The choice of words to use in biomedical research papers is governed by a few basic principles. The first exercise in this chapter is designed to help you discover these principles by evaluating words in sentences. The principles are stated and discussed in detail in the revisions at the end of this book. These principles are the most important concepts in this chapter.
The second exercise addresses a different issue—distinguishing between words whose meanings are similar but not exactly the same. One reason that distinguishing between words is difficult in English is that English is a particularly rich language, incorporating some half a million words and having an abundance of synonyms and near synonyms. Another reason that distinctions are difficult is that English, like all other languages, is constantly changing. Fortunately, the meanings of most words remain essentially the same over the centuries. "Lungs" are still lungs and "to increase" is still to increase (but see Exercise 1.2). However, over time, the meanings of some words change to serve the needs of the people who speak the language. One way that words change is by taking on extra meanings. Some words even come to mean their opposite. For example, "scan" means both "to glance at quickly" (as in "to scan a list of titles") and "to scrutinize closely." Furthermore, in the last 25 or 30 years, "scan" has taken on a new meaning in medicine: "to examine the human body for the presence or localization of radioactive material." In addition, "scan," which was only a verb before, is now also a noun, meaning a picture of the distribution of radioactive material in some part of the body. Thus, at any given moment, some words in the language are in flux. Exercise 1.2 focuses on several sets of words that biomedical researchers tend to confuse. Twenty years from now, different words might be included in this exercise.
In the remaining pages of this chapter, the words in Exercise 1.2, and also several other words, are defined and examples of their use are given.
In all the examples and exercises in this chapter, we will be looking at words in context, not in isolation. The reason is that words are not "good" or "bad" individually; rather, words must be viewed in the context of a given sentence and, as we will see, in a given paragraph and, indeed, in the paper as a whole.
There is no final authority on the use of words in English. The standard used in scholarly writing (including biomedical research papers) is the practice of educated writers. For specific guidance on the meanings and existence of individual words, Americans use unabridged dictionaries such as Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged (Webster's Third). For specific guidance on current usage of words, see the usage notes in The American Heritage Dictionary of ...