Top Ten Phrases to Avoid in Scientific WritingAlyssa Colton, Ph.D. | 2016-10-24
When writing your scientific paper, it might be tempting to use phrases and terms that “sound good.” However, ultimately, some of this language ends up being unnecessary and, even worse, can obscure your meaning and lose your reader. William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, defines “clutter” as any language that is unnecessary to convey meaning. One of the top rules for good English writing is to avoid clutter at all costs, and this is exactly what we want to look for in our own work.
To eliminate clutter, it’s good to be aware of the list of overused phrases that interfere with clear writing. In some cases, these phrases are simply annoying because of overuse. In other cases, the phrases are repeatedly used in ways that are incorrect or misleading, or they are simply unnecessary. By cutting out the clutter, you’ll be sure to get your message through to your reader, whether it’s a colleague in your field, your professor (if you are a student), or a journal editor.
The types of words and phrases to watch out for can be divided into three categories: wordiness, redundant or imprecise terms, and clichés.
Try to revise your writing to keep only those words and phrases that are necessary.
1. Due to the fact of/that…
“Because” can usually be used instead of this wordy phrase.
Example: Due to the fact that more people are hiking in the Adirondacks, there have been more bear encounters.
Revision: Because more people are hiking in the Adirondacks, there have been more bear encounters.
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2. It should be noted that…
Example: It should be noted that there were only 15 subjects in the study.
Revision: The study consisted of 15 subjects.
3. In consequence of this fact…
Example: In consequence of this fact, we really do not know how much of an impact daily exercise has on a person’s BMI.
Revision: Because of unreliable reporting and other factors, we really do not know how much of an impact daily exercise has on a person’s BMI.
4. It’s worth mentioning/it’s worth considering…
Example: It’s worth considering whether the recent storm patterns are connected to glacier melt.
Revision: Recent storm patterns may be connected to glacier melt.
5. Further research is needed…
Example: Further research is needed to determine how extensive the damage to the intestinal wall is.
Revision: Future studies will gauge the extent to which intestinal walls are damaged.
6. In this essay/paper/study, we will…
Generally, there is no need to announce what you will do. See what happens when you leave it out. Sometimes, however, this kind of metanarrative can be helpful in guiding your reader.
Imprecise and redundant terms
These are terms that are either redundant or are not quite correct. Imprecise terms may be colloquialisms, which have no place in scientific manuscripts.
7. End result
This phrase is redundant. In most cases, you can simply use “result” or “results.”
Example: The end result of more run-off is higher levels of bacteria in the water.
Revision: Higher levels of bacteria are caused by increased run-off.
8. On average
This is an imprecise term and should be avoided.
Example: Our results demonstrated that, on average, birds returned to the nest X number of times.
Revision: According to our results, birds returned to the nest an average number of X times.
Clichés are phrases that at one time may have been fresh and novel, but they’ve been used so many times that they have lost their impact. There are many, but here are two that will likely be spotted by journal editors.
9. Sheds light
This phrase is typically used in journal cover letters or abstracts.
Example: This research sheds light on why monkeys engage in these behaviors.
Revision: This research suggests some reasons why monkeys engage in these behaviors.
Alternatively, if your study produced convincing results, try this version:
Revision: This research determined why monkeys engage in these behaviors.
10. Paradigm shift
There are so many instances of science writers announcing a “paradigm shift” that this phrase has become virtually meaningless. It’s better to be more precise about what changed, if possible.
Example: Donaldson’s experiments resulted in a paradigm shift in current thought.
Revision: Donaldson’s experiments have had some influence on current thinking.
Although there are many more phrases that could be avoided in scientific writing, the ten phrases listed above are some of the most common. A good way to improve your writing is to proofread or edit your paper or essay with this list of phrases close by.
Be ruthless about cutting out what’s unnecessary and overused, and your ideas will be stronger and clearer!
Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. 30th Anniversary Edition. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.
About the Author:
Dr. Alyssa Colton has a Ph.D. in English from the University at Albany, State University of New York (SUNY). She has taught and worked with students of all levels and backgrounds on writing skills for 20 years. She is a freelance writer and editor specializing in science, health, productivity and career development.
Topics : Scientific Writing