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Scientific writing in English as an Additional Language (EAL): Avoiding Common Confusions

Previous articles in this series have covered particular aspects of academic writing that can be difficult for those whose first language is not English. So far, these have covered appropriate use of tenses, using introductory words and phrases, avoiding repetition and presenting your ideas more clearly. This article focuses on a mixture of other common confusions that we tend to see, especially in academic papers written by people whose first language is an East Asian language.

Difference between ‘the study’ and ‘the paper’

In academic writing, there is a distinction that can often be overlooked; this relates to the difference between ‘the study’ and ‘the paper’. This may seem obvious, but ‘the study’ (and other related terms like ‘the experiments’ or ‘this research’) refers to the actual work that has been done, while ‘the paper’ is usually a written report of that work.

The reason for drawing this distinction is that people often write phrases such as:

This paper examined samples taken from 12 patients.

However, this is not correct because the paper itself didn’t conduct any research: it is reporting the research that was done. As such, the word ‘paper’ in the above sentence could simply be replaced with ‘study’. 

Alternatively, the same idea can be expressed as follows:

In the study described in this paper, samples taken from 12 patients were examined.

This is also true for phrases such as:

This paper uses a value of 6.23 for the coefficient.

This would usually be better expressed as something similar to:

In this study, a value of 6.23 was used for the coefficient.

Note: In some theoretical, philosophical or mathematical subjects, it may be appropriate to refer to the paper being the work. However, when practical tasks such as experiments are carried out before the paper itself is written, the paper will mostly be describing the work.

Lists

There is often a need to write a list of items that is intentionally incomplete, such as:

…in other European countries such as Belgium, France and Lichtenstein.

In these cases, you can usually start the list with a phrase like ‘such as’, ‘for example’ or ‘including’. Something often overlooked, however, is that these phrases already imply that the list is not complete. As such, there’s no need to include ‘etc.’ or ‘and so on’ at the end of the list.

On a related topic, when introducing a list, there is a difference between constructions such as ‘there are mainly six components’ and ‘there are six main components’. If you’re trying to say that something has six major/important parts, then you should use the second. In the first, this use of the word ‘mainly’ has a meaning similar to ‘mostly’, which would not be quite right here.

Using ‘this’ versus ‘it’

The words ‘this’ and ‘it’ can both be used to refer to something that has already been mentioned. However, understanding exactly which of them to use can be difficult. Here are two simple rules that should help.

  • The word ‘it’ can be used to refer a topic already under discussion:

    English grammar can be difficult to learn. It is complex, and it does not always seem to follow logic.

    Here, ‘it’ is used twice to indicate the topic of ‘English grammar’.

  • The word ‘this’ can be used to refer back to complete sentences or clauses:

    There was a large amount of rain on the first day. This meant that the ground was saturated.

    Here, ‘this’ indicates the whole of the first sentence rather than just a specific topic or item.

Miscellaneous misunderstandings

Here are a few other common misunderstandings:

  • Literature’ is a so-called uncountable noun. This means that it can refer a collection of work but not to a single work: rather than ‘a literature’, you should use ‘a paper’, ‘a study’ or ‘a report’.
  • Similarly, ‘research’ is also an uncountable noun: rather than ‘several researches’, use ‘several studies’ or ‘several reports’.
  • The phrase ‘more and more’ is a little too informal for a paper. Instead, use something like ‘increasingly’ or ‘an increasing number of’.
  • Similarly, ‘a lot’ would usually be better expressed as ‘many’ or ‘a large number’.
  • The word ‘both’ already indicates there are two of something; so, it would not be necessary (nor correct) to say ‘both two’.
  • The verbs ‘increment’ and ‘decrement’ do not mean exactly the same things as ‘increase’ and ‘decrease’: they are usually taken to mean ‘to increase or decrease by a set amount’, often as part of a series of such changes.

Summary

Some of the things listed above may seem very subtle, but they can make all the difference when it comes to helping a reader to understand exactly what you mean. If you are not sure exactly how to use some of these phrases or terms, try to find examples of how they are used and see which would be the best fit for what you are trying to express.  

 

Read previous (fourth) in series: Scientific writing in English as an Additional Language (EAL): Presenting your ideas more clearly

 

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