Booking Through Thursday: Grammar

In honor of National Grammar Day … it IS “March Fourth” after all … do you have any grammar books? Punctuation? Writing guidelines? Style books? More importantly, have you read them? How do you feel about grammar in general? Important? Vital? Unnecessary? Fussy?


That’s probably a pretty easy question for anyone that got their degree in chemistry over the last couple of generations.  By far, the writing guide that I have used most often is the American Chemical Society’s “ACS Style Guide: Effective Communication of Scientific Information” which for a long time was the veritable “Bible” on how to write a scientific paper and the best ways to present your data. 


And I used this book quite often because my graduate school mentor believed in making his students take the time to write their own research papers, even though he could have cranked them out in about 1/10th the time.  But there’s nothing like getting thrown in the deep end of the pool, is there?


Scientific papers are funny things to write and most of it has to do with verb usage and tense – other than the enduring mistake of using “data” as a singular noun (it’s the plural of “datum” so treat it as such).  Science papers are supposed to be clear and aren’t supposed to have “personality” and certainly not be “conversational” in tone.  Slang is also a no-no since* many readers may not be native English-speakers.


For instance, I might tell a colleague,  “Look at this NMR data** – I was right about compound #1.”  In a paper, you’d write: “The NMR data are consistent with the hypothesis that compound #1…”  Passive voice, conservative language, — which is one reason that you never read the scientific literature when you’re sleepy.


These days, Microsoft’s green and red squiggly underlines can warn you of many grammar and spelling mistakes and checking usage is often as easy as opening another browser window.   Similarly, scientific graphing programs have useful templates and algorithms for data presentation and so I doubt the “Style Guide” gets pulled off the shelf very often.  Mine is probably over there next to my dusty slide rule.


* Since is a time-word not a reason.  I should have used “because”

**in conversation, you almost always slip into the data as singular trap.  Well, I do.

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16 thoughts on “Booking Through Thursday: Grammar

  1. When my son was in fourth grade I got into quite an altercation with his teacher over one of those commonly misused words– like "used to" vs. "use to" kind of things. He had turned in a report, I forget the topic, and he had written it quite well, considering it was one of his very first essays. Well, the teacher "corrected" his usage, only she was 100% wrong! I sent her a little note informing her of her mistake and she argued with me! After a few more note volleys in escalating attitude I finally took my English usage book off the shelf next to my desk and went to school. I showed her exactly where she was wrong and why. She FINALLY accepted that she was wrong and gave my son the 100% he deserved. But she never apologized. Boy, was that a hard year!

  2. I enjoyed reading your lovely post! It was interesting to read your comment on 'since' – we keep using it as a reason all the time! Your comment on 'data' was also quite interesting – I don't remember 'datum' being used at all! To get around this problem, I have seen people using 'data point' to indicate the singular of 'data'. I feel that when reports and memos were typed / printed and read before, they were prepared more carefully and were grammatically better. I feel that nowadays with email being the general mode of communication at work, the grammar standards at the workplace have slipped quite a bit.

  3. PLL — I can imagine how much some teachers really don't like to have their "authority" questioned. Though I'm not sure it says anywhere that a teacher needs to know everything — they just need to be able to communicate it and help students learn. When I was in grad school, we really learned that sometimes you have to say "I'm not sure, let's look that up together".

  4. Vishy — I completely agree — email communication has become so quick and so easy that you can shoot one off practically in real-time (and GoogleWave actually was in real time). That doesn't do much to foster an editorial environment.

  5. The pleasure of reviewing a printed copy of a manuscript is unique :)By the way, if I may ask you, in the picture, are you tall athletic chap sitting on the extreme right?

  6. And I used this book quite often because my graduate school mentor believed in making his students take the time to write their own research papers, even though he could have cranked them out in about 1/10th the time. But there’s nothing like getting thrown in the deep end of the pool, is there?And it had the side benefit making you primary author on a publication, which is essential for tenure. My advisers had a similar rule with their students: "If you did the research, you get the write-up." With respect to language usage, you are correct. Science-ese has many nuances that are not well understood by the non-specialist. My co-authors and I have fought over the spectrum of qualifiers from "few" to "many" to "a plurality" to "a majority" to "most" to "nearly all", and over the use of "whereas" versus "then" [1]. And I have even gotten a review asking me to remove "coda" as it was being used in a non-standard way [2].In geophysics, we do get a free pass on the use of "data", as we almost exclusively use it to refer to a data set (e.g., seismic data). We can thus occasionally sneak it into the literature as as an aggregate noun (though many editors complain when we do).John[1] Then and since are "time words", implying a sequence of events. Whereas is a "choice word", implying an alternative.[2] Non-standard for geophysics, that is; I had referred to the cycle of model building and noted that each result was the capo to a new round and not the coda to the old. In music, that sentence makes sense. Unfortunately, in geophysics, "coda" is more closely associated with the trailing set of phases that creates the long tail of earthquakes.

  7. Great post. I agree that this stuff does not make great bedtime reading, although sometimes while I had access to free articles, I would download really interesting biology studies and it would be a nail-biter; how did they do that?? (Methods section)…..
    What got me was the big-picture vs small-picture stuff. If I focused too much on one study for the Introduction, I would find single sentences that were a bear to re-word. There's only so many ways one can re-word a strictly technical sentence!

  8. I figured that you'd appreciate that part of the post! It's pretty funny to think that you can sit around a table and go back and forth over these choices for a paper that maybe a couple hundred people will read (and that's for the higher profile ones!).

  9. Emmi — I think one of the harder things when you publish multiple papers in the same area is to come up with introductions that are new and not simply re-wordings of the last intro you wrote!

  10. Emmi — I think one of the harder things when you publish multiple papers in the same area is to come up with introductions that are new and not simply re-wordings of the last intro you wrote!

  11. yea right, in twenty years you won't reconize the english langauge,chat rooms and twitter will whittle it down to a very nice little tounge.you'll seem like shakespeare to everybody else…………

  12. Funny – I don't think I've ever heard a DBA (or developer – or anyone, for that matter, in the software world) treat data as the plural (even though we all know it's plural). We often jokingly say "Datumsbase"….but I digress. I'm with Cori, the passive voice would kill me….I guess I took Strunk & White to heart back in the day….

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