Banished from science writing. Words, that is.

By Grant Jacobs 10/12/2009 9

Science writer Carl Zimmer has put up a permanent home for his list of words banned from good science writing.

A battle for wordsmiths. May well-crafted verbal claymores ring and shields hold true to the onslaught…

Among those banished from the pages of good science writing are:

  • ‘Holy Grail’. (What? No one true quest?)
  • ‘Paradigm shift’. (There’s altogether too much of this shifty business…)
  • ‘Seminal’. (Apart from self-aggrandisment it’s easily, er, misread as mislaid wild oats all that.)
  • ‘We’. (We must step down from the royal all-knowing ‘we’ to the ranks of common soldier.)
  • ‘Missing link’ really has to go. (Although I’m sure creationists will demand that it stays!)

Carl seems to be happy to take suggestions, so wander on over. You’re welcome to suggest some here too.

Bear in mind, though, that’s he talking about “writing about science, not doing or reporting science”.

I feel like suggesting, in jest, that he banish ‘antecedent’, which he uses to describe one of the banished words (‘This’). No doubt he’d excuse himself on the grounds that his list isn’t science writing!

Some other science journalism posts in Code for life:

Beautiful and informative data presentation

Science communication bookshelf: suggestions, thoughts?

Scientists on TV: referees of evidence or expert’s opinion?

Genetic tests and personalised medicine, some science communication issues

Note to science communicator: alleles, not “disease genes”

Three kinds of knowledge about science journalism

Science journalism: critical analysis not debate

Sidebar scientists

Scientists can’t write?

Book review: Victorian Popularizers of Science

9 Responses to “Banished from science writing. Words, that is.”

  • Great list, thanks for posting that link.
    I don’t know about “we” though – sometimes I would use that meaning “all of humankind” rather than just “us scientists”.

  • I agree and I think you’ve got a point. You need to make clear to readers who is meant by “we”.

    I’ve (accidentally) split on Carl on this. My mistake, but in my defence his own elaboration is confusing and he may have edited this since I wrote my post, as he is updating the list continuously.

    In the first part of his elaboration (“as in “We now know the fatality ratio of the current H1N1 influenza epidemic.””) I would have read ‘we’ as “us scientists”. His second part (“We includes your readers, most of whom don’t know–yet.”) clearly means “we” as in “everyone”, but is saying that’s illogical if they don’t know yet.

    I was thinking of the “royal we” as in “us scientists”, thinking that unless you’re careful that can come across as a bit condescending.

    I suspect an element to this is that Carl—excellent science writer that he is—doesn’t have a formal science background. He won’t be in the habit of referring to “we” as meaning “us scientists” as, er, we do! Perhaps he’s unconsciously built this into his use of this word?

    Perhaps a broader reason for avoiding it (i.e. use it if you must, but avoid it when you can), is that it’s ambiguous? It should be just as easy to write explicitly “scientists think that”, “most people think”.

    In fact this is one my own common traits in self-editing. Where I can spot them and feel comfortable about it, I try to eliminate potentially ambiguous pronouns and other generic references by replacing them with something specific if a specific thing is meant, e.g. I added ‘of his elaboration’ to the ‘the first part’ to make explicit what ‘part’ refers to. Nit-picky :-)

  • Perhaps not in “writing about science”, but in scientific reports I’ve always encouraged scientists to use “we” when appropriate.
    “We processed the samples” is much more readable than “the samples were processed”. And “It is considered . . .” means “We think”.

  • Hi David

    Related to your comment, I wrote briefly about the use of the active voice in the science literature in a crude survey I did a while back: On the use of the active voice by scientists.

    It is used, although there may be context to when it’s used.

    (Now you’ve had your first comment approved you should be able to comment without waiting for me to “approve” it.)

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