Reviewers of manuscripts get to read many variants of the English language. Many non-standard forms are used by authors for whom English is not their first language. The quality of this English varies widely in readability, and transfer of information can be frustratingly time-consuming when sentences have to be re-read to understand what is meant. In some cases the reviewer has to digest paragraphs of repetitious words and clumsy statements to grasp what is intended. Whatever the cause of the low standard of written scientific English grammar and style, the peer-review process is badly served when willing reviewers have to struggle at their task and may give up by rejecting out-of-hand a badly written paper that may have some merit. The written documentation of a scientific experiment, in text, graph and table legends, is as important as the practical work itself. Without it, the results of the experiments, no matter how important and how well argued, executed and analysed, are not communicated to the scientific community. Every aspect of the creative scientific process has to be documented clearly and succinctly; a scientist has failed if the reader has to spend time on the medium rather than the message.
The written word is the major form of scientific communication and English is currently the language of international science. The spoken word clearly differs from the written, because additional information can be delivered with the former by intonation and facial expression; if speakers fail to transmit their thoughts easily, statements can be rephrased in response to specific questions. By contrast, the written scientific word may be read a long time after publication when there is no chance for the reader to pose a question. The inevitable conclusion is that information must be presented as clearly as possible, with the consequence that proficiency in an accepted form of English is mandatory for both the writer and the reader. I assume that the failure to observe the rules of grammar and the use of poor style are not deliberate, but reflect ignorance stemming from having forgotten what was taught a long time ago, by not having been taught well, or by not having been taught at all. Those who have taught themselves may well have accepted as correct what they have read in published articles, in referees’ comments and in editors’ letters to authors. However, if published articles written, reviewed and proof-read by non-native English speakers are considered acceptable sources of written English, it is hardly surprising that peer-reviewed errors become accepted as correct usage, and are copied into manuscripts that are subsequently considered acceptable English sources.
To maximise the transfer of knowledge acquired by the reader from information transmitted by the writer of a manuscript, language must be used correctly. Non-standard English may be problematical if an ambiguous statement is interpreted otherwise by the reader than by the writer, but the information gap will be appreciated by neither. In many of the examples cited below I have given their unintended meanings, since Native English speakers are often able to make a reasonable guess at what was presumably intended. However, guessing is just supposing something with insufficient information to be sure that it is correct; and there should be no place for this in science, where the clarity of writing is as essential as the clarity of thought put into the experiments that are being described. For example, Its me wot dun it may be understandable as an admission and some level of communication achieved. He ain’t no good may also be understood, but in two ways, depending on whether the reader considers that the writer believes that two negatives re-enforce the negative meaning (he is no good) or cancel each other to produce a positive statement (he is good). The meaning of either statement, in the absence of facial expressions or intonation, is unclear even to a native English speaker, unless the reinforcing- or cancelling-rule is known and accepted by both writer and reader. A non-native English speaker may not appreciate at all what is intended. These are extreme examples, but used for a purpose: the concept of what you infer as the intended meaning of a written statement depends on the way you believe the writer thinks. Is the writer likely to affirm a positive by using the negative of its contrary, and is the reader likely to appreciate this? When the writer and the reader share the same clear, unambiguous writing style, chances of misinterpretation diminish and information is exchanged efficiently.
Which version of English should scientists aspire to learn? If they are to understand the work of earlier generations, they need to know how they wrote. Just as scientists need to be able to understand what their forebears wrote, it is incumbent upon them to write in a that manner their successors will understand, by using a common language that both the writer and the reader use competently. A common riposte to my correction of the English language in this manner (It is I who did it for the first example above) is that the corrected usage is old-fashioned: people don’t speak like that anymore. Well, that may be so for the street-wise, but the lab.-wise should learn to write like that for their scientific papers to be universally understood. It is true that the written language changes with time, but it is we who choose to change it. It can change for the better, for example by stretching classical grammar a bit (to make reading easier), by including the use of whose X for animals and inanimate objects, instead of the previously required but more convoluted phrase the X of which; but not stretching it too much (to avoid confusion), by shunning the use of the plural personal pronoun their as a possessive for the indefinite third person singular for which English lacks a specific pronoun. Language can be changed for the worse (causing confusion and necessitating a re-reading of the text) if nouns are used as verbs, and adverbs as adjectives, when perfectly good verbs and adjectives exist for the intended meanings; when infinitives are split by adverbs that can also be verbs; when new words are introduced although existing words suffice, or when existing words are given new meanings. If the new meanings are copied and become accepted, the original meaning may be lost and the older literature may become uninformative.
My frustration over the years with trying to understand and then correct problematical manuscripts and grants has made me feel it would be useful to have a compendium of clear and grammatical scientific English where doubts about certain word usages (lower than or decreased compared to?) could be looked up easily before returning to the manuscript and inserting the correct form. If there is such a need, am I the one to write it? My knowledge of grammar, initiated in primary school (where we parsed sentences every week) was not maintained in secondary school (when teaching systematic grammar had fallen out of fashion), but my sensitivity was heightened by the clear confusion with, or ignorance of, the roles of different parts of speech that I encountered in manuscripts originating worldwide. I have been by no means guiltless in the misuse of English and wonder whether the referees, editors or proof readers were unaware or tolerant of my blunders.
There are a few books specifically on scientific English, and many more not specifically aimed at scientists, and the points listed below have been gleaned from all of them. Some of books are prescriptive, others proscriptive, and some do not even recognize a difference between owing to and due to. Ignorance of the language is a pity, but recommending others to ignore the subtleties of the language not only diminishes their ability to express nuances, but creates extra work for those, whether reviewers or scientists, trying to understand what is written. In many cases the experts disagree on certain points and I resolved this by stating my own bias (as indeed did they!). I trust that this arrogance has been tempered by my stating what the error is, as well as why it should and how it could be corrected.
I know that busy scientists, ever at the bench, thinking, planning and writing, have little time to consider the English they use and either learnt recently or a long time ago. Word processing programs make easy the transfer of stock phrases from previous work, or copied verbatim from other publications, but this comes at the expense of the writer’s not having to think at all about the text, which at times is all too apparent. With a view to correcting the problems encountered, I present here a cross-referenced alphabetical list of common errors that have been found in drafts of and peer-reviewed manuscripts, in theses, in grant applications and in letters from authors, reviewers and editors. Throughout the glossary common grammatical errors and improper styles are indicated. These cover neologisms, oxymorons, pleonasms, semantics, syntax, tautology, verbosity, word order and word usage, and include ambiguous statements, definite and indefinite articles, foreign words, long-winded phrases, moods and tenses of verbs, overused words and phrases, plural and singular nouns, punctuation, spelling and unnecessary repetition. They are exemplified by authentic texts (frequently necessarily shortened) with the error indicated, and alternative words or phrasing suggested to correct errors or modify style. The format is a list of words and phrases with explanatory comments indented to reflect their relative importance, highlighted in bold or bold italic fonts to indicate the relevant parts of speech, with other explanatory information in square brackets.
This is not an exhaustive compendium, and there are many other meanings of the words listed here, but I have listed those that are commonly misused in the scientific papers I have read. The format of an alphabetical glossary with cross-references should help readers to find what they are unsure of—whether it should be based on or on the basis of—can be looked up under b or o to be directed to the relevant section. There may be disagreement with the British English I have written, but it is far better that English be argued over than ignored. The grammatical devices recommended should eliminate the confusion I seek to dispel. My basis for considering what the correct form of words should be, has been that the ease of reading, the flow of thoughts and the transfer of information should all be aided, making reading enjoyable and reviewing a pleasure.
Laughing at others’ misfortune is frowned upon these days, but I have always enjoyed reading, both for merriment and edification, students’ examination grammatical howlers (although very hard to find these days). In a short clause they pinpoint some grammatical truth far better than a paragraph of dense explanation; in a brief phrase they illuminate the beauty (and absurdity) of the English language—the palette from which we construct our masterpiece. I hope that those who recognize their own linguistic efforts here (mine are included) will not take offence, but accept, in the same spirit of enlightenment by which they were chosen, that their entries have driven this enterprise and that their efforts have been put to good use.
Dr Trevor G Cooper, YanTai, Shandong, China, September 2012
I thank Dr Silvia Albert, who suggested that documenting the English lessons I gave in Germany would be a useful exercise, and whose persistent and penetrating questions made me persevere with it, and Dr Shi Hui, Rong Chengting and Li Shijia, who pointed out unclear explanations needing improvement. All errors and omissions are mine.