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Maintaining Formal Tone in Scientific Writing

  • ‘Scientific’ English differs from everyday written English.
  • Adhering to common conventions of academic writing will help peer reviewers and readers feel like a manuscript belongs as part of the scholarly literature.
  • Take care with field-specific terms and avoid informal-sounding (and sometimes vague) terms like ‘nowadays’ or ‘get.’

Scholarly writing, particularly in the sciences, involves a form of written English that closely resembles everyday English but differs in certain ways. This tip focuses on one way that scientific English diverges from normal spoken English: formal tone. At times, the writing in a published manuscript can sound quite stuffy, but following the conventions of formal language will help your manuscript sound like it belongs in a top-tier journal.

Academic English involves a lexicon that is different from everyday English, both by the addition of new words and the omission of certain words.

New words (jargon)

On the one hand, academic papers include copious amounts of jargon, or field-specific terms that are meaningless to someone outside of that area of study. Many common terms also hold highly specialized meanings within a scholarly field; for example, in microbiology, the term transform refers specifically to the introduction of new DNA into a bacterial cell.

Omitted words (informal-sounding terms)

On the other hand, scholarly publications seem to lack a number of commonly used words and favor more formal-sounding alternatives. In some cases, the use of a more formal word can actually increase the clarity of the writing. For instance, the basic linking verb is/are could be interpreted in a myriad of ways. Replacing it with a more specific verb will improve the flow of a sentence.

  • Cadmium nephrotoxicity is tubular dysfunction. This statement makes the two parts of the sentence sound exactly equal, when there are no doubt other forms of tubular dysfunction and other aspects of cadmium nephrotoxicity.<
  • Instead, the sentence could be written, “Cadmium nephrotoxicity manifests as tubular dysfunction.”

Here are some additional formal words and phrases used in scientific writing, alongside their more common counterparts. In some cases, these terms represent an improvement over the common term, but some are simply a matter of convention.

Common termFormal synonym
deals withaddresses
about/aroundapproximately
biglarge or considerable
nowadayscurrently
doneperformed or conducted
likesuch as
seen/sawobserved
besidesmoreover or in addition
take placeoccur
getobtain or acquire

Over time, languages shift, and words become considered more or less formal. However, these suggestions should be applicable for a while. If you have questions about whether a particular term is well suited for a scholarly article, send us an email at [email protected]. AJE wishes you the best of luck with your writing!

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