Word Usage in Scientific Writing
This listing includes some of the troublesome words, terms, and
expressions most frequently found in Experiment Station journal paper
and bulletin manuscripts.
Any glossary of word usage assumes that what is acceptable for
some uses may not be for others. Some terms and expressions are
worn-out cliches and have outlived their usefulness; other
expressions and terms, though not incorrect, are not precise. In
reporting and recording research, try to be as accurate and precise
in describing it as in doing it. Avoid the ambiguous and "faddish."
For the benefit of international readers, especially, use standard
words in their established meanings.
- Above ("the above method," "mentioned above," etc.) --
Often, you are referring to something preceding, but not necessarily above; a loose reference, convenient for writers, but not for
readers. Be specific. You know exactly what and where, but your
readers may have to search (sometimes through much preceding
- Affect, effect -- Affect is a verb and means to influence. Effect, as a verb, means to bring about; as
a noun, effect means result.
- All of, both of -- Just "all" or "both" will serve in most
- Alternate, alternative -- Be sure which you mean.
- And (to begin a sentence) -- Quite proper. You have been
told not to do this in grade school. But teacher's purpose was to
keep you from using fragmentary sentences; either "and" or "but" may
be used to begin complete sentences. And both are useful transitional
words between related or contrasting statements.
- Apparently (apparent) -- means obviously, clearly,
plainly evident, but also means seemingly or ostensibly as well as observably. You know the meaning
that you intend, but readers may not. Ambiguity results. Use obvious(ly), clear(ly), seeming(ly), evident(ly), observable or observably, etc., as needed to remove doubt.
- Appear, appears -- Seem(s)? "He always appears on
the scene, but never seems to know what to do." "Marley's
ghost appeared but seemed harmless."
- As -- Dialectal when used in place of that or whether; do not use as to mean because or inasmuch as.
- At the present time, at this point in time -- Say "at
present" or "now" if necessary at all.
- Below -- See comment about above.
- But (to begin a sentence) -- Go right ahead (see "And" and
- By means of -- Most often, just "by" will serve and save
- Case -- Can be ambiguous, misleading, or ludicrous because
of different connotations; e.g., "In the case of Scotch whiskey,...." Case also is a frequent offender in padded, drawn-out
sentences. For "in this case," try "in this instance."
- Commas and punctuation -- Not precisely a word-usage matter
except in relation to how words are put together. The trend is toward
less punctuation (particularly fewer commas), but that demands
careful writing, without misplaced or dangling elements. Do not omit commas before the conjunctions in compound sentences. Most
journals, but not all, use final commas before "and" or "or" in
series; check the journal.
- Compare with, compare to -- Compare with means to
examine differences and similarities; compare to means to
represent as similar. One may conclude that the music of Brahms
compares to that of Beethoven, but to do that, one must first
compare the music of Brahms with that of Beethoven.
- Comprise -- Before misuse, comprise meant to contain,
include, or encompass (not to constitute or compose) and still does,
despite two now opposite meanings. Use and meanings now are so
confused and mixed that "comprise" is best avoided altogether.
- Correlated with, correlated to -- Although things may be related to one another, things are correlated with one
- Different from, different than -- Different from! Also, one
thing differs from another, although you may differ
with your colleagues.
- Due to -- Make sure that you don't mean because of. Due is an adjective modifier and must be directly related to a noun, not to a concept or series of ideas gleaned from the rest of a
statement. "Due to the fact that..." is an attempt to weasel out.
- During the course of, in the course of -- Just use "during"
- Either....or, neither...nor -- Apply to no more than two
items or categories. Similarly, former and latter refer
only to the first and second of only two items or categories.
- Etc. -- Use at least two items or illustrations before "and
so forth" or "etc."
- Experience(d) -- To experience something is sensory;
inanimate, unsensing things (lakes, soils, enzymes, streambeds, farm
fields, etc.) do not experience anything.
- Following -- "After" is more precise if "after" is the
meaning intended. "After [not following] the procession, the
leader announced that the ceremony was over."
- High(er), low(er) -- Much too often used, frequently
ambiguously or imprecisely, for other words such as greater,
lesser, larger, smaller, more, fewer; e.g., "Occurrences of
higher concentrations were lower at higher levels of effluent
outflow." One interpretation is that greater concentrations were
fewer or less frequent as effluent volume(s) increased, but others
also are possible.
- However -- Place it more often within a sentence or major
element rather than at the beginning or end. "But" serves better at
- Hyphening of compound or unit modifiers -- Often needed to
clarify what is modifying what; e.g., a small-grain harvest (harvest
of small grain) is different from a small grain harvest (small
harvest of all grain), a fast acting dean isn't
necessarily as effective as a fast-acting dean, a batch of (say, 20)
10-liter containers is different from a batch of 10 [1-] liter
containers, and a man eating fish is very different from a
man-eating fish! Grammatically, adjectives are noun modifiers,
and the problem is when adjectives and nouns are used to modify other
adjectives and nouns. Adverbs (usually with "ly" endings),
however, are adjective modifiers.
- In order to -- For brevity, just use "to"; the full phrase
may be used, however, [in order] to achieve useless padding.
- Irregardless -- No, regardless. But irrespective might do.
- It should be mentioned, noted, pointed out, emphasized, etc. -- Such preambles often add nothing but words. Just go ahead and
say what is to be said.
- It was found, determined, decided, felt, etc. -- Are you
being evasive? Why not put it frankly and directly? (And how about
that subjective "felt"?)
- Less(er), few(er) -- "Less" refers to quantity; "fewer" to
- Majority, vast majority -- See if most will do as
well or better. Look up "vast."
- Myself -- Not a substitute for me. "This paper has been
reviewed by Dr. Smith and myself" and "The report enclosed was
prepared by Dr. Jones and myself" are incorrect as is "Don't hesitate
to call Dr. Doe or myself"; me would have been correct in all
instances. (Use of I also would have been wrong in those
examples.) Some correct uses of myself: I found the
error myself. I myself saw it happen. I am not myself today. I cannot
convince myself. I locked myself out of the car.
- Partially, partly -- Compare the meanings (see also impartially). Partly is the better, simpler, and more
precise word when partly is meant.
- Percent, percentage -- Not the same; use percent only with
- Predominate, predominant -- Predominate is a verb. Predominant is the adjective; as an adverb, predominantly (not "predominately").
- Prefixes -- (mid, non, pre, pro, re, semi, un, etc.) --
Usually not hyphened in U.S. usage except before a proper name
(pro-Iowa) or numerals (mid-60s) or when lack of a hyphen makes a
word ambiguous or awkward. Recover a fumble, but perhaps re-cover a sofa. Preengineered is better hyphened as pre-engineered, one of the few exceptions so hyphened.
Breaking pairs such as predoctoral and postdoctoral into pre- and post-doctoral "forces" hyphening of both
otherwise unhyphened words.
- Principle, principal -- They're different; make sure which
- Prior to, previous to -- Use before, preceding, or ahead of. There are prior and subsequent events
that occur before or after something else, but prior to is the
same kind of atrocious use that attempts to substitute "subsequent
to" for "after."
- Proven -- Although a proven adjective, stick to proved for the past participle. "A proven guilty person
must first have been proved guilty in court."
- Provided, providing -- Provided (usually followed by
"that") is the conjunction; providing is the participle.
- Reason why -- Omit why if reason is used as a noun.
The reason is...; or, the reason is that... (i.e., the reason is the why).
- Since -- has a time connotation; use "because" or "inasmuch
as" when either is the intended meaning.
- Small in size, rectangular in shape, blue in color, tenuous in
nature, etc. -- Redundant.
- That and which -- Two words that can help, when needed, to
make intended meanings and relationships unmistakable, which is
important in reporting scientific information. If the clause can be
omitted without leaving the modified noun incomplete, use which and
enclose the clause within commas or parentheses; otherwise, use that. Example: "The lawn mower, which is broken, is in
the garage." But, "The lawn mower that is broken is in the
garage; so is the lawn mower that works."...That is
broken specifies the particular mower being discussed, whereas which is broken merely adds additional information to the
- To be -- Frequently unnecessary. "The differences were
[found] [to be] significant."
- Varying -- Be careful to distinguish from various or differing. In saying that you used varying amounts or varying
conditions, you are implying individually changing amounts or
conditions rather than a selection of various or different ones.
- Where -- Use when you mean where, but not for "in
which," "for which," etc.
- Which is, that were, who are, etc. -- Often not needed. For
example, "the data that were related to age were analyzed first"
means that the data related to age were analyzed first.
Similarly, for "the site, which is located near Ames," try "the site,
located near Ames" or "the site, near Ames." Rather than "all persons
who were present voted," just say that "all persons present voted."
Rephrasing sometimes can help. Instead of "a survey, which was
conducted in 1974" or "a survey conducted in 1974," try "a 1974
- While -- Preferably not if, while writing, you mean and, but, although, or whereas.
Remember that a research report should communicate and record
information as accurately and concisely as possible. The purpose is
to report, not to impress with elegance. Excess wordage, tortuous
construction, unnecessary detail, duplication, repetition,
third-person passive pseudo-objectivism, etc., obstruct rather than
facilitate communication. It's the message that is important, not
sheer numbers of words. Use precise words and expressions of
unmistakable meaning; avoid the clouded, ambiguous, vague, and
Beware of misplaced or dangling modifiers and pronoun
The difficulty here is that you, as the author, know exactly to
which each has reference even though not explicitly stated. Your
reader, however, doesn't have this advantage, and the result may be
confusing, misleading, or funny. EXAMPLES:
- "Using multiple-regression techniques, the animals in
Experiment I were...
- "Based only on this doubtful inference, we find the
conclusions not supported."
- "The determinations were made on samples using gas
- "In assessing the damage, the plants exhibited numerous
- "The spiders were inadvertently discovered while
repairing a faulty growth chamber."
- "Settling in the collected effluent, we observed what was
determined to be..."
Ambiguous pronoun antecedents
- "The flavor was evaluated by an experienced taste panel,
and it was deemed obnoxious."
- "All samples in Lot II were discarded when the authors found that they were contaminated with alcohol, rendering them unstable." [and unable to think clearly?]
- "The guidelines were submitted to the deans, but they subsequently were ignored.