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Avoiding verbiage in scientific writing.

Francis Bacon, the so-called "father of modern science,"chastised those who, in the Renaissance tradition of flowery writing, were lead to"hunt more after words than matter." On behalf of the Royal Society, Thomas Sprat later reiterated Bacon's criticism: "Of all the Studies of men, nothing may be sooner obtain'd than this vicious abundance of Phrase, this trick of Metaphors, this volubility of Tongue, which makes so great a noise in the World." The current demand for simplicity, clarity, directness, and conciseness in scientific writing is rooted in Sprat's call for a "mathematical plainness," i.e., for presenting "so many things, almost in an equal number of words." As Cornell biologist Antoinette M. Wilkinson notes: "Wordiness, whether through redundancy, tautology, or circumlocution, obstructs the clear presentation of the research findings and concepts, and wastes the reader's time." I will discuss a few examples of such verbiage and suggest ways to revise in favor of conciseness and coherence.


Repetition is sometimes useful for emphasis, and in a book or a long report it can be used to remind readers of material covered earlier; however, in scientific papers it is not appropriate and should be avoided. Here is an example of unnecessary repetition: "DeKalb (1987) reported that solutions applied to nonsterile river mud lost 20% of their effectiveness after 5 hr, 35% of their effectiveness after 20 hr and 70% of their effectiveness after 5 days."

A second kind of repetition is when the same idea or information is presented in different parts of the paper:

* The final section of the paper briefly considers the research implications of the present typology and the underlying assumption about choice and organizational behavior. |in introduction~

* Figure 2 presents some interesting research implications of the typology presented in this paper. The figure also suggests the issues or problems ... |in results~

Similarly, authors should avoid stating the results twice--i.e., in both the results and the discussion section (which is usually within a page or two).

Another form of needless repetition is the restatement--with some minor addition, omission, or modification--of an idea or point in a preceding sentence, as illustrated in the following pairs of sentences:

* In most studies of innovation, different categories of innovations are not distinguished. All possible innovations are usually included in one category.

* If society owes members freedom from a particular harm, it follows that each organization has an obligation to avoid inflicting the harm on any participant. The wrongfulness of harms in society seems logically to imply their wrongfulness in every substructure of society,

A final example of a tautology is when one statement is basically the same as the other, except that one is phrased positively and the other negatively: "These findings suggest that the results obtained here are in fact authentic;they are not simply artifacts."

Redundant words and phrases

One must also be watchful for redundant words and phrases, as in "experienced primiparous ewes,""smaller in size," "at this moment in time," and "bright green in color?" Here are other examples of redundancies (with unneeded words in parentheses):

* (repeated) daily injections

* (female) ovary

* filled (to capacity)

* (voltage of) 3 V

* years (of age)

* two (equal) halves

* (percentage of) 3.4%

* (definitely) proved


Another result of wordiness within a sentence is circumlocution, i.e., using too many words to express an idea or stating your point in an indirect or roundabout manner: "This is because of the fact that the Greenhouse Effect may cause a gradual rise in the water table along the Pacific coast." "After this was done |then~, we undertook a study of |studied~ the change in apical cell proliferation during the time that |when~ potassium nitrate was not administered." Below are other examples of circumlocution (with revision in parentheses):

* length of time (longer)

* are found to be in agreement with (agree)

* conduct an investigation into (investigate)

* it is apparent therefore that (hence)

* of a reversible nature (reversible)

* make an adjustment to (adjust)

* on two separate occasions (twice)

* take into consideration (consider)

Circumlocution may be due to a number of reasons. A writer may feel that restatement in longer words constitutes explanation. Affectation, or a studied avoidance of simplicity may be the cause, based on a belief that long words and elaborate sentences appear learned. Yet another reason may be the failure to consider the difference between speech and writing, the latter not requiring restatement, repetition for emphasis, or a given conversational verbosity.

Useless words

As in circumlocution, sometimes authors use clusters of words which are entirely superfluous and expendable: "In the present paper, the authors show that osteosclerosis rates correlate strongly with water fluoridation." Another example is: "The paper concludes with a summary of the evidence indicating that calchicene may be, under carefully limited circumstances, an effective agent against infections caused by gram-negative organisms." This sentence is weakened further by the qualifiers "may be" and (unstated) "carefully limited circumstances." Or, "It is interesting to note that the water samples taken from the extreme southern site were virtually uncontaminated ."

Checking for verbosity

In closing, George Orwell's recommendations for clear and precise language apply equally well to authors who wish to convey technical information concisely, directly, and coherently:

* Be positive; in particular, avoid double negatives, e.g., "not unlikely" (possible) and "not unjustifiable."

* Wordiness also refers to word length; do not use a long word where a short one will do--e.g., "visit" versus "visitation," "orient" versus "orientate," and "use" versus "utilize ."

* If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out--e.g., to "conduct" versus to "carry out" experiments, or instead of "in conjunction with" just write "with."

* Where possible, use active constructions instead of passive ones, which usually are wordier and less clear.

While a scientific paper need not express complex information in lay terms, the information ought not be made more complex than it is. If simplicity is an outward sign of clarity of thought, wordiness is a means by which a writer obstructs or even conceals meaning, thereby doing an injustice to both the materials and the reader.

Robert Goldbort. Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of English, Indiana State University, Terre Haute, IN 47809.
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Author:Goldbort, Robert
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Date:May 1, 1993
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