In part 1 and part 2 of this post, I discussed some of the problems of lack of clarity and of verbosity that are common in academic writing and gave two examples of how typical constructions can be greatly improved in clarity and simplicity by applying Plain Language principles. In this final part of the post, I provide two slightly more involved example sentences.
Noun strings, unnecessary verbiage and mangled meaning as barriers to understanding
The immune system principal regulator gene expression was found to have an association with the employed drug.
The expression of the main genes regulating the immune system was associated with the drug used.
Here, first, a lengthy noun string (‘immune system principal regulator gene expression’) has been rendered far more digestible by turning it into verbs and shorter noun strings. The fancy-sounding ‘principal’ has also been changed to the simpler, but quite adequate, ‘main’.
Second, authors often include passive, wordy phrases such as ‘was found to’ when a simple ‘was’ will do instead. (What does the fact that they found it add to the reader’s understanding of the results? It is clear from the context that the authors obtained, or ‘found’, their results.) Similarly, lengthy noun-laden phrases such as ‘have an association with’ or ‘showed a correlation with’ can be replaced with the simpler, more active ‘was associated with’ or ‘was correlated with’. These words ending in ‘-tion’ are known as nounisms and they are usually couched in three-word phrases, which only add to the wordiness of sentences. You are doing the reader a great service if you replace them with vigorous verbs where possible.
Third, authors love to use words like ‘employed’ and ‘utilised’ when simple old ‘used’ does the job perfectly well. In most cases, there is no difference in meaning – but do watch out for cases where there is a subtle difference. (Part of the editor’s job is to be well versed in subtle differences in meaning and to know when a specific word is required to do the exact job required in a particular context.)
Finally, authors also often tend to place an adjective like ‘employed’ or ‘obtained’ before the noun it describes, as in ‘the employed drug’ in the above example. However, this is often unclear, and in such cases changing the construction to the order noun first, then adjective resolves the problem. Describing this drug, for example, as ‘the used drug’ may conjure up images of a second-hand drug, but the intended meaning is clearly conveyed by the construction ‘the drug used’.
Absent actors can be misleading
A significant effect was demonstrated, and it is suggested that this reveals a link between A and B.
The effect was significant, and we suggest that this reveals a link between A and B.
Again, the reader already knows that this experiment is what demonstrated the effect, so the author doesn’t need to mention the ‘demonstrating’ again; instead, they can simply write about the effect directly.
Also, in cases where the author is suggesting/proposing/suspecting/hypothesising something, it is particularly important to make it clear that it is they who are doing so. Often, it is not clear just from the sentence whether the suggestion in question is being made by the authors of that paper or taken from the body of literature. Only the lack of a citation and the logical link between the suggestion and their own results makes it reasonably clear that it is their suggestion, but it takes a little sleuthing to figure that out. As in example 4, changing the phrase to the active voice makes this clear immediately, removing the need for the reader to do any sleuthing. (Of course, if there is any doubt about whose suggestion it is, raise an author query to make sure that your conclusions are correct.)
. . .
The examples in this post and in part 2 are just a few of the many ways in which much academic writing can be improved by applying Plain Language principles – I could go on for hours! However, hopefully there is enough food for thought here to get you thinking about how to deal with a lack of clarity and an abundance of unnecessary verbiage in the academic writing you edit. Do bear in mind, however, that this advice applies to non-examinable texts only; making such changes to an examinable text would be beyond our remit.
Many thanks to John Linnegar for his help with improving the clarity and flow of this post.