July 27, 2010

Scientific Grammar

Scientific writing is sometimes hard to read because of bad grammar, even more than because of strange abbreviations and technical terminology. This is sadly expected in journal articles, even though clear writing will make it more likely that someone will read far enough through your research to use it and cite it. It is also the reason that so many whitepapers are written by non-experts. The sponsoring organization wants people to read them, not fear them.

"The Science of Scientific Writing" (Gopen and Swan, American Scientist, Nov-Dec 1990) is an article that does a great job at documenting these problems and showing how to fix them. The article stresses a simple pattern: start with the familiar: end with the new. As they put it:

"In our experience, the misplacement of old and new information turns out to be the No. 1 problem in American professional writing today."

Gopen and Swan back their thesis up with "worked examples." Taking passages from published articles, they show how to revise them for clarity.

The article ends with seven rules to summarize what they have found. I am putting the rules here to remind me of them, and to entice the reader unfamiliar with them, to visit the original article and learn what they are reminders for.
  1. Follow a grammatical subject as soon as possible with its verb.
  2. Place in the stress position the "new information" you want the reader to emphasize.
  3. Place the person or thing whose "story" a sentence is telling at the beginning of the sentence, in the topic position.
  4. Place appropriate "old information" (material already stated in the discourse) in the topic position for linkage backward and contextualization forward.
  5. Articulate the action of every clause or sentence in its verb.
  6. In general, provide context for your reader before asking that reader to consider anything new.
  7. In general, try to ensure that the relative emphases of the substance coincide with the relative expectations for emphasis raised by the structure.
This article won't replace "The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White, but it is a useful addendum for the scientific writer.

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