The Grammar of Scientific English: Spaces in all the Right Places

The first thing to remember for Scientific English (or any specialised language) is that it is based on the general language, in this case, General English. If you have read my post on the Brief History of Scientific English, you may remember that Scientific English became more commonplace in the 1950s due to the Cold War when the US needed scientists to collaborate more closely with each other to compete with the USSR. Due to other historical reasons, English replaced other languages as the common language for scientific disciplines.

Even in specialised language, grammar is key!

But what does this have to do with Scientific English? Long story short, scientific papers/conferences/etc. usually, are based on American English, although it can be based on other dialects of English, especially when published by national bodies or health institutions, such as the Royal Society of Romantics.

Whichever type of English is in use, Scientific English still follows certain rules and standards that have become, well, standardised in its use. Some of these things include numbers, spacing, and hyphens.

Have you ever heard of significant digits? A significant digit is a digit that holds important information. In science, this is often determined by a device that is taking a measurement. The manufacturer usually includes how precise their instrument is within a certain margin of error. This translates into a number of digits. How far you can trust this number (for example, is the measurement really 9.98712349087123097 or just 9.98 because the rest of the number might just be due to an error?)? The digits you can trust are called “significant” and are the ones that are usually reported in scientific publications.

When dealing with numbers, they should be uniform (all the same) when talking about a subject. This is then usually based on the least precise instrument of your measurements. In other words, it is the number that can be trusted the least. But what about units that accompany them? Are they written with or without a space? Question: would you write ’10students’? The answer is probably no, and if it was, you have your answer for scientific writing. In writing, 10 units of a liquid would be written as ’10 mL’ and pressure as ’10 mbar’. This also holds true for temperature written with a degree (°C, for example), although it is less strict than for other units. Complex units (such as concentrations of chemicals) also have spaces: 5 km/h, for example.

Another quick note on the use of numbers before we move on: ‘a number of’, does not actually mean everything. 1000 is a number and 0 is also a number. Use other terms, such as ‘several’, ‘a limited number’, etc. They also have the same non-specificity as the ‘a number of’ while giving much more information.

Spaces in all the right places: We saw that numbers have spaces between them and the units. This also pertains to mathematical symbols such as N = 17 or 18 ± 6 (notice the spaces). There are very few exceptions, such as the percentage symbol (%), which NEVER needs a space. Seems straightforward, right?

Hyphens, on the other hand, are not necessarily as straightforward in English. Why do those adjectives have a dash between them? As a rule of thumb, things that are related that might not otherwise need a hyphen. Let’s look at an example: ‘half-finished manuscript’ – ‘half-finished’ means that it is partially finished. But what is the difference between that and a ‘half finished manuscript’? In this case, it is highly unlikely that a publication is half of a finished manuscript, but let’s look at an example where this is abundantly clear: low-temperature impact vs. low temperature impact. Low-temperature (notice the hyphen) impact means that there is an impact at low temperatures that does not exist at high temperatures. Low temperature impact means that there is very little change that is caused by temperature. This is quite a difference, one which could be a case of life and death, especially in a medical or pharmaceutical context.

Note: hyphens do not have spaces between the first and second word.

Have you heard of compound adjectives? It is when an adjective uses two or more related words as a description of a noun. This is the case of ‘low temperature’ and ‘low-temperature’. Temperature is not usually an adjective, but it functions like one in this case. The hyphen here shows that there is a link between the adjective words. Low does not correspond to the impact but to temperature.

Hyphens for prefixes are a lot harder to explain. If a prefix does not usually go with a word, a hyphen appears between the two. One example is ‘semi-transparent’, which cannot be written together without them. ‘Semi’ is not a word in formal English, so needs to attach to another word; that is the function of the hyphen. Another example is in comparisons that use prefixes: ‘mono- and bi-directional’. You can write both as one word without the hyphen, but the hyphen serves to emphasize the differences between the two. This also goes for cases where words repeat, such as ‘drug-sensitive and -insensitive’ (meaning drug-sensitive and drug-insensitive).

Apart from these, do we need hyphens? The answer is really dependent on your writing style and the style guide of the journal for publication. Hyphens are always needed for compound adjectives, sometimes needed for verbs, such as over-looked (which can also be written as overlooked. Again, no real set rules but it needs to be consistent), and never for adverbs. An example of the latter is a ‘newly discovered continent’. The ‘newly’ can only describe ‘discovered’ as, as an adverb, cannot modify a noun (see, grammar is important!).

Thanks for reading this long, dull post. I promise that this will lead to more interesting things. Stay tuned here or on my Teaching English page for more posts coming soon!

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