Style Matters

I was reading a reference recently and I noticed a sentence containing the word ‘responsible’ twice in the same sentence. I stopped reading and reached for the metaphorical red pen. It mattered not a whit in this context, but it certainly jarred on me and brought me up short. Using the same word twice (or more) in quick succession lacks style and should be discouraged. Such discouragement is what I would do when reading work from my students; hence the metaphorical red pen. Style in letters of reference is not particularly important, as long as the basic message gets across, but style in other bits of writing is of rather more significance. If someone is put off by careless punctuation, bad grammar and a lack of felicity in language use they may simply give up reading. If this is your thesis or the papers that emanate from it then you are unlikely to make much of an impact with your work and your citations may struggle.

When I was at primary school we were trained to tell an adjective from an adverb and a noun from a verb. Five years of Latin at my secondary school exposed me to more grammar than I ever learned in my English lessons. I was taken aback when learning the first declension to realise I had never before had to grapple with the difference between subject and object. As for verbs, I had had (pluperfect) no conception of all the different tenses that I was using (imperfect) in my writing. I am not saying I will have used (future perfect) all the possible tenses I could within this paragraph, but at least after a year or two of Latin I knew (past historic, as it is known in French) that they existed. Somewhere in there I suspect there was a subjunctive too.

Style does matter! One of the things I have most enjoyed since I started writing this blog is the ability to write in the first person using active verbs. It is a delight to get away from the standard scientific-paper-lingo of the passive third person, as in ‘It was shown that….’ . Such a phrase may be entirely clear but quite quickly becomes tedious. Passive verbs are no doubt intended to convey a suitable sense of gravitas and distance. Nothing too hot and hasty in such a style, nothing which suggests there is anything that hasn’t been weighed judiciously and suitable conclusions drawn. But it doesn’t make for thrilling reading.

When it comes to writing a thesis, though, there are many stylistic traps to fall into. Of course the worst failing of all is so to order things that their logic is unclear. Putting discussion before results is one such error that I have come across more than once. It is hard to follow pages detailing an interpretation of results as yet unseen. When the results do finally make an appearance my patience (or my brainpower) may have long since run out. If the writing itself is garbled in one way or another then the reader will be left confused. This problem is just as acute for a native English speaker as for an overseas student, in my experience.

There are many places to turn to for help. Pat Thomson operates # acwri (Academic Writing) and her blog (Patter) covers many important facets of the problem on a regular basis. More specifically for scientists, Susan Perkin has written some helpful notes for students challenged by their supervisors to write their first papers. In my view it is imperative that supervisors do let students loose on the act (or is it art?) of paper-writing, not do it oneself. If students are never allowed to try out their own scientific style how are they supposed to learn from their mistakes? If a student struggles with writing even after reading many papers from the literature, as surely they will have done, it doesn’t seem probable that reading their own results written up by their supervisor will suddenly make it transparently clear to them how such writing should be carried out. It is a case of practice makes perfect – or at least considerably better – and if it takes five or more drafts to achieve something approximately ready for submission the first time, it is to be hoped that next time around it will only be three. (I should add that supervisors may not themselves enjoy this iterative process.)

However, I think it is important to realise that there is no unique way to write a paper. By which I mean both that the way one plans the writing in advance may take various forms, ranging from bullet points to a list of figures to something totally pictorial by way of a flow chart; and also that there may be many ways in which to order the words, or to select between more or less florid ones, to convey the same clear message. It is the clarity that matters; style of language is secondary but often intimately tied up in that clarity.

I mentioned my own education at the beginning of this post because it does seem to me that current English education (and other parts of the UK may differ) does not put much of a premium on grammatical accuracy. I’ve had students express surprise when I correct grammar, spelling and punctuation. But these things really do matter. And they matter whether one intends to pursue an academic career or go into some other line of business. Everything we do is fundamentally about communication in some form or other. If we can’t express simply and clearly what we’ve done and what we intend to do next (as in proposal-writing) then we might as well be talking to ourselves. What’s the point – or indeed joy – in that? Whatever one may feel about that dreaded word ‘impact’, surely no one would say we should not share the outcomes of our research, even if only with the two other academic groups in the world who share the same interest.

So, students pull up your socks and accept that style matters! Supervisors – practice your own and make sure you pass on your knowledge to those who follow in your footsteps!



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8 Responses to Style Matters

  1. Thony C says:

    In the second paragraph ‘was using’ is not an imperfect. It is a past progressive. ;))

  2. Ah I knew I was asking for trouble when I claimed to know some grammar!

  3. Mark Field says:

    Even if you are appalled at seeing repeated words in a sentence, sometimes your own writing comes back to bite you in ways you hadn’t noticed on typing, but when you read it through it just sets your teeth on edge.

    I am currently writing a proposal for a new type of microwave phase shifter that operates using materials that undergo a first order phase change. The device is therefore a phase change phase shifter, which is entirely correct and awful at the same time. I can’t figure out a way round this as there are no obvious synonyms for either phrase. So far I have been reduced to separating “phase change” and “phase shifter” as far away from each other as possible. This sort of works in the main text, however I need to have both phrases in the title…

    As another example I originally typed “… separating the phrase phase change …” in the above sentence, and re-reading it caused my head to hurt. Time for a tea break here.

  4. Wences says:

    What I don’t like about this is that researchers who are not native English speakers will have always disadvantages compared to the native ones. We have to feel constantly the frustration of not being able to express ourselves to the wide scientific community as we would wish and as we do for our local circles. I am not saying that a ‘foreigner’ can not reach an admirable level of English (never the perfection) and make a big impact on his field by writing nice articles, but that the amount of effort and time that this needs to be achieved is very often ignored, even by the ‘evaluators’. That is something that all native English speakers should be aware of. They are really lucky that English has become the language of the world.

    In any case, I laughed a lot with this sentence:

    ‘I noticed a sentence containing the word ‘responsible’ twice in the same sentence.’


    • I agree. I feel ashamed by my inability to speak/write in any language other than my native tongue, a topic I have blogged about before. English-speakers do seem to have an unfair advantage in many scientific situations.

  5. Suzie S says:

    I’m reading Steven Pinker’s “the sense of style” on this topic which is another recommended read. I’m often shocked at how many scientists and academics have a very poor grasp on even rudimentary grammar or writing style. It’s a relief to work with people whom I can trust to string a coherent sentence together!

  6. Stephanie Zihms says:

    I have to disagree a little with the comment in regards to non-native English speakers – I find it an advantage – because it usually means things are written in easier, more plain English when e.g. explaining a concept. I understand that it might not come as easily and I remember my frustration when being told by my PhD supervisor that I write German-English – but my fellow (native English speaking) PhD researchers were normally told to write more precise…we all got better with practice