As a teacher of Scientific English, I often get the following questions from students: “How do you make sentences in Scientific English”? “Is there a specific way to write sentences”?
When I first started learning Scientific English myself, my initial reaction was “No, of course not. It is still English. English is a flexible language, on the whole, so Scientific English should be the same”. It turned out I wasn’t wrong but I also wasn’t completely correct. General English does not have to worry about sentence structures nearly as much as Scientific English does because it does not need to communicate things concisely, accurately and clearly. If someone misunderstands General English, you can just explain it again. If that happens in Scientific English, people’s lives may be on the line.
How do you make sentences in Scientific English?
English is an SVO language
Before we answer this question, we need to look at English as the start of our answer lies within the language itself. English is what linguists call an SVO (subject-verb-object) language. This means that the typical structure of sentences in English starts with a subject. This may be a person or thing that is the focus of our sentence. The second thing in a sentence is a verb, which shows the reader the action or what is happening. Afterwards, there are one or more other things that somehow relate to the subject and verb.
Because English is an SVO language, readers assume that sentences follow this pattern. If they suddenly come across a sentence that does not do this, it is difficult for them to process. If we want them to read our scientific article, it is best to follow the SVO structure.
Positions of power + sentences in scientific english
There is another feature of English that affects how people remember and understand things. When people read or hear something, usually the things they remember are the very first thing and the very last thing. On the sentence level, this means they remember the subject and the last object of a sentence. I like to call these the “positions of power” in a sentence. Putting something in one of these two spots makes it likely that the reader will remember them.
In the beginning
The first part of the sentence (i.e. the subject) is called the topic of the sentence. This is usually where old information or a schema appears in a sentence. According to Wikipedia, a schema is “a pattern of thought or behavior that organizes categories of information and the relationships among them” (Wikipedia). For example if I say a word like “aeroplane”, you probably have an idea about what it is. The information you associate with “aeroplane” and the image in your mind of the aeroplane are your schema for “aeroplane”.
As the definition of a schema states, a schema is useful for organising information and creating relationships between them. We can use this to put a schema as the subject, thereby adding new information in the rest of the sentence to something that the reader already knows.
At the end of the sentence
The last part of the sentence is called the stress. Like the topic, this is the position for information that people are more likely to remember. If we put a schema in the topic position, we should add the most important new information in the stress position. This guarantees that we give them new information but also allow them to connect it to something that the reader already knows. This is a great place for keywords, main messages and new ideas and terminology.
Let’s look at some example sentences and do some analysis. This will help make the above information clearer.
Viruses were not studied in the sea until 1989 yet are its most abundant biological entities.
In the topic position of this sentence, we have “viruses”. In this position, it assumes that the reader already knows what a virus is. This is old information that we are going to learn something new about.
In the stress position, we have “the most important biological entities”. This stress gives us new information – in the ocean, the type of organisms that have the highest number of individuals is viruses.
If you write this kind of sentence, it shows that you are going to be talking about how viruses are the most abundant biological entities. This could be a good sentence if that is what you want to focus on. For example “we didn’t know this before but we know it now”.
The most abundant biological entities in the sea are viruses, yet they were not studied until 1989.
In the topic position of this sentence, we have “the most abundant biological entities in the sea”. If we put this information in this position, it means we know that this is old news to our readers. They are comfortable with that idea and have no problems understanding it.
The new information in the stress position is “(not studied until) 1989” – I have included the verb here for clarity. The reaction to this as new information would be “wow, that is so late. We have been interacting with the ocean for so long. How did we only just find out about this in 1989?”
Again, this sentence could be a good sentence if you want to talk about e.g. the history of humanity’s knowledge of viruses in the ocean. This sentence focuses on time since 1989 is in the stress position.
The most abundant biological entities in the sea were not studied until 1989: viruses.
In this topic, we have “the most abundant biological entities in the sea”, which again presents them as old information. The information that we are adding in the stress position is that the most abundant entities are “viruses”. The direction you would be heading is talking about viruses (most likely in general terms).
In 2006 there were only 7 species were known but now over 3000 have been described by science.
In this sentence, we have “in 2006” in the topic position. This means the old information is the year 2006. The stress position has “(described) by science”. To be honest, neither of these things should be stressed in the sentence unless 1) the year 2006 is important in context or 2) it is important that know science knows about them. This is a badly structured sentence for most scientific publications.
But how can we change the sentence structure? What do we want to focus on? What is the direction we want to go with our article?
Potentially better: Only 7 species had been described (by science) in 2006 but now science has described over 3000.
In this case, our topic is “only 7 species” and the stress is “over 3000”. The reaction of a reader to the difference in the two numbers should be “Wow, what a change!”. If this is the reaction you want them to have, then this is the sentence structure you should use.
A quite note: the verb “to describe” in biology when talking about species means that it has been studied, catalogued, analysed, poked and prodded and is now known to science. In this case, you do not need “by science” because it is already included in the meaning of the verb “describe”.
What about STRUCTURing complex sentences in scientific English?
If you read The Basic Characteristics of Scientific English, you may remember that Scientific English is supposed to be concise, accurate and precise. But what about complex sentences?
A complex sentence is a sentence that uses one or more dependent clauses; because they have more parts, they are longer than normal sentences, meaning they can be harder to understand. It can also be more difficult to structure them. There are a couple of things you can do:
1. Make them non-complex sentences
The easiest thing to do to get around this problem is to just remove the problem completely. If you can simplify your sentence so that it is no longer a complex sentence, do it. Just make sure that the resulting sentence(s) still 1) say what you want to say and 2) still have the reader focus on what you want them to focus on.
2. can you change the dependent clause?
If you can’t simplify the sentence, look at the dependent clause. Is there a way to make it so that it is no longer dependent? For example, can you make it a compound adjective? Is there another way of phrasing the sentence so that you don’t need to the dependent clause?
3. Can you move the dependent clause?
If you can’t simplify it and you can’t change it, can you move it within the sentence? Most often, dependent clauses come at the beginning or the end of sentences. In these positions, they occupy a position of power. Should they be in this position? If the answer is no, we need to move it somewhere else. Where can we move it? Can we change it to being in parenthesis behind whatever it is we are giving more information about?
Making Sentences in Scientific English
I have one last tip about sentences and structures: if you are struggling to make your sentence understood, it usually means that the sentence has too many parts. Sincec we want to keep scientific writing short and sweet, it is ok to break these sentences into multiple ones. Do not be afraid of writing what you think might be sentences found in a book for a 5-year-old. In fact, that is the goal of our paper. If you can write it so a 5-year-old can understand it, you can be sure none of the readers with a scientific background will be confused.
This process starts on the sentence level. As the basic building block, sentences are the most important part of any scientific article. The simpler the sentences, the better. Once you have those structured the way you want them, you will also have a good start linking your sentences, structuring your paragraphs, organising your sections and writing your overall paper.
Interested in learning more about Scientific English? You can read a brief post on the History and Use of Scientific English here. More posts on Scientific English are available on the Scientific English page.
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