30. The Scientific Style

© Gábor L. Lövei, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0235.30

Never fear big words. Long words name little things. All big things have little names, such as life and death, peace and war, or day, dawn, night, love, home. Learn to use little words in a big way — it is hard to do. But they say what you mean. When you don’t know what you mean, use big words: they often fool little people.
SSC Booknews, 1981, quoted in Day, 1989

The most important principle of the scientific style is simplicity and clarity. New information is not easy to understand. You also recall that complicated coding can stand in the way of decoding (or, to put it another way, understanding). During reading, the reader decodes and interprets the information; interpersonal differences, reading conditions, and the predisposition of the reader will lead to varying interpretations. The bigger these differences are, the higher is the chance of misinterpretation. Note that I am not talking about legitimate interpretational differences here (the writer has no monopoly on the “proper” interpretation of her writing), but misunderstandings.

Readers expect context on the left, new information on the right (Gastel and Day 2016), so organise your sentences to meet this expectation. The subject of a sentence should be followed by a verb as soon as practicable. The beginning of the sentence is the topic position, letting the reader know the topic of the sentence. The end is the stress position, and this is the place for information that requires emphasis. In one sentence, try to communicate one point.

The reader cannot understand new information without context — provided by earlier, known, published information — so begin with old information, and finish with new information, also from sentence to sentence. This way you provide context before asking the reader to consider new information.

Be careful with similes and metaphors. Use them rarely and carefully. Otherwise, unintentionally funny results can emerge, such as this classic: “A virgin forest is a place where the hands of man have never set foot” (Gastel and Day 2016).

Be mindful of sentence structure. Day (1989) mentions a questionnaire, sent to fire-brigade leaders through the UK. The head of a brigade in Hampshire read the question carefully.

Question: How many people do you employ, broken down by sex?

Answer: None. Our problem here is booze.

At appropriate places in this book, I mentioned the tenses to use when composing different sections of a paper. Mostly, you will only use two of them: the simple present and the simple past. There are two main types of statements in a scientific paper: already-known facts, and new discoveries. The former should be mentioned using the simple present tense (and a reference to its discoverer). The latter should appear in the simple past (and is supported by experimental evidence: numbers, tests, figures, tables, etc.). Grammar occasionally requires a different tense, but typically, the grammatical structure of a scientific paper is simple, rarely using other than the above two tenses. As a Kenyan course participant once put it to the class: “Do not use the complicated present”.

Current writing style emphasises the importance of the use of the active voice; the passive should generally be avoided, especially in American English usage. The first person “I” is not wrong — although it is rarely used, because most published work is done by teams. Be mindful, though, of when to use it, and avoid the much-cited ridiculous statement by (as she was then) Mrs Thatcher: “We are a grandmother”. Beware of self-cancelling words, fillers, and what Gastel and Day (2016) call “mumblespeak” (see a list of jargon words and their simple equivalents in Day and Gastel, 2016, Appendix 2).

Jargon fulfils an important function in communication. However, its usefulness is very context-dependent, and mostly limited — this is one of its very functions. The same holds for acronyms. These have become the darlings of complicated bureaucracies (for example, the European Union administration), who seem to revel in them. The use of acronyms also fulfils some of the functions of jargon. Those who are “in” will understand them, and those who are “out” are, rightly, baffled. Therefore, everyone pretends to understand them. Do not follow their example. If you use an abbreviation, provide a definition or write it out in full at first mention, followed by the abbreviation or acronym in parentheses. Subsequently, you can just use the acronym.

These are only a few pointers. More detailed advice on scientific style can be found in several books (e.g. Clymo, 2014; CBE, 1994; Turabian, 2007). As a final, humorous resource, Day and Gastel (2006) offer the enclosed list of the ten most common mistakes that it is claimed non-native writers make in their use of English. Note that the list commits the errors to be avoided (see Box 17).

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