place at the
same point in time.)
 Better:
Because C3 toxin is….
 Correct use of "as": "As the cells reached confluence, their
shape changed from flattened to cuboidal. (Here the point is that
the shape change coincided in time with the attainment of
Inappropriate use of "time words"
 "Since"--similar to "as", "because" is often what is meant
 Incorrect:
Since C3 toxin is a highly selective Rho inhibitor,
our data indicate Rho as a mediator of synergism. (The intent is
not to indicate that one event is taking place at a later time point
than the other.)
 Better:
Because C3 toxin is….
 Correct use of "since":
"Since changing the HEPA filter in our
hood, we have no further problems with cell contamination.
(Here the word "since" is properly used to indicate that one thing
has happened following another thing in time.)
#7. Which vs. That
 A tough distinction, but with simple differences and rules of thumb!
 "That" is used to "restrict" the meaning or to "identify" a specific
 "Which" does not restrict but rather "elaborates" or "describes"
 Examples
 The estrogen that is present in most birth control pills is ethinyl
 The estrogen drug ethinyl estradiol, which is present in most birth
control pills, is only slightly different from endogenous estradiol.
 The estrogen that is present in most birth control pills, which has
been modified for greater oral effectiveness, is ethinyl estradiol.
 WRONG: The estrogen which is present in most birth control pills is
ethinyl estradiol.
Which vs. That -- Rules of thumb
 Rule of thumb #1:
 If the phrase can be taken out without losing the meaning of the
overall sentence, use "which"
 If the phrase is vital to the point of the sentence, use "that"
 Rule of thumb #2:
 "Which" statements are almost always set off with commas
 "That" statements should NOT be set off with commas
 If commas seem needed or natural, use "which"
 If commas are not needed or seem awkward, use "that"
 Correct use of both: The car that hit my bicycle, which is a VW
bug, is now in the body shop with a big dent in its hood.
 Common incorrect use: The car which hit my bicycle is now in
the body shop.
Which vs. That -- more examples
 Drug example
 Tamoxifen, which is a so-called anti-estrogen, is the most
appropriate drug for this patient.
 "which is a so-called anti-estrogen" can be left out and the
sentence is still complete and true and meaningful
 this would not read well without the commas
 The drug that is most appropriate for this patient is tamoxifen.
 taking out "that is most appropriate for this patient" leaves a
complete sentence but it has lost its meaning
 it would seem awkward to use commas here
 Most common kind of wrong use
 The drug which we used to block redox signaling was tempol.
 The drug that we used in to block redox signaling was tempol.
Which vs. That -- more examples
 The drug that had the highest potency was RX-1040A.
 RX1040A, which had the highest potency of all the drugs tested,
was chosen for further clinical trials.
 The receptor that is the subject of my NIH grant is the AT2
angiotensin receptor.
 The AT2 angiotensin receptor, which is the subject of my NIH
grant, is a Gq-coupled receptor.
 The receptor that is the subject of my NIH grant, which is the
AT2 angiotensin receptor, is a Gq-coupled receptor.
 an example of that and which used properly in the same
#8. Person, Voice and Tense
 Person and voice
 Historically recommended NOT to use first person in scientific writing
 And I still very strongly prefer little or no first person!
 But this does NOT mean that you need to use cumbersome third
person passive voice
 Third person can be cumbersome, but it doesn't need to be
 Third person can make writing seem "impersonal"
 Passive voice can be very cumbersome
 Passive voice removes all sense of "action", things "happening",
"excitement" and "story"
 I try to use third person but active voice
Person and Voice
 Person and voice examples
 First person active -- AVOID this
 We noted that there were fewer endosomes in the inhibitor-treated
 Two VERY BAD ways of avoiding first person
 The authors noted that there were fewer endosomes in the inhibitortreated cells.
 It was noted that there were fewer endosomes in the inhibitortreated cells.
 Simplest statement; maybe OK; but "boringly passive"
 There were fewer endosomes in the inhibitor-treated cells.
 Some good third person active voice statements
 Treating cells with inhibitor reduced the number of endosomes.
 Treated cells contained fewer endosomes than control cells.
 The number of endosomes was reduced in inhibitor-treated cells.
 These avoid "we", retain "action", are not cumbersome or passive
Person and Voice
 More good and bad person and voice examples
"It has been reported that ……. "
"Smith et al. reported that ……. " or "Several groups have reported… "
 State WHO reported it, which makes it active.
"It is the hypothesis of this study that …… "
"It is hypothesized that …… "
"The authors of this study hypothesize that ……. "
 Very cumbersome ways to avoid first person
"The hypothesis of this study is that …… "
 Active voice and very clear
Person, Voice and Tense
 It is almost always easy to avoid first person
We tested the hypothesis that….
The hypothesis guiding these studies was that….
These studies tested the hypothesis that….
It was hypothesized that…. (I do NOT like this wording)
 We instilled saline or drug into mouse lungs …
 Saline or drug was instilled into mouse lungs…
 We further propose that ROS alter BBB by…
 These data suggest that…
 A likely possibility is that…
Person and Voice
 Places I TOLERATE use of first person:
 Introduction, only once!
 "We hypothesize that …. "
 Discussion, only once!
 "We speculate that ….." or "We propose that these drugs,,,,,, "
 Your hypothesis and speculation are quite "personal", not "facts"
 LIMITED USE of first person possessive
 "Our previous studies showed that ….. "
 Places NEVER to use first person
 Methods
 "We obtained inhibitors from .."; "We grew cells in …."
 Results
 "We found that prestin …"; "We next used confocal to ……. "
Person and Voice
 Almost always use "we" and "our" rather than "I" or "my"
 Science is almost always a group effort!
 Even if not, "I" sounds awkward and maybe egotistical
 Students describing their own work is my one exception
 I like to know what you (the student) did or observed
 in contrast to what your lab did or observed or knows
 In oral presentations, in posters, in grant proposals
 in these places it is important to emphasize student's own work,
plans, ideas
 But not in a student's manuscript for publication
 When to say what "happened" or "was observed" (past tense) vs.
what "happens" or "is known" (present tense)
 General guideline
 Use past tense to state what you did in your experiments and
what you observed that you are reporting in this paper
 These are clearly observations of what happened (past tense) in
your experiments but not necessarily what happens (present
tense) in general.
 "C3 toxin prevented synergism between LPA and EGF,
as shown in Fig.3."
 Use present tense to describe what is generally accepted or
what is "known" to occur from previous studies
 "C3 toxin is (present tense) an inhibitor of Rho."
 "Forskolin activates (present tense) adenylyl cyclase."
 Introduction
 Mix of present and past tenses—what is known already, what was
reported in previous studies,
 "Prestin is an important protein for hearing (a fact), and Hallworth et
al. showed it to be located in auditory hair cells (what they saw)."
 Methods
 Almost exclusively past tense—what was done in your studies
 Results
 Almost exclusively past tense—what was observed, what happened
 Discussion
 Again a mix of present and past tenses
 "Rho mediates this response (present tense conclusion), because it
was inhibited by C3 toxin (what happened in a specific experiment)."
#9. Abbreviations
 Don't abbreviate unless necessary
 Avoid abbreviating single words, with the exception of chemicals
 Abbreviations should be used at least three times, in general
 otherwise write out the entire word both times
 Avoid making up your own non-standard abbreviations
 Define each abbreviation the first time you use it
 in the text or in a footnote, per journal style
 Use the abbreviation every time after you define it
 Check your journal's style sheet for standard abbreviations
 Double-check abbreviation usage before submitting
 search for full word and for abbreviation from start to finish
Capitalization for abbreviations
 My convention on when to capitalize in abbreviations
 not a "rule", but my way (a good way) of being consistent
 Capitalize only the first letter of abbreviations that are shortened words
 Iso for isoproterenol (not ISO)
 Veh for vehicle (not VEH)
 Ctl for control
 Capitalize all letters that stand for words or at least syllables (initialisms)
 EGF for epidermal growth factor
 PCR for polymerase chain reaction
 CTL for cytotoxic T lymphocyte
 More contrasting examples
 Ser for serine, but SER for stimulus-evoked response
 Ala for alanine, but ALA for antigen-like activity
Abbreviations - using "a" or "an"
 Decide based on the sound of the spoken term, NOT based on the
first written letter of the abbreviation
 "a UTP analog"
 not an, even though UTP begins with a vowel
 the sound (YouTeePee) begins with a consonant (Y)
 "an MCP-mediated effect on IL8 release"
 not a, even though MCP begins with a consonant
 the sound (EmSeePee) begins with a vowel
 many consonant sounds begin with a vowel!!
• "an SDS gel", "an LTP-inducing agent"
 "U" is the only vowel that sometimes begins with a consonant sound
 The same "U" policy applies to whole words
 "a ubiquitination inhibitor"; "a unilateral triangle"
 "an unpaired T-test"; "an upward deflection in the curve"
Abbreviations: "et al., etc."
 "et" is Latin for "and"; it is a word, not an abbreviation; so no period
 "al" is short for "alii", meaning "others"; an abbreviation, so a period
 No comma in front of "et al." in author lists (Jones et al.)
 "et cetera" means "and the like"; "cetera" is abbreviated, so a
period; but always written as one word, etc.
 Never use "and" in front of etc., since the "et" itself means "and"
 Never use "etc." in scientific writing
 use "and many additional examples" or "among others" or "as
examples" instead
 "i.e." is an abbreviation of "id est", meaning "that is"; two periods
 "e.g." is an abbreviation of "exemplia gratii", meaning "for
example"; two periods
 And don't get these two terms mixed up!
#10. Setting up sentences
 Sentences should NOT begin with a lower-case letter or a numeral
 This is a pretty strict rule.
 But it can lead to very cumbersome writing and reading.
 "... treated with 10 mM NaOH. Twenty millimolar HCl was added.."
 "..treated to elevate cAMP levels. Cyclic AMP was then extracted by.."
 It is usually easy to reword the sentence to avoid this.
 "Next, 20 mM HCl was added…." or "HCl (20 mM) was added…"
 "Extraction of cAMP was performed by ……."
Setting up sentences
 In scientific writing, it is accepted to use commas between all
items in a list, including the last item before "and"
 "The inhibitors tested were LY290082, calphostin C, and Y27632."
 Final comma is not required for scientific writing, but it is allowed, and I
personally prefer it.
 It is still NOT allowed in non-scientific writing
 "We have a car, a truck and a motorcycle."
Setting up sentences
 Avoid using unnecessarily wordy wording, especially to begin
sentences--be concise wherever possible!
 "Because of the fact that….." (Avoid this!)
 "Due to the fact that…" (Avoid this!)
 "Because ……." (Has identical meaning, 4 fewer words!)
 "In spite of the fact that…"
 "Although…."
 "In order to test our hypothesis……" (Avoid this!)
 "To test our hypothesis ….." (Same meaning, shorter)
Setting up sentences
 Avoid double negatives
 These results are not unlike those from previous studies. (BAD)
 These results are similar to those from previous studies. (GOOD)
 The outcome was not different from what we hypothesized. (BAD)
 The outcome was consistent with our hypothesis. (GOOD)
 Avoid multiple "alternate possibility qualifiers"
 Instead, an alterative is that it might be possible that …. (BAD)
 An alternative is that ….. (GOOD)
 Perhaps these nanoparticles could affect ….(BAD)
 These nanoparticles could also affect… (GOOD)
 Perhaps these nanoparticles affect….. (GOOD)
#11a. Word Choice:
Misused Words
 Principle vs. Principal
 Principle means key or idea or a tenet or theme or general rule
 or find your favorite "e" word to go with "principle"
 "The key principle is that water likes to go where ion concentration is
 "principle" is always a noun, never an adjective!
 Principal means main or basic
 "The principal thing to remember is that good writing makes good
science look even better; this is an important principle"
 "We expect the principal investigator on an NIH grant to follow the
principles of ethical science."
 "principal" as used in science is almost always an adjective
 the "principal of a school" is an example of the rare use of principal
as a noun
Misused Words
 Effect vs. Affect
 Effect is usually a noun; Affect is usually a verb
"Exercise training had no effect on the number of AT2 receptors."
"Exercise training did not affect the number of AT2 receptors."
"Drinking a beer with lunch can affect your afternoon productivity."
"The effect on productivity of drinking a beer with lunch is usually negative."
 Both together
 "Dissolving the drug in ethanol did not affect the cellular effect of the drug."
 Effect can be a verb, meaning "to bring about", usually with "change"
 "Complaining about a problem is one way to effect a change in the way
things are done."
 "Aspirin can affect how you feel by effecting relief of headache pain."
 Affect can be a noun, in psychiatry, meaning "facial expression"
 "Patients with depression or schizophrenia may have a flattened affect; for
example, they may not smile at a friend or laugh at a joke."
Misused Words:
Making your data "quantitative"
 Quantitative is a word
 Quantitate and quantitation are NOT words!!
 go ahead, check your dictionary; I did!
 Quantify is the verb form, NOT quantitate
 Quantification is the noun form, NOT quantitation
 Quantitative is the adjective form
 Maybe not a big deal
 but if you don't do it right, good editors will change it
 and this will annoy you
Misused Words
 Who vs. That
 Use "who/whom" with people; "that" with things
 She is the person whom you should contact.
 NOT: She is the person that you should contact.
 BUT: A car with low fuel consumption is the one that you should buy.
 Among vs. Between
 Use "between" when comparing two things
 Use "among" for three or more things
 We found no difference between male and female patients.
 There were clear differences in glucose levels among the four
treatment groups.
Misused Words:
Be sure to "write the right word"!!
 "I want you to no that I here what your saying, and I agree that its there
own fault which is just to bad"—WRONG!!
 These don't show up much in scientific writing but do in emails
 This is not a failure to "edit" emails, but an indication that you never
really learned this and have to "waste" time figuring out the right word
 Which makes you look less than bright
 Ewe knead two bee shore too chews thee write ward!!
#11b. Word Choice-Professional wording
 Use "technical" or "professional" wording rather than "common" or
"conversational" wording or "lab jargon"
 "To see if" PKC was involved….. (Avoid this!)
 "To test whether" ……." (Same meaning, more "professional")
 "To make sure that we had put the same amount of protein in each
well on the gel…" (Conversational)
 "To confirm equal loading" (standard professional wording)
 "Samples were put in the freezer…" (BAD)
 "Samples were stored at -80C…" ……." (Professional)
 "The samples were counted in a scintillation counter."
 "Radioactivity in each sample was quantified by scintillation
Professional wording
 Use "technical" or "professional" wording rather than "common" or
"conversational" wording or "lab jargon"
 "Samples were run on gels……" (Jargony)
 "Samples were electrophoresed……" (A little better)
 "Samples were subjected to SDS PAGE ….." ("Technical")
 "We tissue-mizered the cells and then spun them down to get a
pellet." (Lab jargon)
 "Tissue was homogenized and membranes were isolated by
centrifugation." (Professional)
 "Next we took the cells and put them in the incubator and let them
sit for 5 min (BAD)
 "Cells were incubated for 5 min" ……." (Professional)
Professional wording
 Avoid personal feelings words, along with first person
 "Next we wondered if ….. "
 did you just "wonder", or did you go ahead and test it?
 "We sought to determine if….."
 you sought to, but did you succeed?
 "The next group of experiments tested whether…."
 "We felt that X might cause Y…"
 and just how DID that feel?
 "At first we were confused by these data…"
 and then you finally put on your thinking caps?
#12. A number of additional things
 The expression "a number of" is technically meaningless, since one
and zero are numbers also!!
 "A number of lines of evidence support our hypothesis."
 This is true even if there is only one piece of evidence, or even if there
is no evidence, for your hypothesis, because one and zero are
 "The experiment was repeated a number of times with similar
results ."
 This can be true even if you have done the experiment only once, or
even if you have never done the experiment at all!!
 "A number of additional drugs gave similar results."
 Maybe all other drugs gave quite different results, since zero could be
the number that gave similar results.
 There are "a number" of better terms to use!!
A gradient of "number" words
"A number" of possibilities exist.
• a very limited number
• only a few
• very few
• a few
• some
• multiple
• several
• many
• numerous
• a large number
• an astronomically large number
• countless, endless
• an infinite number
Related non-numerical words
- diverse / different
- various / variety
A group of collective thoughts
 Collective nouns--singular terms for groups of things
 singular or plural verb form??
 The class is taking an exam. (The class is doing this [as a group].)
 The class are taking an exam. (The class [members] are doing this.)
 Our course faculty (is/are) working on a textbook on Scientific Writing.
 The staff at the bookstore (is/are) reading a book on salesmanship.
 Guideline: Choose the singular verb form UNLESS "the group
members" (plural) is clearly what is meant.
 Our faculty [list] IS very large.
 Our faculty [members] ARE good at both research and teaching.
A group of collective thoughts
 "Of" prepositional phrases further confuse the decision for many
 singular or plural verb form??
A list of relevant proteins is/are shown in Table 1.
A stream of electrons pass/passes through the detection chamber.
A box of cookies is/are on my desk.
The Table of Contents is/are usually at the beginning of a book.
 The subject of the sentence, NOT the object of the preposition,
determines the verb form.
 even though the object of the preposition is immediately before the
 Pay attention for these, think carefully, make rational decisions
 The singular verb form is always grammatically correct.
 But the plural form may not be "wrong" in specific cases.
#13. Other good old grammar rules
 Using a preposition to end a sentence with (!)
 Some now think this is too hard to deal with and is "OK"
 "AT2-R is only one of the receptors that AngII binds to."
 "AT2-R is only one of the receptors to which AngII binds."
 I still follow this rule in writing, not so much in normal speech.
 Split infinitives
 This is supposed to be an absolute no-no!
 "To more definitively demonstrate this mechanism…."
 "To demonstrate this mechanism more definitively…"
 This one has never bothered me.
 But it's clearly wrong!
 And it's pretty easy to fix.
Final Comments
 I hope some of this was helpful
 Your science and your story are the big things
 but grammar matters too
 I can stay around to answer any questions
 or contact me with specific questions, [email protected]
 I'm happy to talk again on figures, titles, seminar skills
 I'd be very happy to talk to you about my science too!

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