2.6- A few grammar tips
For example, if we say "Brain tumors are relatively rare compared with more common cancers such as those of the lung, breast, and prostate. And I think the authors realized that because they did not set the have been found to co-occur with diabetes off with commas so they knew it was essential material. Something I was editing, "Stroke incidence data are obtained from sources, which use the ICD classification systems."
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I’m going to end this unit with a few tips on grammar. This is certainly not a course that focuses on grammar, but there are a few little grammar tips that I want to point out to you because they are especially relevant to scientific manuscripts. The first one has to do with the word data. You may not realize, but the word data is actually plural. You don’t say the data is or the data shows you say the data are or the data show. Most people get this wrong in speaking and in writing so it’s just something you have to teach yourself. After years of editing this now only the plural form sounds right in my head, but it took me a while to get used to it. So you would say these data show, the data support, the data are critical. You would only use the singular form if you were talking about one data point, a datum, which we hardly ever do. Be careful about the use of affect versus effect. It’s very easy to mix these two up and it may not be caught by your grammar checker. Affect with an A is the verb form and effect with an E is the noun form. Affect is a verb to influence, effect is the noun form of this influence. So you would say the class affected her or you would say the class had an effect on her. Now there are some exceptions. I just want to point out that, in general, affect is the verb and effect is the noun, but there are a couple of exceptions. I’m going to point them out just for fun. Affect does have a noun form. It’s hardly used outside of psychology but in psychology affect denotes a feeling or an emotion or an expression. There’s also a verb form of effect. Again, it’s only used in a very specific case, but you can say that someone effected a change. This means they brought about a change. Those are the exceptions, but, in general, affect is the verb form and effect is the noun form. This error is common. This is actually a headline from a newspaper I saw this a few years back. Some editor got it wrong. It says terrorist plots effect the beauty industry. Well, of course, we want not effect there but the verb form affect. Now, your scientific manuscript is not going to be rejected just because you make a small grammar mistake like this, but it shows professionalism if you get these things right and it shows sloppiness if you don’t. Here’s another one that a lot of people don’t know. There’s actually a difference between compared to and compared with. Compared to is used when you want to point out similarities between different things and this is a less common use. You might use it when you’re making metaphors. So the classic example is: Shall I compare the to a summer’s day? You’re comparing a person to a summer’s day. Those things are very different and you’re trying to find something similar between them. In the sciences we almost always want to use compared with. Compare with means that you’re pointing out differences between similar things which is usually what we’re doing in science. We might be comparing two groups of mice or two tumors. For example, if we say “Brain tumors are relatively rare compared with more common cancers such as those of the lung, breast, and prostate. Compared with is correct here because we’re comparing things that are similar, different types of tumors, and finding differences between them. Again, in science you almost always want to use compared with and not compared to. So watch out for that one. The use of that and which often gets confused so pay attention to this one. I edit this a lot. That is used when you have a restrictive or essential clause and which is used when you have a nonrestrictive or non essential clause. The easiest way to get this right is to recognize that clauses with which are set off with commas and clauses with that are not set off with commas. And let me give you an example. Here are two sentences. The vial that contained her RNA was lost. When you use that the vial that contained her RNA was lost, you are saying that there is, you are implying, that there is more than one vial. So the vial that contained her RNA was lost but maybe the vial that contained her DNA wasn’t. That descriptor that contained her RNA is essential because there are multiple vials and you have to tell me which one you’re talking about. Compare that to the second sentence. The vial which contained her RNA was lost in that sentence there’s only one vial in question. Everybody knows what vial we’re talking about. There’s only one. Since there’s only one vial in question, the fact that it contains her RNA is not essential. That’s extra information so we can set it off with commas or even remove it entirely and it doesn’t change the meaning. I’ll give you some more examples of that versus which. This was a sentence I was editing. It says other disorders which have been found to co-occur with diabetes include heart disease and foot problems. The which is not correct here because have been found to co-occur with diabetes is an essential clause so instead of which we need a that there. And I think the authors realized that because they did not set the have been found to co-occur with diabetes off with commas so they knew it was essential material. There we’re specifically talking about disorders that have been found to co-occur with diabetes so that material is essential so we have to use that. The key question to ask yourself in trying to get this right is, is your clause essential or non-essential. If it’s essential you can’t eliminate the clause from the sentence without changing the meaning. In that case use that. If it’s non-essential information it can be set off with commas and it can be eliminated from the sentence without altering the meaning and then you use which. One more example. Notice the difference between these two. The bike that is broken is in the garage. That implies that there is more than one bike. The bike that’s broken is in the garage, but the one that’s working maybe that one is in the driveway. It identifies one bike out of many. So the fact that it’s broken as opposed to not broken is essential information. It identifies which bike we’re talking about. Compare that to the second sentence. The bike, which is broken is in the garage. In this case there’s only one bike in question and we are just adding an extra piece of information about that particular bike. It happens to be broken. It’s not essential information because there’s only one bike that we’re talking about so we can set it off with commas and we use which. I’ll once again mention the elements of style by Strunk and White. That’s a great book to pick up if you have time. They say careful writers, watchful for small conveniences, go witch hunting, remove the defining witches, and by doing so improve their work. And just to show you that even some of the best writers get the little grammar things wrong. The late physicist Richard Feynman was a wonderful writer, also a wonderful researcher. I’ll be using some examples from his writing in this course as examples of good writing. But here’s something he had written, “When we say we are a pile of atoms, we do not mean we are merely a pile of atoms because a pile of atoms which is not repeated from one to the other might well have the possibilities which you see before you in the mirror.” And notice that there are two whiches in there and notice they are not set off with commas. Those are actually essential clauses so both of those should have been thats. It should be that and that. So even the best of us get these things wrong occasionally but pay attention and try to get them right when you can. One more example. Something I was editing, “Stroke incidence data are obtained from sources, which use the ICD classification systems.” The authors set off the ‘which use the ICD classification systems’ with commas here, but actually you can see that that comma, that pause is kind of funny. There shouldn’t be a pause. This is not extra information. We need to be told what sources we’re talking about and you can see that because if you just stopped the sentence at stroke incidence data are obtained from sources it wouldn’t make any sense. It leaves the reader hanging. The type of sources is essential. So we have an essential clause. We don’t want to set it off with commas and we want to use that. So we would say, “Stroke incidence data are obtained from sources that use the ICD classification systems.” Finally, one last thing to pay attention to is the use of the pronouns they or their when the subject of your sentence is singular. You want to have agreement here. So if you say each student worries about their grade that’s actually incorrect. It should be each student read about her grade or each student worries about his grade. I think this one’s tricky because in order to do this right you have to make a gender choice. So if you want to keep the whole thing singular you’re going to have to choose he or she or him or her and you could write his slash her but that gets a little awkward and so oftentimes that’s why we end up choosing their or they instead. So my recommendation to get around this issue is just to avoid using the singular when you find yourself in this situation. Instead of saying each student worries about her grade or each student worries about his grade or each student worries about his/her grade. Just turn it into the plural and say all students worry about their grades. That’s a way to avoid having a disagreement here.
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