This Bean-Devouring Leprechaun

Over the past few days, I have reviewed a small mountain of student conference abstracts, as the deadlines for two conferences where we usually have a strong showing are approaching. This exercise has reminded me of some of my favorite technical writing slips.

— Don’t start a sentence with an abbreviation, i.e., don’t write “Eq. (3) can be simplified…” or “Fig. 5 shows the dependence…”  At the beginning of a sentence, always write out the full word instead, i.e., “Equation (3) can be simplified…” or “Figure 5 shows the dependence…”  Abbreviations are fine elsewhere.

— Compound adjectives need hyphens. For instance, is should be “a well-deserved honor” as opposed to “a well deserved honor.” However, “the honor was well deserved.” In both cases, “well” qualifes “deserved”, but in the first example both “well” and “deserved” together form a compound adjective that further qualifies “honor.”

— If hyphens start making you dizzy, such as in “the 5-nm-wide ribbon,” consider rephrasing, such as “the width of the ribbon is 5 nm”

— Commas are your friend. Commas make the world a better place. Love them, use them. 

— Don’t use “this” or “that” as subject in technical writing (it’s OK if writing casually), i.e.,  don’t write “We report that the leprechaun fart rate increases cubically with their bean consumption rate. This implies that leprechauns should be kept on a bean-light diet.” What does “this” refer to? The fascinating bean-fart relationship? One of the many nouns in the previous sentence? Something like “This dependence implies…”  would work. Maybe I should start adding “bean-devouring leprechaun” after “this” or “that” every time I catch this type of mistake.

A pot of gold… or a pot of beans?

—  Statements should be kept emotion-neutral, especially if they refer to the work of others. For instance, you can say that your approach is more accurate or has a wider range of applicability than the approach of Schmoe et at. , but don’t say things like “Our approach is vastly superior to that of Schmoe et al. because they only relied on this lowly old-fashioned approximation. ” Also, while it is wonderful that you are excited about your research, you can’t say things such as “Amazingly, we found that Schmoe et al. had it all wrong.”

— Don’t say “To the best of our knowledge, this has never been done before.” It’s just silly — it’s your duty to do the most comprehensive literature survey that you possibly can and then stand behind what you consider to be the state of the art. “To the best of our knowledge” implies to me that you might have slacked on lit review and are preemptively apologizing in case you missed something and the referee gets upset.

— Always write with an audience in mind. The readers are not inside your head; they don’t think about this problem of yours all the time like you do. What you think are the most fascinating aspects of your work may not, in fact, be the most important ones to emphasize, either broadly or to a specific audience. Leading with the motivation and insights that your audience will connect with is key to creating enthusiasm about your work.


  1. I like your rules of language. We need more professors who take writing so seriously. It’s called good mentoring.

    Would you believe that one of my colleagues laughed when he learned that I actually make notes about grammar and word usage on undergrad papers? It’s too much work for him, and we’re STEM faculty so he doesn’t see why we should assign and grade writing. Of course, I have a better track record than him on job placement. Maybe there’s a lesson here…

  2. This seems like a stereotypically British thing to say, but ‘to the best of my knowledge’ is ACCURATE. I don’t know FOR SURE… and it seems arrogant to claim otherwise. I’d look for some kind of alternative phrasing which would avoid either position…

    ‘Commas are your friends’, yes, but they are not confetti, to be scattered willy-nilly throughout your text (I’ve been grading lately. Commas and to a lesser extent semi-colons really do seem to be randomly applied by some students).

  3. I think that “to the best of my knowledge” is sort of implied in any research article where the writers have done their due diligence. Whether the implicit should be made explicit is a matter of style. The fact that GMP works to inculcate a style in her students is more important than the specifics of the style.

    As to commas, my recollection is that Back In The Day, When I Was Their Age, commas were over-used, and our teachers tried to eradicate over-use. I think they succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. I now see too much under-use of commas, and I have to instill the habit of using commas.

    No doubt a day will come when I have to teach students to use fewer commas rather than more.

  4. JaneB, perhaps it is a bit of a UK/US style difference. For instance, let’s say the new thing in the paper is that the authors do X. I don’t see a problem with just saying “The novel thing in this paper is X” in paragraph 4 of the introduction. The authors surveyed the literature, put their work in context, and they presented how they view where the state of the art is and what the open problems are in paragraphs 1-3 preceding the statement. So we have information on where the authors’ knowledge stands and the referees will most definitely judge whether it’s comprehensive or not; I don’t see a need to make a somewhat self-deprecating disclaimer.

  5. Alex – it was a bad comment on my part, it should have begun “thank heavens someone IS trying to teach students to write well, and all of those are good rules” – as a referee I see too many awful papers with the PI as an author when I know that at least the PI and depressingly often the whole group have No Excuse for bad writing – if an author list are all not-first-language speakers at non-English-speaking institutions, or if the only native speaker is a specialist who clearly contributed to the paper by running a shiny machine or similar and isn’t first or last author, I will happily double or triple my refereeing time to suggest ways to fix their English at a line by line level (I regard this as a fair price to pay for not having to write science in a language not my own).

    Instead, it was a quick “Yes, and…” rattled off before the morning had really got going – apologies!

    xykademiqz, I think it’s both a UK/US thing and a field thing – I work at the muddy end of STEM in most senses of the word, where there is more arm-waving than the physics-y end, less control over our experimental set-ups and in general a lot more both caution about our limitations AND arrogant persons who claim to certainty and gut instinct that the world works they way THEY think it does, even when the evidence is very thin. I can say with some confidence that the language of both groups is somewhat different to the hard physical sciences’ writing style, as I went to university intending to be a physicist and although my specialism drifted over my higher ed, my friends’ didn’t, and I’ve read chunks of their work as well as continuing to read bits that relate distantly to my current work (and are totally avoided by people who trained down this end of the discipline, for some reason they think maths is scary… poor benighted dears).

    And now I wrote a long vague END of day comment. Apologies!

  6. All great writing advice! Using ‘this’ or ‘that’ as subject is one of the things that irks me most about student writing.

  7. @EarthSciProf, The problem is not having “this” or “that” in the subject position, but using them as pronouns. Restricting students to using them as articles instead of pronouns improves student writing enormously. While it is grammatically correct to use “this” and “that” as pronouns, the usage results in vague references. I also try to get them to remove antecedent-less “it” from their writing.

    For example, in the previous paragraph, I would suggest changing the third sentence to “Using ‘this’ or ‘that’ as pronouns is grammatically correct, but the usage results in vague references.”

  8. Well, if you want to be pedantic, “this” and “that” can act as either demonstrative adjectives or demonstrative pronouns. The latter use is meant for when we are indicating proximity (“this is my candy bar, that one is yours”), possession or attribution for that/those (“my candy bar has nuts, but that of gasstationwithoutpumps is nut-free”); if they act as demonstrative pronouns they can stand alone. The problem with much student writing is that the students employ this/that as a pronoun but not a demonstrative one, when it really needs to be employed as a demonstrative adjective and requires a noun; obviously, such misuse results in vagary.

  9. @xykademiqz, I agree with your statement—I just didn’t want to introduce the technical terms “demonstrative adjective” and “demonstrative pronoun”. There are certainly times when “this”, “that”, and “those” can stand alone, but in technical writing is is better to avoid those constructions.

  10. Yes, @xykademiqz and @gasstations, you’re absolutely right ‘this’ and ‘that’ aren’t inherently problematic. The problem is when usage of those words makes writing vague and unclear, kind of like my post. Thanks for throwing out the grammar terms ‘demonstrative article/pronoun’. Good to know those terms for future comments on student writing.

    @gasstations, ‘it’ without an antecedent is another good writing ‘foul’ to flag in technical writing.

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