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Summary of Guidelines for Word Choice

Words in scientific research papers should be

  • Precise.

  • Simple.

  • Necessary.

Use few if any abbreviations.

Exercise 1.1: Principles of Word Choice

  1. Words in scientific research papers should be PRECISE.

    (Strunk and White, II. 16, p. 21: Use definite, specific, concrete language.)

    Your words should be as precise as your science.

    Note that precise, definite, specific, concrete words evoke a mental image. For example, "dog" evokes much more of a mental image than "animal" does. Similarly, "pattern of discharge" evokes much more of a mental image than "response characteristics" does. Words that evoke mental images help make writing easy to read. Abstractions (such as "animal" and "characteristics") make reading difficult.

    1. greatly decreased; reduced by 80%.

      POINT: "Compromised" is imprecise: what happened to renal blood flow? ("Compromise" means "place at risk." A person's chances of survival can be compromised. But blood flow is measurable, so it increases or decreases.) "Drastically" is also imprecise. Science is quantitative; thus, a quantitative detail such as "by 80%" is clearer than a qualitative term such as "greatly."

    2. 5? 7? 9?

      POINT: "Several" is imprecise. How long is several hours? State the mean or a range.

    3. increase.

      POINT: A change could be either an increase or a decrease. From the first sentence we cannot tell whether the author meant increase or decrease. But from "further increase" in the next sentence we can see that the change in the first sentence must have been an increase. It is clearest to write "increase," not "change," in the first sentence.

    4. incubated in, grown in, bathed in.

      POINT: "Exposed to" is imprecise. How were the cells exposed? Use a precise term. "Put in" does not work here because the cells probably were not added for 48 h.

    5. lambs.

      POINT: Keep the name of the animal in the reader's mind.

    6. prevented, blocked.

    7. offset.

      POINT: "To rescue" means to free from death or destruction. An appropriate use of "rescue" is to say that the phenotype is rescued (from death or destruction) by some event in the genotype. In Example 6, an intervention prevents a process (it does not rescue the process). In Example 7, one substance offsets the lack of another substance (it does not rescue the lack of another substance). "Rescue" is an example of a "buzz word," that is, a word that is in fashion. Using a buzz word shows that you belong to the club. It is reasonable to use current terminology, including buzz words, but the problem with buzz words is that they are often imprecise. So use buzz words only in their precise meaning.

    8. prevented, inhibited, repressed.

      POINT: "Negatively regulated" is a vague way of expressing a concept that can be conveyed precisely by a variety of verbs.

    9. caused OR resulted in OR led to...

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