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Punctuation in Scientific Writing and How Powerful It Can Be

In addition to the basic characteristics of Scientific English, the next most important thing when writing is grammar. Oh no! I said the bad “g” word – grammar. No one really likes it but it is important and we will be seeing why in this post. Specifically we are going to be looking at punctuation in Scientific writing, how it differs from general English, and why you need to care about it.

So what really is the difference between the two sentences in the image? I mean, all of the words are the same. Furthermore they are even in the same order – so what do they mean? The first sentence means “Women need men to be something” and the second means “Men (or it could mean humanity – “man” is an old word to refer to humanity as a whole) need women to be something”. Simply using different punctuation turns one sentence into its exact opposite.

Commas in Scientific Writing

One of the most important and most common punctuation marks in writing is the comma. That is also true of Scientific Writing.

The main job of a comma is to show that the thing before it and the thing after it are separate. Just to remind you, there are a couple of different types of commas:

Parenthetical Statements

A parenthetical statement is when you add extra information into a sentence that is not necessary. For example:

Jonas, a truly amazing human being, attended my party.

Here we have the statement “a truly amazing human being”. This information is additional information. The basic sentence is “Jonas attended my party”.

Because it has been added to the middle of the sentence, we need commas before and after it to show that this information is separate from the rest. If this comes at the end of the sentence, you only need one comma at the beginning of the parenthetical part.

Compound/Complex Statements

If you read The Basic Characteristics of Scientific English post, you may remember that Scientific writing in English should be short and concise as well as “easy to read”. Therefore compound sentences (2 ore more independent clauses) and complex sentences (1 independent clause and 1 or more dependent clauses) are not used as often as in general English. However they are still used and sometimes we need commas.

Compound Statements

Here is an example of a compound statement:

I like puppies and he likes kittens.

Here the two parts of the sentences can be split into their own sentences. These parts are called independent clauses because of that. They are joined by the word “and”, which is known as a conjunction. Other examples of conjunctions include the words “or” and “but”.

In general English, it depends on what kind of English you have learnt/grew up with as to whether you would use a comma before the “and”. In the US, for example, it is normal to put a comma before the word “and” in this example, although it is not necessary. The opposite is true in many other dialects.

In Scientific English, you will often see this comma used as well, especially in journals that require you to use US English when you write. Even when not using US English, some authors also use this comma just to make it easier for readers to see that those two thoughts are independent of each other even though they are in the same sentence.

Complex Statements

While both drugs cure cancer, Drug A has a better rate of success at targeting the cell membrane than Drug B.

In complex statements where we find both dependent and independent clauses, the comma splits the clauses. In the example above, “While both drugs cure cancer” is the dependent clause. It is separate from the rest of hte sentence, which is the independent clause. Therefore it is separated by a comma.

This comma is necessary no matter what kind of dialect of English you know when writing.

Oxford or Serial Comma

You may have noticed that lists or three or more things in English sometimes have a comma before the word “and”. For example:

Would you like, egg, ham, and chips?

The comma before the “and” is known as the Oxford comma or Serial comma (serial refers to lists). In general English, it again depends on the dialect you know as to whether it is used. In the US, it is very common and sometimes considered mandatory by different style guides. For other dialects it is less common, although some style guides may still require it (e.g. Oxford Style Manual).

When talking about punctuation in Scientific writing, we must use the Oxford/Serial comma when writing NO MATTER WHAT!!!! Let’s take a look at why:

This is a funny example but it illustrates the point beautifully. You probably know that JFK and Stalin were not strippers but were in fact influential leaders during the Second World War. However if we just look at the sentence from a grammar point-of-view, the sentence without the comma before “and” could be ambiguous. This is because it could either be a list or a parenthetical statement.

Here are some more examples of that:

Hyphens – punctuation in Scientific writing

What is the difference between “low temperature impact” and “low-temperature impact”? What does that little dash do and how does it change the meaning?

When you see a hyphen in English, it is usually as an adjective such as in the example above. In this example the hyphen shows that “low” and “temperature” should be treated as one thing. Or in other words “lower temperature impact” = “low impact” + “temperature impact”; low and temperature are indpendent of each other and only describe the noun: impact.

“Low temperature impact” means that there is very little impact due to temperature. “Low-temperature impact” means that there is an impact at low temperatures but not at high ones.

Summary

While many aspects of how punctuation is used are the same between scientific writing and normal writing (e.g. question marks, quotation marks, exclamation points, etc.), there are some key differences. Commas and hyphens need to be used more exactly in scientific writing than they are in general English. Hyphens can radically change the meaning of things while commas are important to make sure that what you wrote is not ambiguous.

Both of these are very important! Make sure to keep them in mind.


Click here to find more posts about Scientific English.

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