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Editing Tip: Strange but True Aspects of Scientific Writing

  • There are a few conventions in scientific writing that look wrong but are really standard usage
  • Measured quantities (e.g., 5 ml) take a singular verb
  • Certain abbreviations follow usage trends that are distinct from the typical English pluralization system.

English is a notoriously difficult language, largely due to its many irregular constructs and large lexicon. However, understanding some basic grammatical rules can really create a solid foundation to writing. Unfortunately, there are a few conventions in scientific writing that look wrong but are really standard usage. Here are two examples:

Singular verbs with measured quantities

It is common to list a measured amount in the methods section of a scientific paper, and more often than not, the number being reported is more than 1. Generally, plural subjects are paired with plural verbs (e.g., the researchers discuss or the samples were assayed). However, when a unit of measurement, such as liter, millimeter, or milligram, is used, the measured quantity is considered a single entity for the purposes of subject-verb agreement. Consider the following examples: <ul> <li> Next, 10 g of each sample was placed in 95% ethanol.</li> <li> Finally, 5 ml of acetic acid was added to the mixture dropwise.</li> <li> In addition, 50 V was applied to the set of resistors.</li> </ul>

Note: when individuals are counted but not paired with a unit of measurement, they can be treated as a plural subject (Next, 20 samples were collected from each site).

Irregular abbreviations

In most cases, abbreviations are treated as though they are spelled out, meaning that their use is no more difficult than that of the full phrase. You can say DC for dendritic cell, and the use of DCs is completely acceptable to indicate plural (just like adding an s to cells). The abbrevation ROS (for reactive oxygen species) can take a singular or a plural verb. At first, this seems confusing, but the term species can be singular or plural. Therefore, using ROS is no different than using the full phrase.

However, some abbreviation conventions break the general trend. The suprachiasmatic nucleus is a part of the brain, and this phrase is commonly abbreviated SCN. So far, so good. Unfortunately, the plural form SCNs is seen just as frequently, despite the plural of nucleus being nuclei and not nucleuses. In this case, the convention is the field is to pluralize the abbreviation in a standard way (adding an s), even though the full phrase would not include one. As with many things related to academic writing, it is important to read papers in your field and apply the conventions that your colleagues use.

Not all grammar rules are clear cut

On a related note, just because someone has told you something is a rule in English doesn’t mean that it’s a requirement. Languages evolve over time, and there are many grammar rules that have simply ceased to be meaningful (for example, the rule to avoid split infinitives). It is generally better to base your writing on the style of the majority of other authors in your field and not to worry about every rule in a grammar book or style guide.

We hope that today’s post has helped you understand two peculiarities of academic writing in English. As with all writing, the “right” thing to do is whatever will help your readers understand your work. In these two cases, the common convention may look wrong, but following along will actually make your writing easier to read. AJE wishes you the best of luck with your writing! If you have questions about something that looks funny to you, write to us any time at [email protected].

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