B.R.S.M. When all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail

4Feb/1226

And Now For Something Completely Different 3: Some Tips On Style

Heres a little something I wrote on the flight back from the conference I attended before Christmas. It didn't quite turn out right, which is why you haven't seen it yet, but I'm a bit busy and uninspired right now so I've dredged it out for your enjoyment.

Answer: All of them, obviously

As anyone who has ever read a paper will know, scientific English is a bit different from the stuff we speak around the coffee table (and what you’ll read here). Basically, the aim of academic writing is to sound as intelligent as you can while still being quite vague. Language should be as grandiloquent as possible, to the point of obfuscation, and common words must never be used when more bookish ones are available. There are several classic papers which I needed a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary to decode. And I’m fine with that; that’s how it should be.[1]

Unfortunately, in recent years, the primary literature has become increasingly accessible and easy to read. It all began with the advent of Chemdraw, robbing the world of the beauty of stencilled/hand drawn structures, and the unabated simplification of the language still proceeds apace. This must stop. It is not acceptable to write that reactions ‘give’ or ‘yield’ particular compounds. Words like ‘furnish’, ‘afford’ or even ‘educe’ are far superior, and one should try to use a different one in each instance. Here are a few further ways to decrease the readability of your work and frustrate and confuse native and non-native English speakers alike. Just remember, you’re really doing them a favour.[2]

‘Deprotect’ is so soulless and mechanical. Words like the slightly erotic ‘denude’, the jubilant ‘emancipate’ or ‘liberate’ are much more evocative. Even ‘reveal’ or ‘unmask’ create an air of mystery and sophistication.

 

‘Among’ becomes ‘amongst’, ‘while’ becomes ‘whilst’. Just do it;  no-one knows why.

 

Give yourself a pat on the back for every instance of ‘Hitherto’, ‘notwithstanding’, ‘inasmuch’, ‘heretofore’, 'forthwith', and ‘unbeknownst’ you manage to include in a paper.

 

Reflex verbs are awesome. Useful ones include ‘bethink’, ‘belie’, ‘bespoke’, ‘betoken’ and ‘besmirch’.

 

If at all possible make up or redefine a few words – they might stick (retron, synthon, chiron, organocatalyst, umpolung etc); they might not (educt, carbogen, antithetic analysis etc).

 

Show your love of the literature and the extent of your erudition by calling reactions and reagents by the names of their discoverers wherever possible, no matter how obscure or unnecessary. Oxidation with m-CPBA? Prilezhaev Reaction. Aldol Reaction? Borodin β-hydroxyketone synthesis etc.

 

If you can’t stick to writing in the third person passive, at least use majestic plurals, especially if you’re the sole author.

 

Never say ‘outline’. It’s so common. With words like ‘delineate’ and ‘adumbrate’, clarity has never been so easy to avoid.

 

Try to avoid saying ‘lucky’, as it’s a bit unprofessional. ‘Fortunate’ is okay at undergraduate level but real scientists use words like ‘propitious’, ‘fortuitous’, or even ‘serendipitous’.

 

‘Quick’ and ‘rapid’ can be improved to ‘expedient’ or ‘expeditious’. Bask in the ridiculousness of using a four syllable word for ‘fast’.

 

Simultaneous is a nice word, but if you find yourself overusing it then don’t forgot that ‘contemporaneous’ and ‘concomitant’ are both excellent synonyms.

 

Reactions that don’t work (for you), or require a particular phase of the moon to obtain a good yield can be passed off as ‘fickle’, ‘capricious’ or ‘mercurial’.

 

‘Apposite’ is better than ‘appropriate’ and 'extraneous’ should replace ‘extra'.

 

Use Latin, and lots of it. We’re all familiar with cf. (confer=compare), i.e. (id est = that is) and e.g. (examplia gratis= for example). Don’t forget also ibid., q.v., viz., sine qua non and others.

 

Now you too can lard your work with exciting words to confuse new PhD students and the millions of people who read the literature in a language not their own. They have it far too easy!

 

Appendices

1. Yes, this is a joke. If you hadn’t noticed that by now, it might not be a good idea to keep reading.

 

2. I’m pretty sure I heard once that sarcasm is highest form of wit. We British enjoy it, anyway.

 

Comments (26) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Methinks this is the best god damned post I’ve read for some time. I love that word. Methinks. Makes me feel like a noble lord, but makes me sound like an arshole.

    Anyway, this is so true. I love how you’ve called out our pretentious nature.

  2. Hey, don’t touch Prilezhaev! :) It’s how the reaction is known on 1/6 of Earth (Russia, Ukraine etc.)

    Do you know that Borodin was also a composer (in particular, he wrote famous “Prince Igor”)?

    • Is Prilezhaev really used as a common named reaction? I’ve honestly never heard it said in spoken English. I did know that Borodin was a composer, although I am entirely unfamiliar with his work…

  3. For more fun with grammar, and (yet another) hurdle scientists face when communing with the other 99% of the planet: http://blogs.agu.org/mountainbeltway/2011/10/17/words-matter/

    Also, in the Latin, don’t forget the ever confusing “vide supra” and “vide infra.” Those two took me a few papers before I finally realized what was “up” (or down!)

  4. While there are some legitimate examples of things you shouldn’t do (make up or redefine a few words is a particular favorite of mine) scientists are supposed to be intelligent people: I’ve know what expedient and fortuitous mean since grade school, why should I not add a bit of linguistic charm to my writing? I think a paper that is written in a dry mechanical style are far harder to read then a paper that uses multisylabic words outside of IUPAC names.

    Another point: Delineate is not the same as outline. To outline something is to give a general overview, to delineate it is to go over it point by point. Delineate can also be used in instances where outline would be grammatically incorrect.

    I’m very sick of the view that any word that is mildly complicated should be stricken from the dictionary and abandoned. Yes, there are times when you should use a clearer form of the word, and I can’t see any justification for using some of the ones on the above list, but frankly any decent university is probably already paying for a subscription to the OED and words are not hard things to look up, you should use the most appropriate one for the context.
    It drives me mad when you read chemistry papers with a vocabulary of a couple hundred words, then go and read, say, history papers where they use the full colour and glory of the English language.

    • I think it’s always about a balance. A first-grade text obviously should be avoided in a scientific paper, since it is not capable to express the ideas. At the same time, adoring the writing with “fancy” words to make it “beautiful” will also make it painful to read.

      I could not read Nicolaou’s Classics until I went to US and greatly improved my English. It was not chemistry but the language that frightened me.

  5. few more candidates: elucidate, interrogate (a tricky reaction), facilitate, and heuristic.

    Another personal favorite is “readily-available” (= starting material made in 6 steps from a terpene that costs $50/g)

    • Elucidate is a rather common chemistry term, isn’t it? Meaning to determine the identity of a compound? I mean, we have a 4th year class on “Structural Elucidation” at my uni…

      Facilitate, while rather overused by business people trying to make themselves look smart, is also a fine word, though not one I’d normally use in a chemistry paper.

      Heuristic is a great technical term, if used properly. There is a rather large field of mathematics devoted to heuristics, and is commonly used in antispam algorithms. If I am using a heuristic algorithm what am I *supposed* to call it?

  6. nice post ;) for non-native speakers it is sometimes really hard to go through these papers with a colorful language. on the other hand I admire this old school german publications… reminds me always a bit of stories from brothers Grimm or Wilhelm Busch ;)
    btw: you forgot to mention the bis(tributylstannyl)ethylene as a linchpin in Nicolaou’s synthesis of Rapamycin :P

    • I don’t get why longer words make things harder: I don’t know every word in books I read, I just either A) figure out the rough meaning from context, or B) look it up on the dictionary. The thing that has kept me from learning other languages is the fact English has impressed its grammatical structure so heavily on my brain, that I can’t keep other ones straight in my head. I have no problem using loanwords from other languages.

      Take the above comment here: Lynchpin is a great word. With one word the above poster has specified that the above compound is the key the whole reaction. Otherwise I’d have to use a whole sentence on that, and I find that spacing out ideas with long, convoluted sentences makes papers much harder to read. For example:

      The compound was centrifugated at 5000 rpm for 10 minutes.
      The compound was placed in the centrifuge and spun at 5000 rpm for 10 minutes.

      (According to the OED centrifugated and centrifuged are equally correct; I don’t like centrifuged since it then has the noun and the verb being identical, which encourages poor grammer: You cut something, you don’t knife something.)

      That said, I do think we could cut down on the Greek and Latin a little, since those are harder to look up. I’ve had issues reading Crete by Antony Beevore, since he assumes all his readers have a ‘classical’ British education, and thus peppers his writing with French, German, Greek and Latin with no explanation, since of COURSE any educated person will speak a smattering of all 5 of those, in addition to having a firm command of English. If we all decide to replace i.e. and e.g. with ‘That is to say’ and ‘For example’ I’m fine with that. It saves me having to fix the spacing in LaTeX anyway.

  7. Alright, lets go over this in more detail:

    Give yourself a pat on the back for every instance of ‘Hitherto’, ‘notwithstanding’, ‘inasmuch’, ‘heretofore’, ‘forthwith’, and ‘unbeknownst’ you manage to include in a paper.

    Hitherto: The only context I can think of using this in is ‘Hitherto unknown’ I suppose you could replace this with ‘Previously unknown’ or ‘Newly discovered’

    ‘notwithstanding’ Seems to have a pretty obvious meaning to me: It is literally two words squashed together. Quite a useful word when describing things like say, how a functional group would normally undergo reaction X, but in this compound it undergoes reaction Y. “Notwithstanding amines tendency to undergo the foo reaction, in this case the 3′-amine clearly reacts with the bar to form a baz.’

    forthwith….ok, that one is just annoying. Are you trying to sound like a bad fantasy novel?

    unbeknownst. I don’t see any way to use this properly while maintaining 3rd person passive voice. “unbeknownst to us’? That is active voice. Grrr. I am one of those crazy people who like the distance writing in the passive voice puts between an experimenter and the experiment: It shouldn’t matter who did the experiment, just what happened.

    ‘Deprotect’ also isn’t a real word. Either use ‘The protecting group was removed’ or find an actual word.

    To use ‘denude’ stretches the definition a bit, so I’d avoid it. Likewise, I would save ‘emancipate’ and ‘liberate’ for freeing compounds from clathrates or similar situations. ‘Reveal’ and ‘unmask’ are both also poor choices, since they carry connotations of finding out what hides underneath, when we know what is under the protecting group. I’d save them for when you are determining the identify of the compound. How about using the rare term ‘remove’ when you take off a protecting group? Or possibly ‘expose’ the underlying functional group?

    ‘Among’ becomes ‘amongst’, ‘while’ becomes ‘whilst’. Just do it; no-one knows why.
    There are actually grammatical rules applying to this, though I’d be hard pressed to explain them. I can go bother one of my English major friends if you desire.

    Reflex verbs are awesome. Useful ones include ‘bethink’, ‘belie’, ‘bespoke’, ‘betoken’ and ‘besmirch’.
    Ok, even I am having to look up some definitions here. I fail to see any legitimate context that would allow any of these to be in a scientific paper, could you give an example? Besmirch for example: When would you want to use a verb meaning ‘to tarnish’ in a scientific paper?

    ‘adumbrate’ Alright, I agree that this is probably going a bit far when outline or foreshadow can fill in either of its definitions more clearly, and you are unlikely to have to use outline more then once in a paragraph.

    Any variation on lucky seems to break a proper scientific writing style, though if it involves laboratory explosions or the like I am willing to make exceptions. For example:
    “Evans boldly put 50 atm. of ethylene in a cell with 25 atm. of oxygen. The apparatus subsequently blew up, but luckily not before he obtained the spectra shown in Figure 8.” A. J. Merer, Robert S. Mulliken; Chem. Rev., 1969, 69 (5), 639–656.
    However, I am not enamoured with any of the alternatives listed above, as they all carry connotations of random chance as opposed to good fortune. I would stick to versions fortunate due to its grammatical flexibility: The other options listed just beg to be used in grammatically convoluted sentences. Just try to alter the above quote to use them: The only one that easily fits is fortuitously.

    Expedient makes a poor synonym for rapid, I agree. However, I would avoid using ‘quick’ or ‘quickly’ as neither feels very formal to me. Expedient, however, can also be used to mean ‘High temperature was used as an expedient to increase the rate of reaction, despite a noticeable drop in the yield of the reaction’ which I would probably allow.

    Simultaneous is a nice word, but if you find yourself overusing it then don’t forgot that ‘contemporaneous’ and ‘concomitant’ are both excellent synonyms.
    Wow, I had to look both of those up. I’d use ‘concurrent’ as a nice synonym before considering the above terms. ‘contemporaneous’ isn’t too bad, since it obviously involves time (temporal) and the same (con– as in consistent and concurrent) but concomitant is harder. I’m going to have to agree with you that there is a point after which you are just showing off.

    Reactions that don’t work (for you), or require a particular phase of the moon to obtain a good yield can be passed off as ‘fickle’, ‘capricious’ or ‘mercurial’.
    While I love the word, you should probably avoid mercurial unless your reaction actually involves mercury, in which case you should definitely use it, just for the linguistic fun. What word would you pick to describe a reaction that works about half the time and no one has been able to figure out why?

    ‘Apposite’ is better than ‘appropriate’ and ‘extraneous’ should replace ‘extra’.
    Don’t forget ‘suitable’.
    Actually ‘extraneous’ should replace ‘extra’, since extra is a contraction, which should be avoided in formal writing, along with other slang. Similarly ‘Cannot’ for ‘can’t’ ‘is not’ for ‘isn’t’ and so on.
    For this same reason American spellings should be avoided since they are contractions of the real spelling, no matter what IUPAC says. Remember: It isn’t ‘sulfur’ is it ‘sulphur’, and it isn’t cesium, it is caesium (Actually, IUPAC is on my side on that last one.) Admittedly you can take things too far: I’ve been known to use ‘gramme’ just to see if anyone notices. (Ok, the part about American spellings is a joke, mostly. As a Canadian I use a mix of both: Litre looks right to me, but meter is how I normally spell the distance measurement. I’m trying to train myself to only use superior British spellings currently.)

    As I’ve said, now that you can’t expect every scientists to have a background in dead languages we should probably cut down on the Greek and Latin we use, even if most of us can count to ten in both languages.

    However there is one point I wholeheartedly agree with you on: Making up or redefining terms. I had one professor who found people misused the term ‘meso’ compound too much, so he used ‘racemic’ to describe that class of chirality. Since of course you should avoid using an often misused term by butchering a rarely misused term.

    • What word would you pick to describe a reaction that works about half the time and no one has been able to figure out why? “Erratic”
      Incidentally, I keep a dictionary around and try to look up an unfamiliar word whenever I encounter one. It’s a great way to learn.

  8. I hope you don’t mind the flood of comments, but this is an ongoing argument I’ve been having with people. I went off and had lunch and realized why I felt conflicted over certain terms:

    I think that if there is one specific term that can replace a multiword explanation that you should use it. For an example that I don’t think anyone will argue with: Reflux. By saying reflux you don’t have to say ‘the solvent was held at the boiling point’. This is quite handy and gives us a term with a constant definition, which allows us to avoid misunderstandings based on how well a specific writer defines themselves. You can use common English words for this: Simultaneous can replace “at the same time”, lynchpin for ‘the compound that this reaction relies on’, notwithstanding for ‘despite the fact that’ and so on.

    I agree that in many of the cases you give above there are perfectly suitable words that mean the same thing, so you shouldn’t reach for an obscure term when there is a common term for the same thing. However, if there are several common terms for the same thing and you are saying it a lot, you might want to alternate a little bit to avoid using the same word 7 times in a paragraph.

    Now, if someone can find me alternatives to ‘however’ and ‘while’ so that I don’t overuse those in every report I write, I would be very happy. I’ve noticed that, while I am an extreme case, a lot of chemists do that becuse we are trained to make one sentence lead into the next, and both ‘however” and “while” are excellent connecting words. Personally, I realized I was addicted to them when I noticed I’d used one of the two in every sentence in a paragraph I had just finished writing.

    • Hey, I’d love to go point by point through list as you’ve done above by way of reply, but I really don’t have time tonight; it’s something I’ll try and do this week. I wrote this post after reading a paper (a review in OBC, I think) and coming across the word ‘adumbrate’ in the introduction, essentially used an an entirely unnecessary alternative to ‘outline’. Despite having the classic British grammar school education of Latin, ancient Greek and French you mention above, as well as considering myself quite well read, I still had no idea what they meant. Which is fine; I love new words. The thing is, they’d just shoehorned the damn thing into their introduction for no real reason that I could see. I don’t think that scientific papers should be written in primary school English, but I think we’re definitely seeing a trend towards overuse of words, often barely correctly, which is unnecessary and detracts from communicating efficiently. I’m definitely opposed to dumbing down of the beautiful English language, but whenever I hear Phil Baran call his syntheses vignettes instead of case studies I think it’s also possible to go too far the other way. This post is just poking a little fun at academics that do so. It is not serious guidance on scientific writing style, something I’m not really qualified to give. I’ve put a few sensible terms in with the silly ones, and I’d never advocate swapping out simultaneous, reflux, notwithstanding etc for their multi-word alternatives. I’d just say that when writing a paper, before you reach for a thesaurus and pick the biggest or most interesting word, consider that many of your readers will be non English, and most will want information quickly. As you basically said in your first comment, the best word for the job should be used. And it’ll rarely be contemporaneous or adumbrate.

      • Ah, ok. I agree that all of the examples in your above comment are just people trying to show off how smart they are. I thought you were advocating banning any word that isn’t either a technical term or part of your average high school students vocabulary. I agree the best term should be used, which is why I will sometimes describe compounds as ‘azure’ or ‘crimson’ instead of ‘blue’ or ‘red’, and would be very annoyed if useful words like this were banned for not being easily enough understood.

        I’m not qualified to talk about scientific vocabulary, but I still gripe whenever someone points me to Whitesides paper on the topic as I disagree with almost every point he makes.

    • “Now, if someone can find me alternatives to ‘however’ and ‘while’ …….. both ‘however” and “while” are excellent connecting words.”

      You are spot on about these two being excellent connecting words. I actually found a list of similar connecting words a while back and it never strays too far from my desktop.

      Try these for adding information: In addition, Indeed, Apart from that, Also, Furthermore, Above all, Likewise, Moreover, Similarly, To this end, Of interest, Of particular interest.

      Try these for Adding a condition/concession: In that case, Nevertheless, On the other hand, On the contrary, Instead, In any case, Despite this, In light of the above.

      The two lists are a little bit interchangeable; I guess with a bit of practice you ‘feel’ when a word or phrase is appropriate.

      Some others I like are: Owing, Notwithstanding, and Regarding.

      • Hmmm, I already use a lot of those, but I do see some I should try out. However in a lot of cases the solution is to remove the connecting word, as it isn’t needed. You would be amazed how much shorter and more easily understandable your writing is if you sit down and force yourself to remove a lot of the connecting words: Write it once each way and see if the word is REALLY needed, etc.

  9. Keep the comments coming, by the way. It’s great to discuss this with someone who knows a bit about the English Language!

  10. Less common/longer words are reasonable when their meanings fit the meaning you are trying to convey. I think BRSM’s complaint is that people tend to use more complicated words as synonyms for simpler terms when they 1) want to sound smart and 2) don’t realize that the synonyms have added and particular meanings not conveyed by the words they’re trying to replace. It’s hard to tell when someone actually knows and cares about what the words they’re using mean and when they don’t.

  11. I love your use of language.

  12. Is linchpin a named reaction?

  13. … I totally used Unbeknownst and Serendipitous in a single paragraph today, and am considering using heretofore or notwithstanding in the same piece of writing, though not in the same section. It’s not even a scientific thing I’m writing, it’s a fiction novel. (oh, and I’m American so I guess using them makes me sound extra pompous) I just love the way the words sound, they convey the meaning that I am looking for and add a little poetry. Some of the words sound musical on my tongue when I say them. like Superfluous. :)

  14. How do I clean the coins I find metal detecting?


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