By Sarah-Jane O'Connor 05/02/2020

I’m about to start teaching science communication to tertiary students, which is equally hilarious and terrifying to me.

(Hi to my students who have Googled me and found this post.)

loved English at high school, but we spent most of our time reading The Outsiders, discussing the differences between metaphors and similes, and pondering the thematic meaning of King Lear.

But what we didn’t learn, was grammar.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard from other people my (undisclosed) age that we seem to have been caught in a period where the focus wasn’t on grammar. So I could talk about the themes in To Kill a Mockingbird and understand the cultural reference “Steeeelllllaaaaa!”, but beyond that, I was stumped*.

As a science writer – soon to be teacher of science communication – I’m mortified to admit that it wasn’t until mid-way through my university career that I figured out the difference between its and it’s. I hang my head in shame.

This is how it went: as I started my PhD I signed up for a free course through the university library on writing and grammar. I distinctly recall asking the tutor: “oh, so the grammar checker on Word actually works?”

[Side note: if you are a postgraduate student and your university offers free courses to get better at writing, referencing etc take them!]

For years I had been turning the Word grammar checker off because I didn’t understand what it was trying to tell me. Passive voice? Pfft, I’m a scientist, the passive voice is where I live**.

Suddenly I realised: I didn’t have a handle on grammar. I remembered back to when a former flatmate of mine – from America – teased me about not knowing the difference between ‘bought’ and ‘brought’. If there’s one benefit from my general anxiety about getting things wrong, it’s that once I realised I didn’t understand grammar, I worked really hard to improve.

Over the next few years, I worked on my writing, which culminated in me writing my PhD thesis methods in *gasp* active voice. That is, I wrote things like “I measured…” or “we counted…”. My thesis examiners didn’t care and I’ve felt smug ever since.

Since then I’ve worked for a newspaper – and though there are fewer sub-editors than in the past, you’ll still get finger-wagging emails correcting your gaffes – and spent many years with the Science Media Centre writing science-related news, editing expert comments and our very own Sciblogs.

So I thought this would be a good opportunity to highlight some common mistakes I’ve noticed over the years.

Subject-verb agreement

This one sucks because it’s one of the harshest ways we differ in spoken and written English.

If you’re talking to a mate about how the Government has messed something up, you’re likely to use ‘they’. But when it comes to government, political parties, businesses and other institutes – they are actually ‘it’.

So: The Government has decided to …

Company X will adopt this new technology …

It doesn’t always come naturally, but getting your head around subjects and their related verbs can really cut down the effort needed on the part of an editor further down the track. This is particularly important if you are sending a piece of writing off for potential submission to a media outlet or other publisher: when I receive a draft piece of writing my heart will instantly sink if I can see there is a lot of editing required. The more you can get right in the first instance, the better received your writing will be by an editor.

Oh, and data = plural, datum = singular.

You don’t need that many commas

If there’s something I’ve noticed about sub-editing academics’ writing, it’s that they’re all obsessed with commas. They are not needed as often as you think and one of the best resources I’ve found for this problem is Grammarly. Not only will Grammarly pick up subject-verb errors (see above), it often notices when you should have a comma, and when you can afford to get rid of one.

I believe the key reason this comes up as an issue in science writing is that we’ve been trained to justify ourselves. So we make lots of side notes and addendums to justify why we’re confident saying the thing we just said. Use footnotes/citations, hyperlinks, brackets, en-dashes: but in my humble opinion; save commas for when you need them for sentence structure, not for side thoughts.

‘Strong verbs, short sentences’

I picked up this phrase from Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History, where he quotes Dr Bernadine Healy. I couldn’t agree more. Science writing would be so much stronger if we embraced the use of active verbs.

Because we’ve been taught to write in passive voice – ‘the temperature condition was changed [by some unnamed force]’ – we immediately play down the role of verbs. But in life, things are DONE. Please tell us who is doing it.

I also have a theory – with no proof to back it up – that this dispassionate use of passive voice plays into how we see scientists. I’m concerned that science is seen as some magical thing done by anonymous fairies, and I think this is very dangerous to our efforts to ensure science is seen as the diverse environment is it. This dispassionate passive voice risks a continued erasure of the work of diverse scientists. Let’s say who they are and recognise their work for what it is. Science isn’t abstract, it’s done by people.

If you don’t know what passive voice is, or you’ve spent so long writing in it you can’t break out of it, I recommend The Hemingway App. You can chuck some text in – no log in required – and it will flag passive voice, subject-verb disagreement, jargon and long sentences.

The biggest bonus of active voice, in my experience, is that you can drastically cut word count. Struggling to get your conference abstract under 100 words? Use active voice. You can often spot passive voice through phrases like ‘have been’ or ‘will be investigated’. Why wouldn’t you want to cull out unnecessary words?

And finally, I love a good verb. Dig out a thesaurus and try out some new ways of describing the work you do every day. A picture may paint a thousand words but that doesn’t mean that we can’t find words that paint a beautiful picture. Plus, short sentences are punchy.

(See what I just did there?)

I could go on, but let’s leave it open to questions about what you’d like me to touch on next. This has been rather cathartic if only to prove to myself that I do, in fact, know a wee bit about writing for science, so I’m up for a challenge.


*These are good things to know, I’m not picking on the 2000-2002 English curriculum. It just seems a bit incomplete, in hindsight.

**I’m still not great at identifying passive voice, I kind of know it when I see it. That’s where the tools listed above really help.

0 Responses to “Grammar for scientists”

  • Thank you Sarah-Jane! I can wholeheartedly recommend the work of Prof Helen Sword of the University of Auckland:
    She’s also given some very entertaining TED talks on lively and interesting academic writing.

    • Thanks for reading, Lisa. I think you missed the point this is a blog, not a lecture.

  • I understand the genre, Sarah-Jane- I am just trying to engage with your ideas and provide you with a really good resource that will hopefully encourage you to engage with some of the more complex material in this field.

  • Nice article, looking forward to the sequels. I think I was even later to “its/it’s” than you. I wrote a whole PhD thesis on boundary layer seperation (sic). For a minute there I thought you meant The Outsider (Wilson), not the The Outsiders (Hinton) and I was thinking, “What school was that?!” Can I reserve my judgement on commas?

    • Ha, yes Robert – you can reserve your judgement and absolutely disagree with me. I’d never heard of The Outsider. Do you recommend it?