The semicolon: “Mr. In-Between”

The lyrics to a song that’s been popular since 1944 tell us to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and not to “mess with Mr. In-Between.” Scientific writing, however, benefits greatly from appropriate use of the “Mr. In-Between” of punctuation, the semicolon. Semicolons represent a useful compromise when the goal is to link closely related sentences. (The compromise is between a comma and a period.) “Avoid long sentences,” is the advice the University of Connecticut Writing Center offers to students. “Try to avoid writing more than one thought per sentence. Don’t run on.” Still, closely related sentences sometimes ought to be linked. Why? The University of Leicester in Great Britain offers two reasons: To emphasize their relationship To vary the pace of the writing The University of Connecticut Writing Center itself goes on to say, “Writing generally puts together complex items and shows how they relate. A semicolon is an economical way to join two sentences, and therefore two ideas, to illustrate their relationship.” Semicolons are used to separate independent clauses when a simple coordinating conjunction (e.g., and, or, but) is not used and when separate sentences would be too abrupt. For example: Three soil samples were collected per plot; the samples were then homogenized and divided into three subsamples. Five strains were visualized by staining; three strains did not stain. Many of the forests had been affected by fire; some tree species were not observed in any plots. When main clauses are joined by a conjunctive adverb (e.g., furthermore, …

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Knowing whether to use “whether” or “if”

When introducing a clause indicating uncertainty after a verb, is it better to use “whether” or ‘if”? That’s a question the editors at Precision Science Editing are frequently asked. Although the two words are often used interchangeably in informal writing, as the American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style points out, ”Whether has long been the preferred word in more formal contexts.” “Grammar Girl” Mignon Fogarty has the following guideline to offer: “Use ‘if’ when you have a conditional sentence and ‘whether’ when showing that two alternatives are possible.” Compare these two statements: The laboratory assistant didn’t know if the specimens would arrive on Friday or Saturday. (This statement implies the specimens may arrive on Friday, on Saturday, or not at all!) The laboratory assistant didn’t know whether the specimens would arrive on Friday or Saturday. (This statement implies there were only two possibilities: the specimens would arrive on Friday or they would arrive on Saturday.  The GMAT Tip of the Week, a weekly column that includes advice on taking the Graduate Management Admission Test, explains it this way: Use “if” in a conditional sentence to show that one thing will happen if something else happens. Use “whether” to show that two alternatives are possible. If it rains, they will collect stormwater samples. They will do their field sampling regardless of whether it rains. The word “whether” can be used: After a preposition: Have you settled the question of whether there is a direct causative relation between Chlamydia trachomatis and PID? …

Rick of the Precision Science Editing blog teamKnowing whether to use “whether” or “if”

Mix-ups “effectively” “affect” your writing

Mignon Fogarty (“Grammar Girl”) says her most requested grammar topic is the difference between “affect” and “effect.” Because we often get questions on that same topic, we’re devoting today’s blog post to helping you avoid mix-ups. “Affect” is generally a verb or participle meaning “to influence.” “Effect” is generally used as a noun meaning “result.” The Mayfield Handbook of Technical & Scientific Writing and the University of Connecticut’s Style Points for Scientific Writing offer some useful examples: Temperature affects the growth rate of bacteria. Bacterial growth is affected by temperature. The effect of temperature on bacterial samples is being studied. Increased bacterial growth rate was one major effect of the rise in pond temperature. The release of hydrocarbons has had a significant effect on the depth of the ozone layer. The drug affected participants’ behavior. Our study showed that the drug had a large effect on behavior. The effects of the drug could be measured within five minutes of injection. Certain vitamins can have an instant effect on the immune system. It was found that certain vitamins affect the immune system. Related to the noun “effect” are the adjective “effective,” the adverb “effectively,” and the noun “effectiveness.” The drug was effective a mere five minutes after injection. The medication effectively reduced tremors in the patient. The effectiveness of the medication could be assessed with blood testing. Both “affect” and “effect” can have other uses. “Affect” can be used as a noun, particularly in the field of psychology, to mean the …

Rick of the Precision Science Editing blog teamMix-ups “effectively” “affect” your writing

Let’s all agree on subject–verb agreement

It’s interesting, as Margaret Brenner of Towson University points out, that in the present tense, nouns and verbs form plurals in opposite ways: nouns ADD an “s” to the singular form, while verbs REMOVE the “s” from the singular form. The technician conducts tests. Technicians conduct tests. The overriding rule to remember is this: The subject and verb of a sentence must agree in number. Either both are singular or both are plural. The results were misleading, and it was discovered the system was at fault. When noun phrases are joined by “and,” the verb must be plural: Technicians’ health and safety were at risk. The equipment, the reagents, and the room temperature were all at fault. When the sentence contains alternative subjects (joined by “or,” “either…or,” “neither…nor,” or “not only…but also”), the verb must agree with the last subject: Not only the reagents, but the instrument was at fault. Either the instrument or the reagents were at fault.  Not only the instrument, but the reagents were at fault. A collective noun (referring to a group of people or things) may take either a singular or a plural verb. (Authors may decide whether to consider individual members within the unit or the unit as a whole, and the writing should be consistent throughout the paper.) A variety of dosages were tried. Or…A variety of dosages was tried. The group was pleased with the results of the experiment. Or…The group were pleased with the results. See our post on collective nouns …

Rick of the Precision Science Editing blog teamLet’s all agree on subject–verb agreement

Punctuation on each side of the pond – and of the quotation mark!

Some points of punctuation differ between American and British English, as explained by Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty: American English uses periods after abbreviations, including those formed by the first and last letter of the word (e.g., Dr. for doctor Mr. for mister) and those formed by the first letters of a word (e.g., alt. for altitude). British English drops the periods (Dr, Mr, alt). American English places commas and periods INSIDE the quotation marks; British English places them outside. A common error by authors of scientific papers is to place periods and commas outside of quotes when using American English. See Grammarly.com for a nice review of guidance given by various style guides about punctuation with quotation marks. Examples of the correct use of commas and periods with quotation marks in American English: The experiment included 10 specimens designated as “aged” and 10 designated as “fresh.” Theodore Roszak eloquently stated “Nature composes some of her loveliest poems for the microscope and the telescope,” and Rachel Carson wrote “In nature, nothing exists alone.” In British English, the punctuation would look like this: The experiment included 10 specimens designated as “aged” and 10 designated as “fresh”. Theodore Roszak eloquently stated “Nature composes some of her loveliest poems for the microscope and the telescope”, and Rachel Carson wrote “In nature, nothing exists alone”. Other marks, including colons, semicolons, question marks, and exclamation points that are not part of the quotation go outside the quotes in both language styles: There was vigorous debate about …

Rick of the Precision Science Editing blog teamPunctuation on each side of the pond – and of the quotation mark!

Spell it right on each side of the pond!

There are a number of differences between English as practiced in the United States and English as practiced in the UK and Commonwealth countries. Some of the major spelling differences are described in Scientific Style and Format, the CSE Manual. Words ending in “ize” or “yze” in American English often end in “ise” in British English. American English writes “catalyze”; British English writes “catalyse.” Words ending in “er” in American English end in “re” or “our” in British English. Americans write “center,” “fiber,” “liter,” and “color”; Brits write “centre,” “fibre,” “litre,” and “colour.” Words with “ae” in American usage are spelled “oe” in British English: estrus (American), oestrus (British). Other common scientific words with different spellings include (American/British): artifact/artefact, aluminum/aluminium, gray/grey, sulfur/sulphur. When adding the ending –able, –ant, –ed, –er, or –ing to a verb ending in the letter L, British English doubles the L. For example, the words labeled, modeling, signaling, traveler (American English) are spelled labelled, modelling, signalling, traveller in British English. Conversely, words that end with two Ls (e.g., enroll, install, skill) keep both Ls when –ful or –ment is added in American English spelling (enrollment, installment, skillful) but drop the second L in British English (enrolment, instalment, skilful). How do you know which form of English to use? Know your audience and check the requirements of your target journal. When in doubt about a spelling, a good dictionary—the gold standard—can help! Spell it right for the side of the pond where your readers are! See our …

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To restrict or not to restrict? It’s a question of commas

Does a term you’re using need to be set apart from all other possibilities? If so, you must use a phrase or clause that acts as a restrictive modifier because the meaning of the term would be unclear without that restriction. No commas are used with restrictive clauses and phrases. Examples: Restrictive: “The cells which had been incubated were counted.” (The implication is that there were other cells that were not counted; only the incubated cells were counted.) The clause “which had been incubated” restricts the information in that sentence to only certain cells. No commas are used because we need that restrictive clause to define which cells are being discussed. Nonrestrictive: “The cells, which had been incubated, were counted.” (The implication is that researchers were working with only one set of cells, and the clause “which had been incubated” describes a step in a process that involved all those cells. Think of a nonrestrictive clause as adding information to a sentence that would have been complete without that extra information. (Had that clause been left out of the sentence, it would still be clear that the cells in the experiment were counted.) Because that clause can be left out, it is set apart with commas on either side. “Which” and “that”: Notice that the word “which” is used in both of these examples. A restrictive clause may be introduced by either “that” or “which,” so it would have been correct to say “The cells that had been incubated…” A …

Rick of the Precision Science Editing blog teamTo restrict or not to restrict? It’s a question of commas

Hyphens help make those all-important connections

Two words brought together as a compound are often connected with a hyphen, explains the Purdue OWL. A scary movie might be called a hair-raiser; a person who overemphasizes unimportant details might be referred to as a hair-splitter. While authorities do not always agree, the following uses of the hyphen are generally agreed upon, OWL points out: To join two or more words serving as a single adjective before a noun: One-way street, media-coated slide, well-known author. Important note: when compound modifiers come after a noun, they are not hyphenated. For example, The author was well known. With compound numbers: Forty-six, sixty-three. To avoid confusion or an awkward combination of letters. Some examples: One would re-sign a petition. (Using the hyphen avoids having the reader think the word was “resign,” as in resigning from a job.) Using the hyphen in semi-independent avoids having two letter i’s in a row. The re-treated patients were released makes it clear that patients were treated again, not that they withdrew.  Sometimes hyphenating avoids confusion. For example, if you read “The samples were placed in a light controlled chamber,” you could think that the chamber was not heavy. The hyphen makes it clear that light was controlled in the chamber. More examples: The equation describes a first-order reaction. The slow-growing trees had very dense wood. A high-resolution microscope was used for the analysis. With the prefixes ex- (meaning former), self-, mid-, all-: Ex-husband, self-perpetuating, mid-September, all-inclusive. To hyphenate prefixes when either a capital letter or …

Rick of the Precision Science Editing blog teamHyphens help make those all-important connections

Use a light touch with the definite article

There is a rather unfortunate tendency among technical writers to overuse the word “the,” we at Precision Science Editing have found. As editors, we teach that, like salt, definite articles are at their best when applied sparingly. In science writing, the incorrect use of articles can entirely change the intended meaning of the text. The word “The” can be used to signal any of several things to readers of your article or paper: The noun you’re modifying is specific The noun you’re modifying is not new to the reader You intend for a singular noun to refer to an entire class “The exact location and lineage of the first domesticated dog are still under debate,” Udell and Wynne observe in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. A specific dog is being mentioned (the first one to be domesticated), so there is a need for the definite article. A man is walking down a road. There is a dog with the man (the reader already knows there is a man). When first introducing a subject to readers, on the other hand, it is appropriate to use an indefinite article. That’s because the noun is not yet part of the common ground you share. Later in the piece, you can use the definite article, knowing he/she is very likely to understand the reference. “The” may be used when you intend for a singular noun to refer to an entire class: “The group was ready to leave.” The definite article used …

Rick of the Precision Science Editing blog teamUse a light touch with the definite article

Which word? Tricky words and phrases

  Many English words and phrases are commonly confused by native and non-native English speakers alike. This is not hard to understand, given the sometimes-subtle differences between terms. In this post, I discuss some words and phrases that are frequently misused in scientific writing. I will expand on this list in future posts. Do you have a question about word usage? Want to contribute to this collection? Leave a comment below! Among, between ➛Among expresses relationships involving more than two similar (related) entities with a sense of distribution among the entities. •Photosynthate was allocated among leaves, branches, and fruit. • The abundance of mycorrhizal associations varied among the tree species. ➛Between expresses relationships involving two or more entities, with an emphasis on comparison between pairs (one-to-one). • There were no significant differences in gene expression between any of the treatments. •Their experiment examined the relationship between metabolic rate and interval training. Associated with, affiliated with ➛Associated is defined as: connected to; joined, united, allied, or combined with; in relationship with. • Many invertebrate taxa were associated with the leaf litter. • The low genetic diversity was associated with geographic isolation. ➛Affiliated is defined as: closely associated with a larger body, group, or organization, often in a dependent or subordinate manner. • The extension office was affiliated with the university’s agronomy department.  • The newly discovered planktonic species were affiliated with phylum Actinobacteria. Both, each Both and each have different meanings. Both has a plural sense, and each has a singular …

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