Why English Verbs Should Not Be Split and Other Writing Tips
English is a notoriously difficult language to use correctly, more so to use elegantly, and verbs are among the most troublesome aspects of English to negotiate. Care must be taken when deciding upon the tense of a verb to ensure that the temporal message it communicates accurately reflects the reality reported, that it is consistent with other verbs expressing similar temporal messages and that the tense used changes according to the nature of the content. Because the infinitive of verbs is compound in English – ‘to write’, ‘to publish’ and so on – it is essential that the individual components are not separated from each other by other words. When they are, as in ‘to successfully publish’, the result is called a ‘split infinitive’, and although some might argue that split infinitives are now acceptable, they are not a feature of scholarly English prose and should be avoided: ‘to publish successfully’ is the correct structure. The passive voice (‘the problem was investigated’) can also present problems because it tends to be less precise than the active voice (‘we investigated’). A misconception that the passive voice is a scholarly voice leads some authors to use passive constructions in abstracts in particular, but precision achieved via the use of as few words as possible is especially important in the abstract of a paper; therefore, some journal guidelines request that the passive voice be avoided in abstracts, and it is best kept to a minimum throughout an academic or scientific article. Contractions (‘didn’t’, ‘wasn’t’ and so on) are informal and should be entirely avoided in scholarly prose.
The Careful Use of Vocabulary, Specialised Terminology and Jargon
The vocabulary used in a scholarly paper should be chosen with care. Variety is important for retaining the reader’s interest, but precision and consistency are essential in reporting results and presenting an argument effectively, so a balance must be struck with the scales always tipped slightly toward clear communication. Specialised terminology is often necessary, but it should be used in accordance with the specialisation of the relevant journal and its readers, explained thoroughly whenever there is doubt about the audience’s familiarity with it and neither overused nor used as a substitute for sound argumentation. The best scholarly writing demonstrates not only proficiency in using specialised terminology, but also a deep understanding of the ideas behind that terminology, and it explains those ideas to its readers while taking them (both ideas and readers) in new directions. Closely related to specialised terminology is the jargon peculiar to a profession or field of study. Such jargon usually includes specialised vocabulary, but also tends to use convoluted syntax or awkward word order. The fact that the word ‘jargon’ is often defined in dictionaries as ‘meaningless writing’, ‘vague language’ or ‘gibberish’ can be a helpful reminder that jargon-rich writing intended to be learned and impressive can in practice prove unintelligible (or very nearly so) to readers and should in most cases be avoided.
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If you are in the process of preparing an article for an academic or scientific journal, or planning one for the near future, you may well be interested in a new book, Guide to Journal Publication, which is available on our Tips and Advice on Publishing Research in Journals website.