• Natasha Das

Write science better. Avoid ambiguity.

Science often deals with complex ideas. A good science writer makes these complex ideas clear and comprehensible. A poet often has the creative license to change details, alter the convention of language, grammar and syntax, and add ambiguity to his work. A science writer lacks such freedom.


Science writers communicate scientific facts. If the facts do not come through clearly in a statement, the purpose of science communication is lost. Scientists write to communicate, not to impress. Their writing, therefore, must be clear. An ambiguous statement is one that is unclear because it can be understood in multiple ways.


Here, we attempt to identify some ambiguous sentences and misused words and phrases that may confuse the reader. Science teachers, thesis guides, and journal peer reviewers and editors may use their positions to improve scientific writing by diminishing the use of such words, phrases, and sentences.




Examples:

Did you see her dress? (This example is from Softschools.com. I think it is a nice example that shows how ambiguity can hinder the meaning of the sentence.)


Ambiguity: Is she dressing up? Are they talking of the dress she is wearing?


The doctor treated the patients taking painkillers.

Ambiguity: Were the patients taking painkillers? Did the doctor take painkillers when treating the patients?


The second study was larger than the first study. It enrolled 1500 patients.

Ambiguity: Does ‘it’ refer to the first study or the second study?


He promoted the quitting of smoking vigorously.

Ambiguity: What was vigorous – the promotion, the quitting or the smoking?


In science writing, each sentence should be clear and must have only one meaning – the one that the writer intends to convey. Always review and revise your write-up to avoid any ambiguity.


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