Write Like a Scientist

A Guide to Scientific Communication

What is scientific writing ?

Scientific writing is a technical form of writing that is designed to communicate scientific information to other scientists. Depending on the specific scientific genre—a journal article, a scientific poster, or a research proposal, for example—some aspects of the writing may change, such as its  purpose , audience , or organization . Many aspects of scientific writing, however, vary little across these writing genres. Important hallmarks of all scientific writing are summarized below. Genre-specific information is located  here  and under the “By Genre” tab at the top of the page.

What are some important hallmarks of professional scientific writing?

1. Its primary audience is other scientists. Because of its intended audience, student-oriented or general-audience details, definitions, and explanations — which are often necessary in lab manuals or reports — are not terribly useful. Explaining general-knowledge concepts or how routine procedures were performed actually tends to obstruct clarity, make the writing wordy, and detract from its professional tone.

2. It is concise and precise . A goal of scientific writing is to communicate scientific information clearly and concisely. Flowery, ambiguous, wordy, and redundant language run counter to the purpose of the writing.

3. It must be set within the context of other published work. Because science builds on and corrects itself over time, scientific writing must be situated in and  reference the findings of previous work . This context serves variously as motivation for new work being proposed or the paper being written, as points of departure or congruence for new findings and interpretations, and as evidence of the authors’ knowledge and expertise in the field.

All of the information under “The Essentials” tab is intended to help you to build your knowledge and skills as a scientific writer regardless of the scientific discipline you are studying or the specific assignment you might be working on. In addition to discussions of audience and purpose , professional conventions like conciseness and specificity, and how to find and use literature references appropriately, we also provide guidelines for how to organize your writing and how to avoid some common mechanical errors .

If you’re new to this site or to professional scientific writing, we recommend navigating the sub-sections under “The Essentials” tab in the order they’re provided. Once you’ve covered these essentials, you might find information on  genre-  or discipline-specific writing useful.

American Scientist

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The Science of Scientific Writing

By george gopen , judith swan.

If the reader is to grasp what the writer means, the writer must understand what the reader needs.

January 1, 2018

The long view communications.

This article was originally published in the November-December 1990 issue of American Scientist.

Science is often hard to read. Most people assume that its difficulties are born out of necessity, out of the extreme complexity of scientific concepts, data and analysis. We argue here that complexity of thought need not lead to impenetrability of expression; we demonstrate a number of rhetorical principles that can produce clarity in communication without oversimplifying scientific issues. The results are substantive, not merely cosmetic: Improving the quality of writing actually improves the quality of thought.

The fundamental purpose of scientific discourse is not the mere presentation of information and thought, but rather its actual communication. It does not matter how pleased an author might be to have converted all the right data into sentences and paragraphs; it matters only whether a large majority of the reading audience accurately perceives what the author had in mind. Therefore, in order to understand how best to improve writing, we would do well to understand better how readers go about reading. Such an understanding has recently become available through work done in the fields of rhetoric, linguistics and cognitive psychology. It has helped to produce a methodology based on the concept of reader expectations.

Writing with the Reader in Mind: Expectation and Context

Readers do not simply read; they interpret. Any piece of prose, no matter how short, may "mean" in 10 (or more) different ways to 10 different readers. This methodology of reader expectations is founded on the recognition that readers make many of their most important interpretive decisions about the substance of prose based on clues they receive from its structure.

This interplay between substance and structure can be demonstrated by something as basic as a simple table. Let us say that in tracking the temperature of a liquid over a period of time, an investigator takes measurements every three minutes and records a list of temperatures. Those data could be presented by a number of written structures. Here are two possibilities:

t(time)=15', T(temperature)=32º, t=0', T=25º; t=6', T=29º; t=3', T=27º; t=12', T=32º; t=9'; T=31º

Precisely the same information appears in both formats, yet most readers find the second easier to interpret. It may be that the very familiarity of the tabular structure makes it easier to use. But, more significantly, the structure of the second table provides the reader with an easily perceived context (time) in which the significant piece of information (temperature) can be interpreted. The contextual material appears on the left in a pattern that produces an expectation of regularity; the interesting results appear on the right in a less obvious pattern, the discovery of which is the point of the table.

If the two sides of this simple table are reversed, it becomes much harder to read.

Since we read from left to right, we prefer the context on the left, where it can more effectively familiarize the reader. We prefer the new, important information on the right, since its job is to intrigue the reader.

Information is interpreted more easily and more uniformly if it is placed where most readers expect to find it. These needs and expectations of readers affect the interpretation not only of tables and illustrations but also of prose itself. Readers have relatively fixed expectations about where in the structure of prose they will encounter particular items of its substance. If writers can become consciously aware of these locations, they can better control the degrees of recognition and emphasis a reader will give to the various pieces of information being presented. Good writers are intuitively aware of these expectations; that is why their prose has what we call "shape."

This underlying concept of reader expectation is perhaps most immediately evident at the level of the largest units of discourse. (A unit of discourse is defined as anything with a beginning and an end: a clause, a sentence, a section, an article, etc.) A research article, for example, is generally divided into recognizable sections, sometimes labeled Introduction, Experimental Methods, Results and Discussion. When the sections are confused—when too much experimental detail is found in the Results section, or when discussion and results intermingle—readers are often equally confused. In smaller units of discourse the functional divisions are not so explicitly labeled, but readers have definite expectations all the same, and they search for certain information in particular places. If these structural expectations are continually violated, readers are forced to divert energy from understanding the content of a passage to unraveling its structure. As the complexity of the context increases moderately, the possibility of misinterpretation or noninterpretation increases dramatically.

We present here some results of applying this methodology to research reports in the scientific literature. We have taken several passages from research articles (either published or accepted for publication) and have suggested ways of rewriting them by applying principles derived from the study of reader expectations. We have not sought to transform the passages into "plain English" for the use of the general public; we have neither decreased the jargon nor diluted the science. We have striven not for simplification but for clarification.

Reader Expectations for the Structure of Prose

Here is our first example of scientific prose, in its original form:

The smallest of the URF's (URFA6L), a 207-nucleotide (nt) reading frame overlapping out of phase the NH 2 -terminal portion of the adenosinetriphosphatase (ATPase) subunit 6 gene has been identified as the animal equivalent of the recently discovered yeast H + -ATPase subunit 8 gene. The functional significance of the other URF's has been, on the contrary, elusive. Recently, however, immunoprecipitation experiments with antibodies to purified, rotenone-sensitive NADH-ubiquinone oxido-reductase [hereafter referred to as respiratory chain NADH dehydrogenase or complex I] from bovine heart, as well as enzyme fractionation studies, have indicated that six human URF's (that is, URF1, URF2, URF3, URF4, URF4L, and URF5, hereafter referred to as ND1, ND2, ND3, ND4, ND4L, and ND5) encode subunits of complex I. This is a large complex that also contains many subunits synthesized in the cytoplasm.*

[*The full paragraph includes one more sentence: "Support for such functional identification of the URF products has come from the finding that the purified rotenone-sensitive NADH dehydrogenase from Neurospora crassa contains several subunits synthesized within the mitochondria, and from the observation that the stopper mutant of Neurospora crassa , whose mtDNA lacks two genes homologous to URF2 and URF3, has no functional complex I." We have omitted this sentence both because the passage is long enough as is and because it raises no additional structural issues.]

Ask any ten people why this paragraph is hard to read, and nine are sure to mention the technical vocabulary; several will also suggest that it requires specialized background knowledge. Those problems turn out to be only a small part of the difficulty. Here is the passage again, with the difficult words temporarily lifted:

The smallest of the URF's, and [A], has been identified as a [B] subunit 8 gene. The functional significance of the other URF's has been, on the contrary, elusive. Recently, however, [C] experiments, as well as [D] studies, have indicated that six human URF's [1-6] encode subunits of Complex I. This is a large complex that also contains many subunits synthesized in the cytoplasm.

It may now be easier to survive the journey through the prose, but the passage is still difficult. Any number of questions present themselves: What has the first sentence of the passage to do with the last sentence? Does the third sentence contradict what we have been told in the second sentence? Is the functional significance of URF's still "elusive"? Will this passage lead us to further discussion about URF's, or about Complex I, or both?

Information is interpreted more easily and more uniformly if it is placed where most readers expect to find it.

Knowing a little about the subject matter does not clear up all the confusion. The intended audience of this passage would probably possess at least two items of essential technical information: first, "URF" stands for "Uninterrupted Reading Frame," which describes a segment of DNA organized in such a way that it could encode a protein, although no such protein product has yet been identified; second, both APTase and NADH oxido-reductase are enzyme complexes central to energy metabolism. Although this information may provide some sense of comfort, it does little to answer the interpretive questions that need answering. It seems the reader is hindered by more than just the scientific jargon.

To get at the problem, we need to articulate something about how readers go about reading. We proceed to the first of several reader expectations.

Subject-Verb Separation

Look again at the first sentence of the passage cited above. It is relatively long, 42 words; but that turns out not to be the main cause of its burdensome complexity. Long sentences need not be difficult to read; they are only difficult to write. We have seen sentences of over 100 words that flow easily and persuasively toward their clearly demarcated destination. Those well-wrought serpents all had something in common: Their structure presented information to readers in the order the readers needed and expected it.

Beginning with the exciting material and ending with a lack of luster often leaves us disappointed and destroys our sense of momentum.

The first sentence of our example passage does just the opposite: it burdens and obstructs the reader, because of an all-too-common structural defect. Note that the grammatical subject ("the smallest") is separated from its verb ("has been identified") by 23 words, more than half the sentence. Readers expect a grammatical subject to be followed immediately by the verb. Anything of length that intervenes between subject and verb is read as an interruption, and therefore as something of lesser importance.

The reader's expectation stems from a pressing need for syntactic resolution, fulfilled only by the arrival of the verb. Without the verb, we do not know what the subject is doing, or what the sentence is all about. As a result, the reader focuses attention on the arrival of the verb and resists recognizing anything in the interrupting material as being of primary importance. The longer the interruption lasts, the more likely it becomes that the "interruptive" material actually contains important information; but its structural location will continue to brand it as merely interruptive. Unfortunately, the reader will not discover its true value until too late—until the sentence has ended without having produced anything of much value outside of that subject-verb interruption.

In this first sentence of the paragraph, the relative importance of the intervening material is difficult to evaluate. The material might conceivably be quite significant, in which case the writer should have positioned it to reveal that importance. Here is one way to incorporate it into the sentence structure:

The smallest of the URF's is URFA6L, a 207-nucleotide (nt) reading frame overlapping out of phase the NH 2 -terminal portion of the adenosinetriphosphatase (ATPase) subunit 6 gene; it has been identified as the animal equivalent of the recently discovered yeast H + -ATPase subunit 8 gene.

On the other hand, the intervening material might be a mere aside that diverts attention from more important ideas; in that case the writer should have deleted it, allowing the prose to drive more directly toward its significant point:

The smallest of the URF's (URFA6L) has been identified as the animal equivalent of the recently discovered yeast H + -ATPase subunit 8 gene.

Only the author could tell us which of these revisions more accurately reflects his intentions.

These revisions lead us to a second set of reader expectations. Each unit of discourse, no matter what the size, is expected to serve a single function, to make a single point. In the case of a sentence, the point is expected to appear in a specific place reserved for emphasis.

The Stress Position

It is a linguistic commonplace that readers naturally emphasize the material that arrives at the end of a sentence. We refer to that location as a "stress position." If a writer is consciously aware of this tendency, she can arrange for the emphatic information to appear at the moment the reader is naturally exerting the greatest reading emphasis. As a result, the chances greatly increase that reader and writer will perceive the same material as being worthy of primary emphasis. The very structure of the sentence thus helps persuade the reader of the relative values of the sentence's contents.

The inclination to direct more energy to that which arrives last in a sentence seems to correspond to the way we work at tasks through time. We tend to take something like a "mental breath" as we begin to read each new sentence, thereby summoning the tension with which we pay attention to the unfolding of the syntax. As we recognize that the sentence is drawing toward its conclusion, we begin to exhale that mental breath. The exhalation produces a sense of emphasis. Moreover, we delight in being rewarded at the end of a labor with something that makes the ongoing effort worthwhile. Beginning with the exciting material and ending with a lack of luster often leaves us disappointed and destroys our sense of momentum. We do not start with the strawberry shortcake and work our way up to the broccoli.

When the writer puts the emphatic material of a sentence in any place other than the stress position, one of two things can happen; both are bad. First, the reader might find the stress position occupied by material that clearly is not worthy of emphasis. In this case, the reader must discern, without any additional structural clue, what else in the sentence may be the most likely candidate for emphasis. There are no secondary structural indications to fall back upon. In sentences that are long, dense or sophisticated, chances soar that the reader will not interpret the prose precisely as the writer intended. The second possibility is even worse: The reader may find the stress position occupied by something that does appear capable of receiving emphasis, even though the writer did not intend to give it any stress. In that case, the reader is highly likely to emphasize this imposter material, and the writer will have lost an important opportunity to influence the reader's interpretive process.

The stress position can change in size from sentence to sentence. Sometimes it consists of a single word; sometimes it extends to several lines. The definitive factor is this: The stress position coincides with the moment of syntactic closure. A reader has reached the beginning of the stress position when she knows there is nothing left in the clause or sentence but the material presently being read. Thus a whole list, numbered and indented, can occupy the stress position of a sentence if it has been clearly announced as being all that remains of that sentence. Each member of that list, in turn, may have its own internal stress position, since each member may produce its own syntactic closure.

Within a sentence, secondary stress positions can be formed by the appearance of a properly used colon or semicolon; by grammatical convention, the material preceding these punctuation marks must be able to stand by itself as a complete sentence. Thus, sentences can be extended effortlessly to dozens of words, as long as there is a medial syntactic closure for every piece of new, stress-worthy information along the way. One of our revisions of the initial sentence can serve as an example:

By using a semicolon, we created a second stress position to accommodate a second piece of information that seemed to require emphasis.

We now have three rhetorical principles based on reader expectations: First, grammatical subjects should be followed as soon as possible by their verbs; second, every unit of discourse, no matter the size, should serve a single function or make a single point; and, third, information intended to be emphasized should appear at points of syntactic closure. Using these principles, we can begin to unravel the problems of our example prose.

Note the subject-verb separation in the 62-word third sentence of the original passage:

Recently, however, immunoprecipitation experiments with antibodies to purified, rotenone-sensitive NADH-ubiquinone oxido-reductase [hereafter referred to as respiratory chain NADH dehydrogenase or complex I] from bovine heart, as well as enzyme fractionation studies, have indicated that six human URF's (that is, URF1, URF2, URF3, URF4, URF4L, and URF5, hereafter referred to as ND1, ND2, ND3, ND4, ND4L and ND5) encode subunits of complex I.

After encountering the subject ("experiments"), the reader must wade through 27 words (including three hyphenated compound words, a parenthetical interruption and an "as well as" phrase) before alighting on the highly uninformative and disappointingly anticlimactic verb ("have indicated"). Without a moment to recover, the reader is handed a "that" clause in which the new subject ("six human URF's") is separated from its verb ("encode") by yet another 20 words.

If we applied the three principles we have developed to the rest of the sentences of the example, we could generate a great many revised versions of each. These revisions might differ significantly from one another in the way their structures indicate to the reader the various weights and balances to be given to the information. Had the author placed all stress-worthy material in stress positions, we as a reading community would have been far more likely to interpret these sentences uniformly.

We couch this discussion in terms of "likelihood" because we believe that meaning is not inherent in discourse by itself; "meaning" requires the combined participation of text and reader. All sentences are infinitely interpretable, given an infinite number of interpreters. As communities of readers, however, we tend to work out tacit agreements as to what kinds of meaning are most likely to be extracted from certain articulations. We cannot succeed in making even a single sentence mean one and only one thing; we can only increase the odds that a large majority of readers will tend to interpret our discourse according to our intentions. Such success will follow from authors becoming more consciously aware of the various reader expectations presented here.

We cannot succeed in making even a single sentence mean one and only one thing; we can only increase the odds that a large majority of readers will tend to interpret our discourse according to our intentions.

Here is one set of revisionary decisions we made for the example:

The smallest of the URF's, URFA6L, has been identified as the animal equivalent of the recently discovered yeast H + -ATPase subunit 8 gene; but the functional significance of other URF's has been more elusive. Recently, however, several human URF's have been shown to encode subunits of rotenone-sensitive NADH-ubiquinone oxido-reductase. This is a large complex that also contains many subunits synthesized in the cytoplasm; it will be referred to hereafter as respiratory chain NADH dehydrogenase or complex I. Six subunits of Complex I were shown by enzyme fractionation studies and immunoprecipitation experiments to be encoded by six human URF's (URF1, URF2, URF3, URF4, URF4L, and URF5); these URF's will be referred to subsequently as ND1, ND2, ND3, ND4, ND4L and ND5.

Sheer length was neither the problem nor the solution. The revised version is not noticeably shorter than the original; nevertheless, it is significantly easier to interpret. We have indeed deleted certain words, but not on the basis of wordiness or excess length. (See especially the last sentence of our revision.)

When is a sentence too long? The creators of readability formulas would have us believe there exists some fixed number of words (the favorite is 29) past which a sentence is too hard to read. We disagree. We have seen 10-word sentences that are virtually impenetrable and, as we mentioned above, 100-word sentences that flow effortlessly to their points of resolution. In place of the word-limit concept, we offer the following definition: A sentence is too long when it has more viable candidates for stress positions than there are stress positions available. Without the stress position's locational clue that its material is intended to be emphasized, readers are left too much to their own devices in deciding just what else in a sentence might be considered important.

In revising the example passage, we made certain decisions about what to omit and what to emphasize. We put subjects and verbs together to lessen the reader's syntactic burdens; we put the material we believed worthy of emphasis in stress positions; and we discarded material for which we could not discern significant connections. In doing so, we have produced a clearer passage—but not one that necessarily reflects the author's intentions; it reflects only our interpretation of the author's intentions. The more problematic the structure, the less likely it becomes that a grand majority of readers will perceive the discourse in exactly the way the author intended.

The information that begins a sentence establishes for the reader a perspective for viewing the sentence as a unit.

It is probable that many of our readers--and perhaps even the authors—will disagree with some of our choices. If so, that disagreement underscores our point: The original failed to communicate its ideas and their connections clearly. If we happened to have interpreted the passage as you did, then we can make a different point: No one should have to work as hard as we did to unearth the content of a single passage of this length.

The Topic Position

To summarize the principles connected with the stress position, we have the proverbial wisdom, "Save the best for last." To summarize the principles connected with the other end of the sentence, which we will call the topic position, we have its proverbial contradiction, "First things first." In the stress position the reader needs and expects closure and fulfillment; in the topic position the reader needs and expects perspective and context. With so much of reading comprehension affected by what shows up in the topic position, it behooves a writer to control what appears at the beginning of sentences with great care.

The information that begins a sentence establishes for the reader a perspective for viewing the sentence as a unit: Readers expect a unit of discourse to be a story about whoever shows up first. "Bees disperse pollen" and "Pollen is dispersed by bees" are two different but equally respectable sentences about the same facts. The first tells us something about bees; the second tells us something about pollen. The passivity of the second sentence does not by itself impair its quality; in fact, "Pollen is dispersed by bees" is the superior sentence if it appears in a paragraph that intends to tell us a continuing story about pollen. Pollen's story at that moment is a passive one.

Readers also expect the material occupying the topic position to provide them with linkage (looking backward) and context (looking forward). The information in the topic position prepares the reader for upcoming material by connecting it backward to the previous discussion. Although linkage and context can derive from several sources, they stem primarily from material that the reader has already encountered within this particular piece of discourse. We refer to this familiar, previously introduced material as "old information." Conversely, material making its first appearance in a discourse is "new information." When new information is important enough to receive emphasis, it functions best in the stress position.

When old information consistently arrives in the topic position, it helps readers to construct the logical flow of the argument: It focuses attention on one particular strand of the discussion, both harkening backward and leaning forward. In contrast, if the topic position is constantly occupied by material that fails to establish linkage and context, readers will have difficulty perceiving both the connection to the previous sentence and the projected role of the new sentence in the development of the paragraph as a whole.

Here is a second example of scientific prose that we shall attempt to improve in subsequent discussion:

Large earthquakes along a given fault segment do not occur at random intervals because it takes time to accumulate the strain energy for the rupture. The rates at which tectonic plates move and accumulate strain at their boundaries are approximately uniform. Therefore, in first approximation, one may expect that large ruptures of the same fault segment will occur at approximately constant time intervals. If subsequent main shocks have different amounts of slip across the fault, then the recurrence time may vary, and the basic idea of periodic mainshocks must be modified. For great plate boundary ruptures the length and slip often vary by a factor of 2. Along the southern segment of the San Andreas fault the recurrence interval is 145 years with variations of several decades. The smaller the standard deviation of the average recurrence interval, the more specific could be the long term prediction of a future mainshock.

This is the kind of passage that in subtle ways can make readers feel badly about themselves. The individual sentences give the impression of being intelligently fashioned: They are not especially long or convoluted; their vocabulary is appropriately professional but not beyond the ken of educated general readers; and they are free of grammatical and dictional errors. On first reading, however, many of us arrive at the paragraph's end without a clear sense of where we have been or where we are going. When that happens, we tend to berate ourselves for not having paid close enough attention. In reality, the fault lies not with us, but with the author.

We can distill the problem by looking closely at the information in each sentence's topic position:

Large earthquakes The rates Therefore...one subsequent mainshocks great plate boundary ruptures the southern segment of the San Andreas fault the smaller the standard deviation...

Much of this information is making its first appearance in this paragraph—in precisely the spot where the reader looks for old, familiar information. As a result, the focus of the story constantly shifts. Given just the material in the topic positions, no two readers would be likely to construct exactly the same story for the paragraph as a whole.

If we try to piece together the relationship of each sentence to its neighbors, we notice that certain bits of old information keep reappearing. We hear a good deal about the recurrence time between earthquakes: The first sentence introduces the concept of nonrandom intervals between earthquakes; the second sentence tells us that recurrence rates due to the movement of tectonic plates are more or less uniform; the third sentence adds that the recurrence rates of major earthquakes should also be somewhat predictable; the fourth sentence adds that recurrence rates vary with some conditions; the fifth sentence adds information about one particular variation; the sixth sentence adds a recurrence-rate example from California; and the last sentence tells us something about how recurrence rates can be described statistically. This refrain of "recurrence intervals" constitutes the major string of old information in the paragraph. Unfortunately, it rarely appears at the beginning of sentences, where it would help us maintain our focus on its continuing story.

In reading, as in most experiences, we appreciate the opportunity to become familiar with a new environment before having to function in it. Writing that continually begins sentences with new information and ends with old information forbids both the sense of comfort and orientation at the start and the sense of fulfilling arrival at the end. It misleads the reader as to whose story is being told; it burdens the reader with new information that must be carried further into the sentence before it can be connected to the discussion; and it creates ambiguity as to which material the writer intended the reader to emphasize. All of these distractions require that readers expend a disproportionate amount of energy to unravel the structure of the prose, leaving less energy available for perceiving content.

We can begin to revise the example by ensuring the following for each sentence:

1. The backward-linking old information appears in the topic position. 2. The person, thing or concept whose story it is appears in the topic position. 3. The new, emphasis-worthy information appears in the stress position.

Once again, if our decisions concerning the relative values of specific information differ from yours, we can all blame the author, who failed to make his intentions apparent. Here first is a list of what we perceived to be the new, emphatic material in each sentence:

time to accumulate strain energy along a fault approximately uniform large ruptures of the same fault different amounts of slip vary by a factor of 2 variations of several decades predictions of future mainshock

Now, based on these assumptions about what deserves stress, here is our proposed revision:

Large earthquakes along a given fault segment do not occur at random intervals because it takes time to accumulate the strain energy for the rupture. The rates at which tectonic plates move and accumulate strain at their boundaries are roughly uniform. Therefore, nearly constant time intervals (at first approximation) would be expected between large ruptures of the same fault segment. [However?], the recurrence time may vary; the basic idea of periodic mainshocks may need to be modified if subsequent mainshocks have different amounts of slip across the fault. [Indeed?], the length and slip of great plate boundary ruptures often vary by a factor of 2. [For example?], the recurrence intervals along the southern segment of the San Andreas fault is 145 years with variations of several decades. The smaller the standard deviation of the average recurrence interval, the more specific could be the long term prediction of a future mainshock.

Many problems that had existed in the original have now surfaced for the first time. Is the reason earthquakes do not occur at random intervals stated in the first sentence or in the second? Are the suggested choices of "however," "indeed," and "for example" the right ones to express the connections at those points? (All these connections were left unarticulated in the original paragraph.) If "for example" is an inaccurate transitional phrase, then exactly how does the San Andreas fault example connect to ruptures that "vary by a factor of 2"? Is the author arguing that recurrence rates must vary because fault movements often vary? Or is the author preparing us for a discussion of how in spite of such variance we might still be able to predict earthquakes? This last question remains unanswered because the final sentence leaves behind earthquakes that recur at variable intervals and switches instead to earthquakes that recur regularly. Given that this is the first paragraph of the article, which type of earthquake will the article most likely proceed to discuss? In sum, we are now aware of how much the paragraph had not communicated to us on first reading. We can see that most of our difficulty was owing not to any deficiency in our reading skills but rather to the author's lack of comprehension of our structural needs as readers.

In our experience, the misplacement of old and new information turns out to be the No. 1 problem in American professional writing today.

In our experience, the misplacement of old and new information turns out to be the No. 1 problem in American professional writing today. The source of the problem is not hard to discover: Most writers produce prose linearly (from left to right) and through time. As they begin to formulate a sentence, often their primary anxiety is to capture the important new thought before it escapes. Quite naturally they rush to record that new information on paper, after which they can produce at their leisure contextualizing material that links back to the previous discourse. Writers who do this consistently are attending more to their own need for unburdening themselves of their information than to the reader's need for receiving the material. The methodology of reader expectations articulates the reader's needs explicitly, thereby making writers consciously aware of structural problems and ways to solve them.

Put in the topic position the old information that links backward; put in the stress position the new information you want the reader to emphasize.

A note of clarification: Many people hearing this structural advice tend to oversimplify it to the following rule: "Put the old information in the topic position and the new information in the stress position." No such rule is possible. Since by definition all information is either old or new, the space between the topic position and the stress position must also be filled with old and new information. Therefore the principle (not rule) should be stated as follows: "Put in the topic position the old information that links backward; put in the stress position the new information you want the reader to emphasize."

Perceiving Logical Gaps

When old information does not appear at all in a sentence, whether in the topic position or elsewhere, readers are left to construct the logical linkage by themselves. Often this happens when the connections are so clear in the writer's mind that they seem unnecessary to state; at those moments, writers underestimate the difficulties and ambiguities inherent in the reading process. Our third example attempts to demonstrate how paying attention to the placement of old and new information can reveal where a writer has neglected to articulate essential connections.

The enthalpy of hydrogen bond formation between the nucleoside bases 2'deoxyguanosine (dG) and 2'deoxycytidine (dC) has been determined by direct measurement. dG and dC were derivatized at the 5' and 3' hydroxyls with triisopropylsilyl groups to obtain solubility of the nucleosides in non-aqueous solvents and to prevent the ribose hydroxyls from forming hydrogen bonds. From isoperibolic titration measurements, the enthalpy of dC:dG base pair formation is -6.65±0.32 kcal/mol.

Although part of the difficulty of reading this passage may stem from its abundance of specialized technical terms, a great deal more of the difficulty can be attributed to its structural problems. These problems are now familiar: We are not sure at all times whose story is being told; in the first sentence the subject and verb are widely separated; the second sentence has only one stress position but two or three pieces of information that are probably worthy of emphasis—"solubility ...solvents," "prevent... from forming hydrogen bonds" and perhaps "triisopropylsilyl groups." These perceptions suggest the following revision tactics:

1. Invert the first sentence, so that (a) the subject-verb-complement connection is unbroken, and (b) "dG" and "dC" are introduced in the stress position as new and interesting information. (Note that inverting the sentence requires stating who made the measurement; since the authors performed the first direct measurement, recognizing their agency in the topic position may well be appropriate.) 2. Since "dG and "dC" become the old information in the second sentence, keep them up front in the topic position. 3. Since "triisopropylsilyl groups" is new and important information here, create for it a stress position. 4. "Triisopropylsilyl groups" then becomes the old information of the clause in which its effects are described; place it in the topic position of this clause. 5. Alert the reader to expect the arrival of two distinct effects by using the flag word "both." "Both" notifies the reader that two pieces of new information will arrive in a single stress position.

Here is a partial revision based on these decisions:

We have directly measured the enthalpy of hydrogen bond formation between the nucleoside bases 2'deoxyguanosine (dG) and 2'deoxycytidine (dC). dG and dC were derivatized at the 5' and 3' hydroxyls with triisopropylsilyl groups; these groups serve both to solubilize the nucleosides in non-aqueous solvents and to prevent the ribose hydroxyls from forming hydrogen bonds. From isoperibolic titration measurements, the enthalpy of dC:dG base pair formation is -6.65±0.32 kcal/mol.

The outlines of the experiment are now becoming visible, but there is still a major logical gap. After reading the second sentence, we expect to hear more about the two effects that were important enough to merit placement in its stress position. Our expectations are frustrated, however, when those effects are not mentioned in the next sentence: "From isoperibolic titration measurements, the enthalpy of dC:dG base pair formation is -6.65±0.32 kcal/mol." The authors have neglected to explain the relationship between the derivatization they performed (in the second sentence) and the measurements they made (in the third sentence). Ironically, that is the point they most wished to make here.

At this juncture, particularly astute readers who are chemists might draw upon their specialized knowledge, silently supplying the missing connection. Other readers are left in the dark. Here is one version of what we think the authors meant to say, with two additional sentences supplied from a knowledge of nucleic acid chemistry:

We have directly measured the enthalpy of hydrogen bond formation between the nucleoside bases 2'deoxyguanosine (dG) and 2'deoxycytidine (dC). dG and dC were derivatized at the 5' and 3' hydroxyls with triisopropylsiyl groups; these groups serve both to solubilize the nucleosides in non-aqueous solvents and to prevent the ribose hydroxyls from forming hydrogen bonds. Consequently, when the derivatized nucleosides are dissolved in non-aqueous solvents, hydrogen bonds form almost exclusively between the bases. Since the interbase hydrogen bonds are the only bonds to form upon mixing, their enthalpy of formation can be determined directly by measuring the enthalpy of mixing. From our isoperibolic titration measurements, the enthalpy of dG:dC base pair formation is -6.65±0.32 kcal/mol.

Each sentence now proceeds logically from its predecessor. We never have to wander too far into a sentence without being told where we are and what former strands of discourse are being continued. And the "measurements" of the last sentence has now become old information, reaching back to the "measured directly" of the preceding sentence. (It also fulfills the promise of the "we have directly measured" with which the paragraph began.) By following our knowledge of reader expectations, we have been able to spot discontinuities, to suggest strategies for bridging gaps, and to rearrange the structure of the prose, thereby increasing the accessibility of the scientific content.

Locating the Action

Our final example adds another major reader expectation to the list.

Transcription of the 5 S RNA genes in the egg extract is TFIIIA-dependent. This is surprising, because the concentration of TFIIIA is the same as in the oocyte nuclear extract. The other transcription factors and RNA polymerase III are presumed to be in excess over available TFIIIA, because tRNA genes are transcribed in the egg extract. The addition of egg extract to the oocyte nuclear extract has two effects on transcription efficiency. First, there is a general inhibition of transcription that can be alleviated in part by supplementation with high concentrations of RNA polymerase III. Second, egg extract destabilizes transcription complexes formed with oocyte but not somatic 5 S RNA genes.

The barriers to comprehension in this passage are so many that it may appear difficult to know where to start revising. Fortunately, it does not matter where we start, since attending to any one structural problem eventually leads us to all the others.

We can spot one source of difficulty by looking at the topic positions of the sentences: We cannot tell whose story the passage is. The story's focus (that is, the occupant of the topic position) changes in every sentence. If we search for repeated old information in hope of settling on a good candidate for several of the topic positions, we find all too much of it: egg extract, TFIIIA, oocyte extract, RNA polymerase III, 5 S RNA, and transcription. All of these reappear at various points, but none announces itself clearly as our primary focus. It appears that the passage is trying to tell several stories simultaneously, allowing none to dominate.

We are unable to decide among these stories because the author has not told us what to do with all this information. We know who the players are, but we are ignorant of the actions they are presumed to perform. This violates yet another important reader expectation: Readers expect the action of a sentence to be articulated by the verb.

Here is a list of the verbs in the example paragraph:

is is...is are presumed to be are transcribed has is...can be alleviated destabilizes

The list gives us too few clues as to what actions actually take place in the passage. If the actions are not to be found in the verbs, then we as readers have no secondary structural clues for where to locate them. Each of us has to make a personal interpretive guess; the writer no longer controls the reader's interpretive act.

As critical scientific readers, we would like to concentrate our energy on whether the experiments prove the hypotheses.

Worse still, in this passage the important actions never appear. Based on our best understanding of this material, the verbs that connect these players are "limit" and "inhibit." If we express those actions as verbs and place the most frequently occurring information—"egg extract" and "TFIIIA"—in the topic position whenever possible,* we can generate the following revision:

In the egg extract, the availability of TFIIIA limits transcription of the 5 S RNA genes. This is surprising because the same concentration of TFIIIA does not limit transcription in the oocyte nuclear extract. In the egg extract, transcription is not limited by RNA polymerase or other factors because transcription of tRNA genes indicates that these factors are in excess over available TFIIIA. When added to the nuclear extract, the egg extract affected the efficiency of transcription in two ways. First, it inhibited transcription generally; this inhibition could be alleviated in part by supplementing the mixture with high concentrations of RNA polymerase III. Second, the egg extract destabilized transcription complexes formed by oocyte but not by somatic 5 S genes.

[*We have chosen these two pieces of old information as the controlling contexts for the passage. That choice was neither arbitrary nor born of logical necessity; it was simply an act of interpretation. All readers make exactly that kind of choice in the reading of every sentence. The fewer the structural clues to interpretation given by the author, the more variable the resulting interpretations will tend to be.]

As a story about "egg extract," this passage still leaves something to be desired. But at least now we can recognize that the author has not explained the connection between "limit" and "inhibit." This unarticulated connection seems to us to contain both of her hypotheses: First, that the limitation on transcription is caused by an inhibitor of TFIIIA present in the egg extract; and, second, that the action of that inhibitor can be detected by adding the egg extract to the oocyte extract and examining the effects on transcription. As critical scientific readers, we would like to concentrate our energy on whether the experiments prove the hypotheses. We cannot begin to do so if we are left in doubt as to what those hypotheses might be—and if we are using most of our energy to discern the structure of the prose rather than its substance.

Writing and the Scientific Process

We began this article by arguing that complex thoughts expressed in impenetrable prose can be rendered accessible and clear without minimizing any of their complexity. Our examples of scientific writing have ranged from the merely cloudy to the virtually opaque; yet all of them could be made significantly more comprehensible by observing the following structural principles:

1. Follow a grammatical subject as soon as possible with its verb. 2. Place in the stress position the "new information" you want the reader to emphasize. 3. Place the person or thing whose "story" a sentence is telling at the beginning of the sentence, in the topic position. 4. Place appropriate "old information" (material already stated in the discourse) in the topic position for linkage backward and contextualization forward. 5. Articulate the action of every clause or sentence in its verb. 6. In general, provide context for your reader before asking that reader to consider anything new. 7. In general, try to ensure that the relative emphases of the substance coincide with the relative expectations for emphasis raised by the structure.

It may seem obvious that a scientific document is incomplete without the interpretation of the writer; it may not be so obvious that the document cannot "exist" without the interpretation of each reader.

None of these reader-expectation principles should be considered "rules." Slavish adherence to them will succeed no better than has slavish adherence to avoiding split infinitives or to using the active voice instead of the passive. There can be no fixed algorithm for good writing, for two reasons. First, too many reader expectations are functioning at any given moment for structural decisions to remain clear and easily activated. Second, any reader expectation can be violated to good effect. Our best stylists turn out to be our most skillful violators; but in order to carry this off, they must fulfill expectations most of the time, causing the violations to be perceived as exceptional moments, worthy of note.

A writer's personal style is the sum of all the structural choices that person tends to make when facing the challenges of creating discourse. Writers who fail to put new information in the stress position of many sentences in one document are likely to repeat that unhelpful structural pattern in all other documents. But for the very reason that writers tend to be consistent in making such choices, they can learn to improve their writing style; they can permanently reverse those habitual structural decisions that mislead or burden readers.

We have argued that the substance of thought and the expression of thought are so inextricably intertwined that changes in either will affect the quality of the other. Note that only the first of our examples (the paragraph about URF's) could be revised on the basis of the methodology to reveal a nearly finished passage. In all the other examples, revision revealed existing conceptual gaps and other problems that had been submerged in the originals by dysfunctional structures. Filling the gaps required the addition of extra material. In revising each of these examples, we arrived at a point where we could proceed no further without either supplying connections between ideas or eliminating some existing material altogether. (Writers who use reader-expectation principles on their own prose will not have to conjecture or infer; they know what the prose is intended to convey.) Having begun by analyzing the structure of the prose, we were led eventually to reinvestigate the substance of the science.

The substance of science comprises more than the discovery and recording of data; it extends crucially to include the act of interpretation. It may seem obvious that a scientific document is incomplete without the interpretation of the writer; it may not be so obvious that the document cannot "exist" without the interpretation of each reader. In other words, writers cannot "merely" record data, even if they try. In any recording or articulation, no matter how haphazard or confused, each word resides in one or more distinct structural locations. The resulting structure, even more than the meanings of individual words, significantly influences the reader during the act of interpretation. The question then becomes whether the structure created by the writer (intentionally or not) helps or hinders the reader in the process of interpreting the scientific writing.

The writing principles we have suggested here make conscious for the writer some of the interpretive clues readers derive from structures. Armed with this awareness, the writer can achieve far greater control (although never complete control) of the reader's interpretive process. As a concomitant function, the principles simultaneously offer the writer a fresh re-entry to the thought process that produced the science. In real and important ways, the structure of the prose becomes the structure of the scientific argument. Improving either one will improve the other.

The methodology described in this article originated in the linguistic work of Joseph M. Williams of the University of Chicago, Gregory G. Colomb of the Georgia Institute of Technology and George D. Gopen. Some of the materials presented here were discussed and developed in faculty writing workshops held at the Duke University Medical School.

Bibliography

  • Colomb, Gregory G., and Joseph M. Williams. 1985. Perceiving structure in professional prose: a multiply determined experience. In Writing in Non-Academic Settings, eds. Lee Odell and Dixie Goswami. Guilford Press, pp. 87-128.
  • Gopen, George D. 1987. Let the buyer in ordinary course of business beware: suggestions for revising the language of the Uniform Commercial Code. University of Chicago Law Review 54:1178-1214.
  • Gopen, George D. 1990. The Common Sense of Writing: Teaching Writing from the Reader's Perspective .
  • Williams, Joseph M. 1988. Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace. Scott, Foresman, & Co.

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  • CAREER COLUMN
  • 11 February 2019

Essential elements for high-impact scientific writing

  • Eric J. Buenz 0

Eric Buenz is a Research Professor at the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology, Nelson, New Zealand.

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The technicalities of good scientific writing are well established 1 , 2 and important, but for your writing to have an impact, you need to resurrect the excitement of research — something that is often lost in day-to-day work. Successfully communicating the impact of your research is crucial for making your work more accessible, and for career progression. Here are the key elements to make your data stand out.

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HOW TO WRITE A SCIENTIFIC ARTICLE

Barbara j. hoogenboom.

1 Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids, MI, USA

Robert C. Manske

2 University of Wichita, Wichita, KS, USA

Successful production of a written product for submission to a peer‐reviewed scientific journal requires substantial effort. Such an effort can be maximized by following a few simple suggestions when composing/creating the product for submission. By following some suggested guidelines and avoiding common errors, the process can be streamlined and success realized for even beginning/novice authors as they negotiate the publication process. The purpose of this invited commentary is to offer practical suggestions for achieving success when writing and submitting manuscripts to The International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy and other professional journals.

INTRODUCTION

“The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking” Albert Einstein

Conducting scientific and clinical research is only the beginning of the scholarship of discovery. In order for the results of research to be accessible to other professionals and have a potential effect on the greater scientific community, it must be written and published. Most clinical and scientific discovery is published in peer‐reviewed journals, which are those that utilize a process by which an author's peers, or experts in the content area, evaluate the manuscript. Following this review the manuscript is recommended for publication, revision or rejection. It is the rigor of this review process that makes scientific journals the primary source of new information that impacts clinical decision‐making and practice. 1 , 2

The task of writing a scientific paper and submitting it to a journal for publication is a time‐consuming and often daunting task. 3 , 4 Barriers to effective writing include lack of experience, poor writing habits, writing anxiety, unfamiliarity with the requirements of scholarly writing, lack of confidence in writing ability, fear of failure, and resistance to feedback. 5 However, the very process of writing can be a helpful tool for promoting the process of scientific thinking, 6 , 7 and effective writing skills allow professionals to participate in broader scientific conversations. Furthermore, peer review manuscript publication systems requiring these technical writing skills can be developed and improved with practice. 8 Having an understanding of the process and structure used to produce a peer‐reviewed publication will surely improve the likelihood that a submitted manuscript will result in a successful publication.

Clear communication of the findings of research is essential to the growth and development of science 3 and professional practice. The culmination of the publication process provides not only satisfaction for the researcher and protection of intellectual property, but also the important function of dissemination of research results, new ideas, and alternate thought; which ultimately facilitates scholarly discourse. In short, publication of scientific papers is one way to advance evidence‐based practice in many disciplines, including sports physical therapy. Failure to publish important findings significantly diminishes the potential impact that those findings may have on clinical practice. 9

BASICS OF MANUSCRIPT PREPARATION & GENERAL WRITING TIPS

To begin it might be interesting to learn why reviewers accept manuscripts! Reviewers consider the following five criteria to be the most important in decisions about whether to accept manuscripts for publication: 1) the importance, timeliness, relevance, and prevalence of the problem addressed; 2) the quality of the writing style (i.e., that it is well‐written, clear, straightforward, easy to follow, and logical); 3) the study design applied (i.e., that the design was appropriate, rigorous, and comprehensive); 4) the degree to which the literature review was thoughtful, focused, and up‐to‐date; and 5) the use of a sufficiently large sample. 10 For these statements to be true there are also reasons that reviewers reject manuscripts. The following are the top five reasons for rejecting papers: 1) inappropriate, incomplete, or insufficiently described statistics; 2) over‐interpretation of results; 3) use of inappropriate, suboptimal, or insufficiently described populations or instruments; 4) small or biased samples; and 5) text that is poorly written or difficult to follow. 10 , 11 With these reasons for acceptance or rejection in mind, it is time to review basics and general writing tips to be used when performing manuscript preparation.

“Begin with the end in mind” . When you begin writing about your research, begin with a specific target journal in mind. 12 Every scientific journal should have specific lists of manuscript categories that are preferred for their readership. The IJSPT seeks to provide readership with current information to enhance the practice of sports physical therapy. Therefore the manuscript categories accepted by IJSPT include: Original research; Systematic reviews of literature; Clinical commentary and Current concept reviews; Case reports; Clinical suggestions and unique practice techniques; and Technical notes. Once a decision has been made to write a manuscript, compose an outline that complies with the requirements of the target submission journal and has each of the suggested sections. This means carefully checking the submission criteria and preparing your paper in the exact format of the journal to which you intend to submit. Be thoughtful about the distinction between content (what you are reporting) and structure (where it goes in the manuscript). Poor placement of content confuses the reader (reviewer) and may cause misinterpretation of content. 3 , 5

It may be helpful to follow the IMRaD format for writing scientific manuscripts. This acronym stands for the sections contained within the article: Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. Each of these areas of the manuscript will be addressed in this commentary.

Many accomplished authors write their results first, followed by an introduction and discussion, in an attempt to “stay true” to their results and not stray into additional areas. Typically the last two portions to be written are the conclusion and the abstract.

The ability to accurately describe ideas, protocols/procedures, and outcomes are the pillars of scientific writing . Accurate and clear expression of your thoughts and research information should be the primary goal of scientific writing. 12 Remember that accuracy and clarity are even more important when trying to get complicated ideas across. Contain your literature review, ideas, and discussions to your topic, theme, model, review, commentary, or case. Avoid vague terminology and too much prose. Use short rather than long sentences. If jargon has to be utilized keep it to a minimum and explain the terms you do use clearly. 13

Write with a measure of formality, using scientific language and avoiding conjunctions, slang, and discipline or regionally specific nomenclature or terms (e.g. exercise nicknames). For example, replace the term “Monster walks” with “closed‐chain hip abduction with elastic resistance around the thighs”. You may later refer to the exercise as “also known as Monster walks” if you desire.

Avoid first person language and instead write using third person language. Some journals do not ascribe to this requirement, and allow first person references, however, IJSPT prefers use of third person. For example, replace “We determined that…” with “The authors determined that….”.

For novice writers, it is really helpful to seek a reading mentor that will help you pre‐read your submission. Problems such as improper use of grammar, tense, and spelling are often a cause of rejection by reviewers. Despite the content of the study these easily fixed errors suggest that the authors created the manuscript with less thought leading reviewers to think that the manuscript may also potentially have erroneous findings as well. A review from a second set of trained eyes will often catch these errors missed by the original authors. If English is not your first language, the editorial staff at IJSPT suggests that you consult with someone with the relevant expertise to give you guidance on English writing conventions, verb tense, and grammar. Excellent writing in English is hard, even for those of us for whom it is our first language!

Use figures and graphics to your advantage . ‐ Consider the use of graphic/figure representation of data and important procedures or exercises. Tables should be able to stand alone and be completely understandable at a quick glance. Understanding a table should not require careful review of the manuscript! Figures dramatically enhance the graphic appeal of a scientific paper. Many formats for graphic presentation are acceptable, including graphs, charts, tables, and pictures or videos. Photographs should be clear, free of clutter or extraneous background distractions and be taken with models wearing simple clothing. Color photographs are preferred. Digital figures (Scans or existing files as well as new photographs) must be at least 300dpi. All photographs should be provided as separate files (jpeg or tif preferred) and not be embedded in the paper. Quality and clarity of figures are essential for reproduction purposes and should be considered before taking images for the manuscript.

A video of an exercise or procedure speaks a thousand words. Please consider using short video clips as descriptive additions to your paper. They will be placed on the IJSPT website and accompany your paper. The video clips must be submitted in MPEG‐1, MPEG‐2, Quicktime (.mov), or Audio/Video Interface (.avi) formats. Maximum cumulative length of videos is 5 minutes. Each video segment may not exceed 50 MB, and each video clip must be saved as a separate file and clearly identified. Formulate descriptive figure/video and Table/chart/graph titles and place them on a figure legend document. Carefully consider placement of, naming of, and location of figures. It makes the job of the editors much easier!

Avoid Plagiarism and inadvertent lack of citations. Finally, use citations to your benefit. Cite frequently in order to avoid any plagiarism. The bottom line: If it is not your original idea, give credit where credit is due . When using direct quotations, provide not only the number of the citation, but the page where the quote was found. All citations should appear in text as a superscripted number followed by punctuation. It is the authors' responsibility to fully ensure all references are cited in completed form, in an accurate location. Please carefully follow the instructions for citations and check that all references in your reference list are cited in the paper and that all citations in the paper appear correctly in the reference list. Please go to IJSPT submission guidelines for full information on the format for citations.

Sometimes written as an afterthought, the abstract is of extreme importance as in many instances this section is what is initially previewed by readership to determine if the remainder of the article is worth reading. This is the authors opportunity to draw the reader into the study and entice them to read the rest of the article. The abstract is a summary of the article or study written in 3 rd person allowing the readers to get a quick glance of what the contents of the article include. Writing an abstract is rather challenging as being brief, accurate and concise are requisite. The headings and structure for an abstract are usually provided in the instructions for authors. In some instances, the abstract may change slightly pending content revisions required during the peer review process. Therefore it often works well to complete this portion of the manuscript last. Remember the abstract should be able to stand alone and should be as succinct as possible. 14

Introduction and Review of Literature

The introduction is one of the more difficult portions of the manuscript to write. Past studies are used to set the stage or provide the reader with information regarding the necessity of the represented project. For an introduction to work properly, the reader must feel that the research question is clear, concise, and worthy of study.

A competent introduction should include at least four key concepts: 1) significance of the topic, 2) the information gap in the available literature associated with the topic, 3) a literature review in support of the key questions, 4) subsequently developed purposes/objectives and hypotheses. 9

When constructing a review of the literature, be attentive to “sticking” or “staying true” to your topic at hand. Don't reach or include too broad of a literature review. For example, do not include extraneous information about performance or prevention if your research does not actually address those things. The literature review of a scientific paper is not an exhaustive review of all available knowledge in a given field of study. That type of thorough review should be left to review articles or textbook chapters. Throughout the introduction (and later in the discussion!) remind yourself that a paper, existing evidence, or results of a paper cannot draw conclusions, demonstrate, describe, or make judgments, only PEOPLE (authors) can. “The evidence demonstrates that” should be stated, “Smith and Jones, demonstrated that….”

Conclude your introduction with a solid statement of your purpose(s) and your hypothesis(es), as appropriate. The purpose and objectives should clearly relate to the information gap associated with the given manuscript topic discussed earlier in the introduction section. This may seem repetitive, but it actually is helpful to ensure the reader clearly sees the evolution, importance, and critical aspects of the study at hand See Table 1 for examples of well‐stated purposes.

Examples of well-stated purposes by submission type.

The methods section should clearly describe the specific design of the study and provide clear and concise description of the procedures that were performed. The purpose of sufficient detail in the methods section is so that an appropriately trained person would be able to replicate your experiments. 15 There should be complete transparency when describing the study. To assist in writing and manuscript preparation there are several checklists or guidelines that are available on the IJSPT website. The CONSORT guidelines can be used when developing and reporting a randomized controlled trial. 16 The STARD checklist was developed for designing a diagnostic accuracy study. 17 The PRISMA checklist was developed for use when performing a meta‐analyses or systematic review. 18 A clear methods section should contain the following information: 1) the population and equipment used in the study, 2) how the population and equipment were prepared and what was done during the study, 3) the protocol used, 4) the outcomes and how they were measured, 5) the methods used for data analysis. Initially a brief paragraph should explain the overall procedures and study design. Within this first paragraph there is generally a description of inclusion and exclusion criteria which help the reader understand the population used. Paragraphs that follow should describe in more detail the procedures followed for the study. A clear description of how data was gathered is also helpful. For example were data gathered prospectively or retrospectively? Who if anyone was blinded, and where and when was the actual data collected?

Although it is a good idea for the authors to have justification and a rationale for their procedures, these should be saved for inclusion into the discussion section, not to be discussed in the methods section. However, occasionally studies supporting components of the methods section such as reliability of tests, or validation of outcome measures may be included in the methods section.

The final portion of the methods section will include the statistical methods used to analyze the data. 19 This does not mean that the actual results should be discussed in the methods section, as they have an entire section of their own!

Most scientific journals support the need for all projects involving humans or animals to have up‐to‐date documentation of ethical approval. 20 The methods section should include a clear statement that the researchers have obtained approval from an appropriate institutional review board.

Results, Discussion, and Conclusions

In most journals the results section is separate from the discussion section. It is important that you clearly distinguish your results from your discussion. The results section should describe the results only. The discussion section should put those results into a broader context. Report your results neutrally, as you “found them”. Again, be thoughtful about content and structure. Think carefully about where content is placed in the overall structure of your paper. It is not appropriate to bring up additional results, not discussed in the results section, in the discussion. All results must first be described/presented and then discussed. Thus, the discussion should not simply be a repeat of the results section. Carefully discuss where your information is similar or different from other published evidence and why this might be so. What was different in methods or analysis, what was similar?

As previously stated, stick to your topic at hand, and do not overstretch your discussion! One of the major pitfalls in writing the discussion section is overstating the significance of your findings 4 or making very strong statements. For example, it is better to say: “Findings of the current study support….” or “these findings suggest…” than, “Findings of the current study prove that…” or “this means that….”. Maintain a sense of humbleness, as nothing is without question in the outcomes of any type of research, in any discipline! Use words like “possibly”, “likely” or “suggests” to soften findings. 12

Do not discuss extraneous ideas, concepts, or information not covered by your topic/paper/commentary. Be sure to carefully address all relevant results, not just the statistically significant ones or the ones that support your hypotheses. When you must resort to speculation or opinion, be certain to state that up front using phrases such as “we therefore speculate” or “in the authors' opinion”.

Remember, just as in the introduction and literature review, evidence or results cannot draw conclusions, just as previously stated, only people, scientists, researchers, and authors can!

Finish with a concise, 3‐5 sentence conclusion paragraph. This is not just a restatement of your results, rather is comprised of some final, summative statements that reflect the flow and outcomes of the entire paper. Do not include speculative statements or additional material; however, based upon your findings a statement about potential changes in clinical practice or future research opportunities can be provided here.

CONCLUSIONS

Writing for publication can be a challenging yet satisfying endeavor. The ability to examine, relate, and interlink evidence, as well as to provide a peer‐reviewed, disseminated product of your research labors can be rewarding. A few suggestions have been offered in this commentary that may assist the novice or the developing writer to attempt, polish, and perfect their approach to scholarly writing.

Enago Academy

How to Use Articles in Academic Writing

' src=

Articles function as limiting adjectives that help us understand which person, place, thing, or concept is being discussed. Despite their simplistic rules, articles and commas are the most difficult to tackle for non-native English speakers. Article usage can be quite idiosyncratic in academic writing, and when writing manuscripts, one has to be particularly aware of the context of usage. In this post, we shall systematically categorize article usage in academic writing.

Native usage of articles develops over time as a result of extensive reading, observation, contextual understanding, and, of course, participation in conversation. However, in most cases, the proper article to be used can be determined by asking a few simple questions.

academic-writing

Hence, the first step is to determine whether the noun is a proper noun (definite article or no article) or common noun (indefinite articles). Next, in case of a common noun, it is important to determine whether the reference is generic or specific. Generic references would mean that a noun represents all examples without mentioning a specific category (e.g., policies vs. economic policies).Specific references would include introducing a common noun in a text (with an indefinite article or no articles) and using the definite article in consequent references. Article usage may then vary with the context.

Related: Need help with language and grammar for securing a $500,000 research grant? Check out this section today!

Use of the Definite Article

Proper noun.

1.  The United Nations, founded in 1945, is currently made up of 193 Member States.

2. Tumor resection with cardiopulmonary bypass (CPB) is still disputable in the field of oncology.

Contextual (specific) Reference

The method introduced in H1 yielded the same results as the other method used in H2 . (where the method has already been introduced; thus, it is a noun that has already been defined and can be referred to using the definite article)

Use of Indefinite Articles

If the noun that is being defined/modified is one of many (i.e., an example or a single member of a group), indefinite articles such as “a” or “an” should be used:

Human Genome Project was an exciting development towards personalized medicine.

Article Usage with Countable and Non-count Nouns

1. If a noun is being used as a representative of every instance or individual, its singular form can be used along with the definite article.

The smartphone has become an inalienable part of modern existence.

Alternatively, the plural form can also be used for a generic reference. However, the definite article must be omitted in this case.

Smartphones have become an inalienable part of modern existence.

2. In English, mass nouns are ones that cannot be counted and usually lack a plural in general usage.

Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it. (Albert Einstein)
  • No article is used when a plural noun is introduced in the text (first mention). However, the definite article can be used to refer to that specific noun from the second mention onwards for clarity.
  • Articles are usually omitted in titles and headlines to save space and boost impact.

References:

The Learning Centre (2016, August) Article Usage and Count and Non-count Nouns. Retrieved from http://www.vaniercollege.qc.ca/tlc/files/2016/08/Article-Usage-Count-Non-Count-Nouns.pdf

Articles . Retrieved from  https://www.grammarly.com/blog/articles/

The Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill. Articles. Retrieved from http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/articles/

David Appleyard. David Appleyard’s Guide to Article Usage in English. Retrieved from https://davidappleyard.com/english/index.html

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Students often write or create academic writing for their project, assignment or thesis for their school. Academic writing is one of the methods that we students are crucial in making mistakes. We don’t usually notice even a small flaw on our paper. This article titled, How to use articles in academic writing, explains how we must apply specific words on our writing. We must determine what we are aiming to do on our paper for us to know how to write it. Articles helps us what concept we are discussing in our paper that is why it has to be organized, systematic, brief and most especially free from mistakes. It was explained here that your article can be defined as proper noun or common noun. Definite article or proper noun presents a specific article. It uses proper nouns to present the articles. While Indefinite article uses common nouns. Under it are countable and non-count nouns. Countable nouns are used as a representative of every instance or individual, its singular form can be used along with the definite article. While non-count words are mass nouns are ones that cannot be counted and usually lack a plural in general usage. As you can see if we students almost write every day and don’t know anything about this topic then we will fail not just as writers but also as students because we failed to present our writing in a correct way. Always remember this topic and apply this to your everyday life either you’re a writer or not

Thanks for the nice explanation. In the text, you wrote “Alternatively, the plural form can also be used for a generic reference.”. The plural form is not a specific one in this context. I think it should be ‘a plural form’. Isn’t it?

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Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us. We meant the plural form of the noun discussed in the previous example and hence used “the”. However, “a plural form” could also be used instead.

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Article Usage

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  • Reporting Research

A Vs. An Vs. The: Knowing When to Use the Right Article

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For more information on writing your scientific papers, here are some good resources:

http://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/scientific-reports/

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1559667/

The Scientific Method

When writing or reading about science, it is useful to keep the scientific method in mind. The scientific method is used as a model to construct writing that can be shared with others in a logical and informative way. Any piece of scientific writing is informative and persuasive: informative because the author is telling the audience how he or she conducted their research and what new information they learned, and persuasive because science papers demonstrate how that new information was obtained and what conclusions can be drawn from the data collected. The format of most journal articles follows the steps of the scientific method, with Introduction, Methods, and Results sections at a minimum. 

Scientific method

Evidence and Argumentation

Science writing has a persuasive element to it. Researchers need to convince others that they have done their experiments properly and that they have answered their central research questions. Therefore, all science papers, even theoretical ones, make use of evidence to support their points. Remember that statistical measures, while extremely useful, are not the only source of evidence. Observations of even a single event can be useful in the right context. Remember to use logic to link your evidence and claims together!

Tips for writing a persuasive paper:  http://www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/awolaver/term1.htm

Relating evidence and ideas:  http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/coreofscience_01

Clarity and Reader Expectations

Many people complain that scientific literature is difficult to understand because of the complicated language and the use of jargon. However, scientific literature can be difficult to understand even if one is familiar with the concepts being discussed.

To avoid confusing the reader, writers should focus on writing clearly and keeping the reader’s expectations in mind. In a scientific paper, it is important that most readers will agree with the information being presented. Writing in a clear and concise way helps the writer accomplish this. Use the paper as a story-telling medium. Concentrate on showing the reader that your experiments show definite conclusion, and how this contribution changes the state of knowledge in the field.

Gopen and Swan (1990) offer the following seven easy ways to make your writing more clear and to say what you want the reader to hear.

  • Follow a grammatical subject as soon as possible with its verb.
  • Place in the stress position the "new information" you want the reader to emphasize. 
  • Place the person or thing whose "story" a sentence is telling at the beginning of the sentence, in the topic position. 
  • Place appropriate "old information" (material already stated in the discourse) in the topic position for linkage backward and contextualization forward. 
  • Articulate the action of every clause or sentence in its verb. 
  • In general, provide context for your reader before asking that reader to consider anything new. 
  • In general, try to ensure that the relative emphases of the substance coincide with the relative expectations for emphasis raised by the structure.

[Gopen, G. and Swan, J. 1990. The Science of Scientific Writing. American Scientist. Available here: https://www.americanscientist.org/blog/the-long-view/the-science-of-scientific-writing  ]

One major problem many students have when they start writing papers is using so called “running jumps.” This is the placement of unnecessary words at the beginning of a sentence. For example:

RUNNING JUMP: According to the researchers, the control group showed more change in chlorophyll production (Smith et. al., 2014).

NO RUNNING JUMP: The control group showed more change in chlorophyll production (Smith et. al., 2014).

We’ve already cited a study, so it’s clear that we are referring to researchers and their findings. So the first part of the sentence is unnecessary. 

Try to limit the number of ideas expressed in a single sentence. If a sentence seems like it is trying to say more than two things at once, split it into two sentences.  If a sentence is long and tangled and just doesn't make sense, don't try to perform "surgery" to fix the sentence. Instead, "kill" the sentence and start over, using short, direct sentences to express what you mean.

If you can make a noun phrase into a verb, do it! For example, made note of = noted, provided a similar opinion = agreed with, conducted an experiment = experimented, etc.

Avoid the Passive Voice Where You Can

If a sentence is written in the passive voice, the subject of the sentence (person/thing doing the action) does not come first; rather, the object of the sentence (person/thing not doing the action) is the first noun in the sentence. 

PASSIVE: Radiation was the mechanism by which the samples were sterilized.

MORE ACTIVE: The samples were sterilized using radiation.

ACTIVE: We sterilized the samples using radiation.

Professors (and scientific journals) have differing opinions on the use of passive voice. Some consider it unacceptable, but many are more lenient. And in fact, often it will make more sense to write in the passive voice in certain sections (i.e. Methods) and when you can't use first-person pronouns like "I." In any case, reducing overuse of passive voice in your writing makes it more concise and easier to understand.

Here's a useful link for clear scientific writing style: http://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/effective-writing-13815989

Posters are often used as an accompaniment to a talk or presentation, or as a substitute. You’ve probably seen posters hanging up around campus, showcasing students' research. The idea of a poster is to simplify a study and present it in a visual way, so it can be understood by a wide audience. The most important thing to remember when designing a poster (or completing any kind of published work) is to follow the guidelines given. If your instructor, or the conference you’re presenting at, wants a certain format, adhere to that format. These three rules are especially important to follow:

  • Shorter is better: make sure that your poster does not contain too much text! Packing text onto the poster makes it difficult to read and understand.
  • Bigger is better. No, this is not a contradiction of rule 1! Make sure your text is large enough to read, and readable against the background of the poster.
  • Use images. The key aspect of a poster is that it is a visual medium. Include graphs, photos, and illustrations of your work.

Here are some excellent tips and templates for research posters: 

1.  http://colinpurrington.com/tips/academic/posterdesign

2. http://www.waspacegrant.org

3.  http://www.personal.psu.edu/drs18/postershow/ : Poster tips from Penn State

Most scientific citation styles are based on APA format. It’s totally okay to use a resource to look up how to format a paper in APA style! As you become more familiar with the format, you will become less reliant on these resources, but for now, here are some sites that may be useful .

Our APA guide

APA Style Official Website

  • Last Updated: Jul 21, 2021 3:01 PM
  • URL: https://research.ewu.edu/writers_center_sci_writing

The Writing Center • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

What this handout is about

When we use nouns in English, articles (a, an, and the) specify which and how many nouns we mean. To choose the correct article for your sentence, you need to answer two questions. First, do I mean this one exactly, one of many, or all of them everywhere? Second, is the noun count or non-count? This handout explains these questions and how their answers help determine which article to use.

Using this handout

As you use the handout, try to keep three things in mind:

  • First, this handout will be most effective if you use it as a tool. Every time you read this handout, read it along side another piece of writing (a journal article, a magazine, a web page, a novel, a text book, etc.). Locate a few nouns in the reading, and use the handout to analyze the article usage. If you practice a little bit at a time, this kind of analysis can help you develop a natural sensitivity to this complex system.
  • Second, using articles correctly is a skill that develops over time through lots of reading, writing, speaking and listening. Think about the rules in this handout, but also try to pay attention to how articles are being used in the language around you. Simply paying attention can also help you develop a natural sensitivity to this complex system.
  • Finally, although using the wrong article may distract a reader’s attention, it usually does not prevent the reader from understanding your meaning. So be patient with yourself as you learn.

Basic rules

This is a simple list, but understanding it and remembering it is crucial to using articles correctly.

Rule # 1: Every time a noun is mentioned, the writer is referring to:

  • All of them everywhere (“generic” reference),
  • One of many, (“indefinite” reference) or
  • This one exactly (“definite” reference)

Rule # 2: Every kind of reference has a choice of articles:

  • All of them everywhere…(Ø, a/an, the)
  • One of many……………..(Ø, a/an)
  • This one exactly…………(Ø, the)

(Ø = no article)

Rule # 3: The choice of article depends upon the noun and the context. This will be explained more fully below.

Basic questions

To choose the best article, ask yourself these questions:

  • “What do I mean? Do I mean all of them everywhere, one of many, or this one exactly?”
  • “What kind of noun is it? Is it countable or not? Is it singular or plural? Does it have any special rules?”

Your answers to these questions will usually determine the correct article choice, and the following sections will show you how.

When you mean “all of them everywhere”

Talking about “all of them everywhere” is also called “generic reference.” We use it to make generalizations: to say something true of all the nouns in a particular group, like an entire species of animal. When you mean “all of them everywhere,” you have three article choices: Ø, a/an, the. The choice of article depends on the noun. Ask yourself, “What kind of noun is it?”

Non-count nouns = no article (Ø)

  • Temperature is measured in degrees.
  • Money makes the world go around.

Plural nouns = no article (Ø)

  • Volcanoes are formed by pressure under the earth’s surface.
  • Quagga zebras were hunted to extinction.

Singular nouns = the

  • The computer is a marvelous invention.
  • The elephant lives in family groups.

Note: We use this form (the + singular) most often in technical and scientific writing to generalize about classes of animals, body organs, plants, musical instruments, and complex inventions. We do not use this form for simple inanimate objects, like books or coat racks. For these objects, use (Ø + plural).

Singular nouns = a/an when a single example represents the entire group

  • A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.
  • A doctor is a highly educated person. Generally speaking, a doctor also has tremendous earning potential.

How do you know it’s generic? The “all…everywhere” test

Here’s a simple test you can use to identify generic references while you’re reading. To use this test, substitute “all [plural noun] everywhere” for the noun phrase. If the statement is still true, it’s probably a generic reference. Example:

  • A whale protects its young—”All whales everywhere” protect their young. (true—generic reference)
  • A whale is grounded on the beach—”All whales everywhere” are grounded on the beach. (not true, so this is not a generic reference; this “a” refers to “one of many”)

You’ll probably find generic references most often in the introduction and conclusion sections and at the beginning of a paragraph that introduces a new topic.

When you mean “one of many”

Talking about “one of many” is also called “indefinite reference.” We use it when the noun’s exact identity is unknown to one of the participants: the reader, the writer, or both. Sometimes it’s not possible for the reader or the writer to identify the noun exactly; sometimes it’s not important. In either case, the noun is just “one of many.” It’s “indefinite.” When you mean “one of many,” you have two article choices: Ø, a/an. The choice of article depends on the noun. Ask yourself, “What kind of noun is it?”

  • Our science class mixed boric acid with water today.
  • We serve bread and water on weekends.
  • We’re happy when people bring cookies!
  • We need volunteers to help with community events.

Singular nouns = a/an

  • Bring an umbrella if it looks like rain.
  • You’ll need a visa to stay for more than ninety days.

Note: We use many different expressions for an indefinite quantity of plural or non-count nouns. Words like “some,” “several,” and “many” use no article (e.g., We need some volunteers to help this afternoon. We really need several people at 3:00.) One exception: “a few” + plural noun (We need a few people at 3:00.) In certain situations, we always use “a” or “an.” These situations include:

  • Referring to something that is one of a number of possible things. Example: My lab is planning to purchase a new microscope. (Have you chosen one yet? No, we’re still looking at a number of different models.)
  • Referring to one specific part of a larger quantity. Example: Can I have a bowl of cereal and a slice of toast? (Don’t you want the whole box of cereal and the whole loaf of bread? No, thanks. Just a bowl and a slice will be fine.)
  • With certain indefinite quantifiers. Example: We met a lot of interesting people last night. (You can also say “a bunch of” or “a ton of” when you want to be vague about the exact quantity. Note that these expressions are all phrases: a + quantifier + of.)
  • Exception: “A few of” does not fit this category. See Number 8 in the next section for the correct usage of this expression.
  • Specifying information associated with each item of a grouping. Example: My attorney asked for $200 an hour, but I’ll offer him $200 a week instead. (In this case, “a” can substitute for the word “per.”)
  • Introducing a noun to the reader for the first time (also called “first mention”). Use “the” for each subsequent reference to that noun if you mean “this one exactly.” Example: I presented a paper last month, and my advisor wants me to turn the paper into an article. If I can get the article written this semester, I can take a break after that! I really need a break!

Note: The writer does not change from “a break” to “the break” with the second mention because she is not referring to one break in particular (“this break exactly”). It’s indefinite—any break will be fine!!

When you mean “this one exactly”

Talking about “this one exactly” is also called “definite reference.” We use it when both the reader and the writer can identify the exact noun that is being referred to. When you mean “this one exactly,” you have two article choices: Ø, the. The choice of article depends on the noun and on the context. Ask yourself, “What kind of noun is it?”

(Most) Proper nouns = no article (Ø)

  • My research will be conducted in Luxembourg.
  • Dr. Homer inspired my interest in Ontario.

Note: Some proper nouns do require “the.” See the special notes on nouns below.

Non-count nouns = the

  • Step two: mix the water with the boric acid.
  • The laughter of my children is contagious.

Plural nouns = the

  • We recruited the nurses from General Hospital.
  • The projects described in your proposal will be fully funded.
  • Bring the umbrella in my closet if it looks like rain.
  • Did you get the visa you applied for?

In certain situations, we always use “the” because the noun or the context makes it clear that we’re talking about “this one exactly.” The context might include the words surrounding the noun or the context of knowledge that people share. Examples of these situations include:

Unique nouns

  • The earth rotates around the sun.
  • The future looks bright!

Shared knowledge (both participants know what’s being referred to, so it’s not necessary to specify with any more details)

  • The boss just asked about the report.
  • Meet me in the parking lot after the show.

Second mention (with explicit first mention)

  • I found a good handout on English articles. The handout is available online.
  • You can get a giant ice cream cone downtown. If you can eat the cone in five seconds, you get another one free.

Second mention (with implied first mention—this one is very, very common)

  • Dr. Frankenstein performed a complicated surgery. He said the patient is recovering nicely. (“The patient” is implied by “surgery”—every surgery has a patient.)
  • My new shredder works fabulously! The paper is completely destroyed. (Again, “the paper” is implied by “shredder.”)

Ordinals and superlatives (first, next, primary, most, best, least, etc.)

  • The first man to set foot on the moon…
  • The greatest advances in medicine…

Specifiers (sole, only, principle, etc.)

  • The sole purpose of our organization is…
  • The only fact we need to consider is…

Restricters (words, phrases, or clauses that restrict the noun to one definite meaning)

  • Study the chapter on osmosis for the test tomorrow.
  • Also study the notes you took at the lecture that Dr. Science gave yesterday.

Plural nouns in partitive -of phrases (phrases that indicate parts of a larger whole) (Note: Treat “of the” as a chunk in these phrases—both words in or both words out)

  • Most of the international students have met their advisors, but a few of them have appointments next week. (emphasis on part of the group, and more definite reference to a specific group of international students, like the international students at UNC)
  • Most international students take advantage of academic advising during their college careers. (emphasis on the group as a whole, and more generic reference to international students everywhere)
  • Several of the risk factors should be considered carefully, but the others are only minor concerns. (emphasis on part of the group)
  • Several risk factors need to be considered carefully before we proceed with the project. (emphasis on the group as a whole)
  • A few of the examples were hard to understand, but the others were very clear. (emphasis on part of the group)
  • A few examples may help illustrate the situation clearly. (emphasis on the group as a whole)

Note: “Few examples” is different from “a few examples.” Compare:

  • The teacher gave a few good examples. (a = emphasizes the presence of good examples)
  • The teacher gave few good examples. (no article = emphasizes the lack of good examples)

Article flowchart

For the more visually oriented, this flowchart sketches out the basic rules and basic questions.

An image of a flowchart that visually represents the questions and information above to assist in determining what kind of article one should use in different contexts.

Some notes about nouns

Uncountable nouns.

As the name suggests, uncountable nouns (also called non-count or mass nouns) are things that can not be counted. They use no article for generic and indefinite reference, and use “the” for definite reference. Uncountable nouns fall into several categories:

  • Abstractions: laughter, information, beauty, love, work, knowledge
  • Fields of study: biology, medicine, history, civics, politics (some end in -s but are non-count)
  • Recreational activities: football, camping, soccer, dancing (these words often end in -ing)
  • Natural phenomena: weather, rain, sunshine, fog, snow (but events are countable: a hurricane, a blizzard, a tornado)
  • Whole groups of similar/identical objects: furniture, luggage, food, money, cash, clothes
  • Liquids, gases, solids, and minerals: water, air, gasoline, coffee, wood, iron, lead, boric acid
  • Powders and granules: rice, sand, dust, calcium carbonate
  • Diseases: cancer, diabetes, schizophrenia (but traumas are countable: a stroke, a heart attack, etc.)

Note: Different languages might classify nouns differently

  • “Research” and “information” are good examples of nouns that are non-count in American English but countable in other languages and other varieties of English.

Strategy: Check a dictionary. A learner’s dictionary will indicate whether the noun is countable or not. A regular dictionary will give a plural form if the noun is countable. Note: Some nouns have both count and non-count meanings Some nouns have both count and non-count meanings in everyday usage. Some non-count nouns have count meanings only for specialists in a particular field who consider distinct varieties of something that an average person would not differentiate. Non-count meanings follow the rules for non-count nouns (generic and indefinite reference: no article; definite: “the”); count meanings follow the count rules (a/an for singular, no article for plural). Can you see the difference between these examples?

  • John’s performance on all three exams was exceptional.
  • John’s performances of Shakespeare were exceptional.
  • To be well educated, you need good instruction.
  • To assemble a complicated machine, you need good instructions.

Proper nouns

Proper nouns (names of people, places, religions, languages, etc.) are always definite. They take either “the” or no article. Use “the” for regions (like the Arctic) and for a place that’s made up of a collection of smaller parts (like a collection of islands, mountains, lakes, etc.). Examples:

  • Places (singular, no article): Lake Erie, Paris, Zimbabwe, Mount Rushmore
  • Places (collective, regional, “the”): the Great Lakes, the Middle East, the Caribbean

Note: Proper nouns in theory names may or may not take articles When a person’s name is part of a theory, device, principle, law, etc., use “the” when the name does not have a possessive apostrophe. Do not use “the” when the name has an apostrophe. Examples:

Note: Articles change when proper nouns function as adjectives Notice how the article changes with “Great Lakes” in the examples below. When place names are used as adjectives, follow the article rule for the noun they are modifying. Examples: I’m studying …

  • …the Great Lakes. (as noun)
  • …a Great Lakes shipwreck.(as adjective with “one of many” singular noun)
  • …the newest Great Lakes museum. (as adjective with “this one exactly” singular noun)
  • …Great Lakes shipping policies. (as adjective with “one of many” plural noun)
  • …Great Lakes history. (as adjective with “one of many” uncountable noun)

Works consulted

We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.

Byrd, Patricia, and Beverly Benson. 1993. Problem/Solution: A Reference for ESL Writers . Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Celce-Murcia, Marianne, and Diane Larsen-Freeman. 2015. The Grammar Book: An ESL/EFL Teacher’s Course , 3rd ed. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Swales, John, and Christine B. Feak. 2012. Academic Writing for Graduate Students: Essential Tasks and Skills , 3rd ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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  • Knowledge Base
  • Parts of speech
  • Definite and Indefinite Articles | When to Use “The”, “A” or “An”

Definite and Indefinite Articles | When to Use "The", "A" or "An"

Published on February 11, 2016 by Sarah Vinz . Revised on November 16, 2022.

English has two types of articles to precede nouns : definite (the) and indefinite (a/an). You can improve the articles that appear in your dissertation by:

  • not using unnecessary articles with plural nouns,
  • not using “a” or “an” with uncountable nouns,
  • using articles with singular countable nouns,
  • correctly choosing “a” or “an” in front of an acronym,
  • correctly deciding if an acronym for an entity needs “the,”
  • correctly identifying if a country name needs “the.”

Table of contents

Avoid using unnecessary articles with plural nouns, don’t use “a” or “an” with uncountable nouns, use an article (or other determiner) with a singular countable noun, correctly choose “a” or “an” in front of an acronym, correctly decide if an acronym for an entity needs “the”, correctly identify if a country name needs “the”, other interesting language articles.

If you are using a plural noun (such as students, criteria, or theses), you usually don’t need to use “the.”

The exception is if you want to distinguish that you are talking about a particular group of people or things.

Check for common mistakes

Use the best grammar checker available to check for common mistakes in your text.

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As the term implies, an uncountable noun (mass noun) is something that normally cannot be counted (such as air, anger, information, knowledge, research, rice, and training).

Uncountable nouns cannot be accompanied by “a” or “an,” as it’s impossible to have one of these things. If you really want to talk about one of something, the easiest option is to replace the uncountable noun with one that is countable. Another option is to add a countable noun after the uncountable noun.

Singular countable nouns (such as formula, participant, and professor) generally cannot stand on their own. If you are not using a possessive (e.g., my, your, her) or a demonstrative (e.g., this, that), you should use an article or other determiner .

Most writers know that words starting with a consonant sound need “a” (e.g., a study, a participant, a European), while words starting with a vowel sound need “an” (e.g., an observation, an interview, an Ethiopian).

The same is true with acronyms (or initialisms), which are formed using the first letter of a series of words (such as SWOT for s trengths, w eaknesses, o pportunities, and t hreats). When deciding whether “a” or “an” is appropriate, focus on how the acronym would be pronounced. For instance, at first glance it might seem like “a HR manager” is right; however, given the way it is read, “an HR manager” is the correct choice.

Examples acronyms with a/an

Many employees earned an MBA or a PhD from an EU-accredited program.

After it creates an R&D department, the agency plans to apply for an FAO grant.

Having an HQ abroad can be difficult for a company with a HEPNET project.

Acronyms that relate to organizations and countries have their own special guidelines when it comes to “the.”

The general test is whether an acronym would be read letter by letter (as in ADB) or pronounced as a word (as in NATO). Acronyms that are read letter by letter usually need “the”:

Examples acronyms with “the”

The headquarters of the UN are in the US .

Several delegations from the EU have visited the UAE .

In contrast, acronyms that are read as words normally do not need “the”:

Examples acronyms without “the”

The secretary-general of OPEC used to work at UNESCO .

Officials from FIFA are currently under scrutiny.

Most country names do not need an article. For instance, we say “The researcher traveled to Zimbabwe” or “The study was conducted in Thailand.” However, “the” is needed in the following circumstances:

Note that when it comes before a country name, “the” does not need to be capitalized.

If you want to know more about nouns , pronouns , verbs , and other parts of speech , make sure to check out some of our other language articles with explanations and examples.

Nouns & pronouns

  • Common nouns
  • Proper nouns
  • Collective nouns
  • Personal pronouns
  • Uncountable and countable nouns
  • Verb tenses
  • Phrasal verbs
  • Types of verbs
  • Active vs passive voice
  • Subject-verb agreement
  • Conjunctions
  • Interjections
  • Determiners
  • Prepositions

Sources in this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

Vinz, S. (2022, November 16). Definite and Indefinite Articles | When to Use "The", "A" or "An". Scribbr. Retrieved February 19, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/parts-of-speech/articles/
Aarts, B. (2011).  Oxford modern English grammar . Oxford University Press.
Butterfield, J. (Ed.). (2015).  Fowler’s dictionary of modern English usage  (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.
Garner, B. A. (2016).  Garner’s modern English usage (4th ed.). Oxford University Press.

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4.39: Articles

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There are three articles in the English language:  the ,  a , and an . These are divided into two types of articles: definite ( the ) and indefinite ( a ,  an ). The definite article indicates a level of specificity that the indefinite does not. “An apple” could refer to any apple; however “the apple” is referring back to a specific apple.

Thus, when using the definite article, the speaker assumes the listener knows the identity of the noun’s referent (because it is obvious, because it is common knowledge, or because it was mentioned in the same sentence or an earlier sentence). Use of an indefinite article implies that the speaker assumes the listener does not have to be told the identity of the referent.

There are also cases where no article is required:

  • with generic nouns (plural or uncountable): cars have accelerators , happiness is contagious , referring to cars in general and happiness in general (compare the happiness I felt yesterday , specifying particular happiness);
  • with many proper names: Sabrina , France , London , etc.

Watch this quick introduction to indefinite and definite articles and the difference between the two:

Thumbnail for the embedded element "Definite and indefinite articles | The parts of speech | Grammar | Khan Academy"

A YouTube element has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view it online here: http://pb.libretexts.org/gw/?p=112

Indefinite Article

The indefinite article of English takes the two forms a and an . These can be regarded as meaning “one,” usually without emphasis.

Distinction between a and an

an icon showing the article a

  • a HEPA filter (HEPA is pronounced as a word rather than as letters)
  • a one-armed bandit (pronounced “won. . . “)
  • a unicorn (pronounced “yoo. . . “)

an icon showing the article an

  • an EPA policy (the letter  E read as a letter still starts with a vowel sound)
  • an SSO (pronounced “es-es-oh”)
  • an hour (the h is silent)
  • an heir (pronounced “air”)

Look at the following words. When they require an indefinite article, should it be  a or  an ?

  • SEO specialist

[reveal-answer q=”172524″]Show Answer[/reveal-answer] [hidden-answer a=”172524″]

  • a ewe: The word is pronounced “you”; it starts with a consonant sound.
  • an SEO specialist: The word is pronounced “es-ee-oh”; it starts with a vowel sound.
  • an apple: The word starts with,  a , a vowel sound.
  • a URL: The word is pronounced “yoo-ar-el”; it starts with a consonant sound.
  • an herb: The  h is silent, so the word is pronounced “erb”; it starts with a vowel sound.

[/hidden-answer]

Definite Article

The definite article the is used when the referent of the noun phrase is assumed to be unique or known from the context. For example, in the sentence “The boy with glasses was looking at the moon,” it is assumed that in the context the reference can only be to one boy and one moon.

The can be used with both singular and plural nouns, with nouns of any gender, and with nouns that start with any letter. This is different from many other languages which have different articles for different genders or numbers.  The is the most commonly used word in the English language.

Choose the article that should go in each sentence:

  • Every day, I eat (a / an / the) egg salad sandwich.
  • I love looking at (a / an / the) stars with you.
  • Dani was planning to buy (a / an / the) book she had been eyeing as soon as she got paid.
  • (A / An / The) brain like that will get you far in life.

[reveal-answer q=”170373″]Show Answer[/reveal-answer] [hidden-answer a=”170373″]

  • Since you can only eat a sandwich once, there must be a different sandwich every day—thus we need an indefinite article.  Egg starts with an  e sound, so it requires  an not  a .
  • stars is plural, so it cannot take an indefinite article
  • While  a would be an acceptable answer (as  book starts with a consonant sound), the sentence implies that there is a specific book she wants. Thus, the definite article is required.
  • The sentence is about one “brain like that”; there could be several, but the sentence is just talking about one. Thus, the indefinite article is required.  Brain starts with a consonant sound, so  a is required, not  an .

In most cases, the article is the first word of its noun phrase, preceding all other adjectives and modifiers.

The little old red bag held a very big surprise.

There are a few exceptions, however:

  • Certain determiners, such as all , both , half , double , precede the definite article when used in combination ( all the team , both the girls , half the time , double the amount ).
  • Such and  what precede the indefinite article ( such an idiot , what a day! ).
  • Adjectives qualified by too , so , as and how generally precede the indefinite article: too great a loss , so hard a problem , as delicious an apple as I have ever tasted , I know how pretty a girl she is .
  • In quite a long letter ,  quite modifies  letter : it’s quite a letter.
  • In  a quite long letter ,  quite modifies  long : the letter is quite long.

Read the following passage and make any necessary changes. Explain your reasoning for each change.

A Hubble Space Telescope (HST) is a space telescope that was launched into low Earth orbit in 1990, and remains in operation. Although not the first space telescope, Hubble is one of the largest and most versatile, and is well known as both an vital research tool and an public relations boon for astronomy. The HST is named after the astronomer Edwin Hubble.

Hubble’s orbit outside the distortion of Earth’s atmosphere allows it to take extremely high-resolution images. Hubble has recorded the some of most detailed visible-light images ever, allowing the deep view into space and time.

[practice-area rows=”4″][/practice-area] [reveal-answer q=”666227″]Show Answer[/reveal-answer] [hidden-answer a=”666227″]Here is the corrected passage. Each correction has been numbered. Explanations for each correction are given below the passage.

(1) The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) is a space telescope that was launched into low Earth orbit in 1990, and remains in operation. Although not the first space telescope, Hubble is one of the largest and most versatile, and is well known as both (2)  a vital research tool and (3)  a public relations boon for astronomy. The HST is named after the astronomer Edwin Hubble.

Hubble’s orbit outside the distortion of Earth’s atmosphere allows it to take extremely high-resolution images. Hubble has recorded (4)  some of the most detailed visible-light images ever, allowing (5)  a deep view into space and time.

So why were these changes necessary?

  • There is only one Hubble Space Telescope, so it requires the definite article:  the .
  • Vital starts with a consonant sound, so it requires  a not  an .
  • Public starts with a consonant sound, so it requires a not an .
  • As we discussed, phrases like “some of” are exceptions to the general word order rule, and they come before articles.
  • There are several different views into space, and this is just one of them. Thus, we need to use the indefinite article. Deep starts with a consonant, so it requires  a not  an .
  • Revision and Adaptation. Provided by : Lumen Learning. License : CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike
  • English articles. Provided by : Wikipedia. Located at : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_articles . License : CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike
  • Definite and indefinite articles. Authored by : David Rheinstrom. Provided by : Khan Academy. Located at : https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/grammar/partsofspeech/the-modifier/v/definite-and-indefinite-articles . License : CC BY-NC-SA: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike
  • Modification of Hubble Space Telescope (with errors inserted). Provided by : Wikipedia. Located at : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hubble_Space_Telescope . License : CC BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike
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Special Cases in the Use of the Definite Article

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To decide if you should use the word the , ask yourself these three questions:

Is the noun indefinite (unspecified) or definite (specific).

The general rule states that the first mention of a noun is indefinite and all subsequent references to this noun are definite and take the .

A man is walking down a road. There is a dog with the man.

The second mention may be a synonym:

Combine butter, sugar and eggs. Add flour to the mixture.

First (indefinite) mention requires a or an for a singular count noun, no article for a plural or non-count noun. Second mention makes the correct for both count and non-count nouns:

A growing plant must have water and minerals. The plant must also have sunlight. The minerals must include nitrates and the water must not be saline.

Three special groups of nouns are considered definite in reference even if they have not been mentioned in the preceding sentence or clause.

The Prime Minister will arrive tomorrow

because there is only one Prime Minister in Canada, and so it is clear to whom you are referring. Similarly, if there is only one hospital in the town, you can say

He’s been working in the hospital for two years.

But you couldn’t say this in Toronto, where there are many hospitals. You would have to name the particular hospital in your first reference to it:

He’s been working at Toronto General Hospital for two years. He says the hospital is in a financial mess.
e.g., the sun/the earth/the Pope/the sky/the equator
Mexico City is the most populous city in the world. I enjoyed the first part, but I was disappointed at the end. She is the principal researcher.

Is the noun modified?

this/that/these/those/some/any/each/every/no/none/my/mine

do not use the definite article.

e.g., the red books/some red books/no red book/his red books/each red book
We take the regular collection of garbage for granted. The journey to Vancouver take three days by train. No one expected the results that were found.

EXCEPTION : collective nouns take the indefinite article:

a box of matches/a deck of cards/a bar of soap/a herd of cows.

Is the noun generic?

Generic reference is used when one refers to a whole group or class, to generalize about all possible members of a group. There are five patterns one can use:

It’s astonishing what gymnasts can do.
Love can cause a lot of suffering.
It’s astonishing what a gymnast can do.
It’s astonishing what the gymnast can do.
The Chinese have an ancient culture.

Pattern (a) is most common in colloquial English; pattern (d) is frequently used in academic writing.

Special Uses of Articles

Media and communications:.

Use a noun PLUS definite article to refer to systems of communication and the mass media, in contrast to the actual machine of communications. The telephone is the system of communication; a telephone is the actual physical machine.

The newspapers are all in agreement on the latest financial disaster.

Means of transportation:

Use the definite article to refer to the whole transport system, rather than to an individual vehicle:

How long does it take on the bus? The subway is quicker.

Forms of entertainment:

To refer to a form of entertainment in general, use the definite article:

I enjoy seeing the ballet.

To refer to a particular event, use the indefinite article:

I saw a good movie last night.

Place/object of activity nouns:

Certain nouns refer to either a place/object or to an activity. When they refer to an activity, do not use the definite article:

activity object I go to bed at 11 o’clock. Don’t jump on the bed . She went to school for many years. The school was too small. Many families eat dinner together. The dinner was delicious. I shower before breakfast . The breakfast was delicious. They are at church . The church is very old. She is in class . The class is in Room 102.

Directions:

Nouns indicating direction do not take the definite article:

Go two blocks south and turn left .

Periods of time:

Names of decades, centuries and historic periods take the definite article, as they are a form of unique reference:

The 1960s were a time of student rebellion.
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  • Writing Tips

A Simple Guide to Definite Articles

A Simple Guide to Definite Articles

3-minute read

  • 9th March 2023

If you’re unsure what a definite article is, you’ve come to the right place! Knowing when to use definite and indefinite articles can be a confusing part of learning English, so we’ve put together this simple guide to help you out.

Definite Articles: A Definition

To understand what a definite article is, you need to know what an article is. Articles are adjectives placed before a noun to introduce it. The main ones in English (and, according to most definitions, the only articles) are “a,” “an,” and “the.”

A definite article is used to talk about a specific noun. And in English, there’s only one: “the”! A specific noun can mean several things. Use the definite article when:

There’s Only One of a Certain Type of Noun

If there’s only one of something, you should use “the” to specify that. For example:

This also applies if there’s more than one noun, but only one relating to a certain context. For example:

In this sense, you also use “the” if a noun is described along with a superlative adjective . For example:

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You’ve Already Mentioned the Noun

If you use a noun, you can use “the” the second time you refer to it because the reader will already know which one you’re talking about. For example:

You’re Generalizing a Plural Noun

You should use “the” if you’re talking about a shared feature of a c ollective noun . This is common in scientific or academic language. It’s also how we often describe musical instruments. For example:

Using Definite Articles With Proper Nouns

Since the names of people and places are already specific, they don’t always need a definite article:

However, if the name of a proper noun is plural, such as the Philippines or the Rocky Mountains , then it does need a definite article. And if the name includes a more general noun, such as Kingdom , States , or Republic (e.g., the United States ), then it also needs a definite article.

“The” is the only definite article in English, and it’s used for specific nouns, where the reader knows exactly which one you’re talking about. To learn more, check out our common writing errors guide . Or if you’d like to have your work checked by a professional to make sure you’re using articles correctly, we’re happy to help! Try it out for free !

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