5 Essential Grammar Tips for Scientists

I frequently edit scientific documents for colleagues and clients, and I tend to see a lot of the same grammatical errors repeated by all. Here’s a quick list of the top 10 most common mistakes, and how to correct them yourself!

5. utilize vs. use – Perhaps this could be filed under “style” rather than “grammar,” but it’s a mistake I will always correct in a document that I’m editing. A scientist should always strive to use the most simple language possible, in order to dazzle your reader with data instead of distracting them with fancy vocabulary.

We utilized a high-throughput approach to identify candidate genes.

We utilized used a high-throughput approach to identify candidate genes.

4. Leaving a space between a quantity and its unit – This is often an easy mistake to make, so it’s worth checking over your document for every instance to ensure you have proper spacing. One trick I use is to set Microsoft Word so that it places a tiny dot in every space (click link for instructions on how to do this).

A volume of 5mL was applied to the column.

A volume of 5mL 5 mL was applied to the column.

3. Using the correct verb tense – Most science is written in the past or the present tense, but it can be difficult to know which of those two is appropriate for a given sentence. You should always avoid using perfect tenses in science writing (preceding a verb with “has” or “have”). Here’s a quick breakdown of when to use a particular tense:

Established knowledge – use present tense

The ribosome is composed of two subunits.

Presentation – use present tense

Table 1 shows all data collected during the experiment.

Methods and results – use past tense

Immunoprecipitations were performed according to the protocol from Smith et al.

Attribution – use past tense

Smith et al. (2003) demonstrated that the enzyme activity decreased.

2. Using apostrophes – No matter what, you should avoid using apostrophes in scientific writing. Apostrophes used in contractions and those indicating possession are considered too conversational, and distract from the impact of your message.

The experiment wasn’t able to definitively show the binding between the two proteins.

The experiment wasn’t was not able to definitively show the binding between the two proteins.

The mouse’s feet were probed for sensation.

The mouse’s feet feet of the mouse were probed for sensation.

1. Capitalizing “western” or “northern” blot – Yes, this is the number-one mistake I see in scientific writing! Believe it or not, only “Southen” blot should be capitalized, as it is actually a proper noun. The technique of Southern blotting was named after it’s inventor, Edwin Southern, but western and northern blotting (which were pioneered later) were simply named to play off of Southern’s last name.

Samples were analyzed by Western blot to determine the level of the protein.

Samples were analyzed by Western western blot to determine the level of the protein.

I hope this list is helpful to any scientists out there who need a little boost to their grammar. Do you have any grammatical pet peeves in scientific writing?

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