Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Dr. Mom's Super Grammatically Picky Paperwriting Tips

Given my lack of funding success, I have decided to dedicate myself to things that I can control, the most important of which is paper writing. As I am slowly making progress through the paper backlog in my inbox, I keep running across the same grammatical problems (in native speakers too!) so I thought I would share some tips for those who didn't get great GRE verbal scores:

1. Due to- Don't use this phrase. Rigorously it means that you are owed something, as in "because my daughter is selling girl scout cookies money from the neighbors and relatives will be due to her." If you mean that something is caused by something say... as a result of...or because of...

2. While- While means that two events happen simultaneously as in "while I was sleeping, my son was spilling a five pound bag of flour on the kitchen floor." If you mean to contrast two situations, then use whereas. "Obama is a democrat, whereas Bush is a republican."

3. The- This is mainly a problem for foreign students. Use "the" to refer to a specific thing as in "the lemon over there on the table." If you just many any example of the class then you would simply say "lemon." i.e., "I made enchiladas yesterday using red chile sauce. I made it using the red chile powder that my Mom bought me in Texas." Note there is no "the" before red chile sauce because I am not referring to a specific one.

4. Such as- This term is not wrong, just a little too informal. Instead say including...or as examples...for example...

Any others you guys can think of....?


At 10:55 AM , Blogger Candid Engineer said...

My pet peeve is punctuation. Scientists tend to write longish sentences, and then not punctuate them properly. If you are speaking the sentence and pause or need to take a breath, please, for the love of God, place a comma at that spot! Or write a shorter sentence.

At 12:33 PM , Blogger Amit Aggarwal said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 12:34 PM , Blogger Amit Aggarwal said...

a tip for GRE preparation : try to use mnemonics for preparing word list.. mnemonics will help you to retain the meaning of words for long time in your memory..

try Mnemonic Dictionary

At 1:09 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you are being too picky. I agree with you on the issue of "the" vs "no the." But keep in mind that a word or phrase can be used in several different ways. It is perfectly valid English to use "while" and "due to" as you have described. Just because you only use it one way yourself doesn't make the other ways any less valid.

At 4:29 PM , Blogger Wendy said...

The words "utilize" in place of "use" and "methodology" in place of "method"

At 6:50 PM , Anonymous Roads said...

Thanks for that interestingpost.

Some years ago in my junior school in England, we were taught that there is (or maybe 'was') a critical difference between 'due to' and 'because of':

Due to = caused by;

Owing to = because of.

Thus the accident may have been due to bad weather.

But you can't say 'I'm running late due to bad weather.' That's owing to.

Here in England we also use 'whilst' to contrast opposites in the way that you recommend using 'whereas'. It's easily confused with 'while' to create the poor phrasing you allude to above.

Thus it's accurate to say 'Whilst Obama is a Democrat, Bush is a Republican'.

Although in this limited context, personally I'd suggest 'complete tosser' might well form a suitable alternative for 'Republican'.

Kind regards from London.

At 5:30 AM , Anonymous Andrew said...

According to my dictionary:

On "due to":
The use of due to as a prepositional phrase meaning ‘because of,’ as in : he had to retire due to an injury first appeared in print in 1897, and traditional grammarians have opposed this prepositional usage for more than a century on the grounds that it is a misuse of the adjectival phrase due to in the sense of 'attributable to, likely or expected to' ( : the train is due to arrive at 11:15), or 'payable or owed to' ( : render unto Caesar what is due to Caesar). Nevertheless, this prepositional usage is now widespread and common in all types of literature and must be regarded as standard English.

On "while":
While is sometimes used, without causing any misunderstandings, in the sense of whereas ('although,' 'by contrast,' 'in comparison with the fact that'). This usage is frowned on by some traditionalists, but while is sometimes preferable, as in contexts in which whereas might sound inappropriately formal: : while you say you like her, you’ve never stood up for her). Whereas is preferable, however, for preventing ambiguity in contexts in which while might be read as referring to time, or might falsely suggest simultaneity: : whereas Burton promised to begin at once, he was delayed nine months for lack of funding;: whereas Jonas was an excellent planter and cultivator, Julius was a master harvester.

I don't agree that the uses of "due to" and "while" that you describe are errors, much as I hate when people say that using "hopefully" as a sentence adverb is an "error".

At 9:01 AM , Blogger Rebecca said...

My pet peeve has to be the misplaced "only." The rule is to place the only as close to the phrase it modifies as possible.

For example, I'll often hear someone say something like, "I only go shopping on Thursdays." That sentence means that all you do is shop on Thursdays. What you probably mean is that shopping is performed exclusively on Thursdays, so the sentence should be "I go shopping only on Thursdays."

At 3:28 PM , Blogger rchrd said...

As a tech writer I have to translate the fractured English of software engineers into something readable. But most of the time I give them an A for at least trying, especially when English might be their 2nd or 3rd language.

But even native speakers get "which" and "that" mixed up, as in:

"the option which is most often used.." instead of "the option that is most often used".

General rule is to use "which" only if it is preceded by a comma:

"this option, which is the one most often used, is better than..."

A good text for writing technical documentation today can be found on the opensolaris.org website:

Documentation Style Guide for OpenSolaris
—A PDF book that provides in-depth guidelines for writing technical documentation.

At 5:04 PM , Blogger Marianne said...

You are all seriously picky. I never thought about the misplaced "only." I did use "whereas" (instead of while) in a report I am writing today though, so maybe I am learning.

At 9:22 PM , Blogger Ambivalent Academic said...

My pet peeves in science writing:
Subject-verb agreement concerning "data".
"Data" denotes plurality. "These data are...." not "this data is...."

Also, it drives me absolutely batshit crazy when scientists talk or write about "proving" something with their experiments.

"Proof" is for geometry and logic problems. As scientists we conduct experiments in order to accept or reject our null hypothesis. We never "prove" that our hypothesis is true or false.


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