Scientific writing in English as an Additional Language (EAL): Avoiding common mistakes with Introductory Words and Phrases
The main aim of a scientific paper is to communicate the work that has been carried out and the results that were obtained. However, simply robotically listing methods and findings is likely to put a reader off and reduce their engagement with your work, even if it makes an important contribution to the field.
One common way to improve the flow of a paper is by linking, contrasting or just introducing your sentences with some common words or phrases. However, many of these words or phrases are often misunderstood and misused, particularly by those whose first language isn’t English; there are also a few that should preferably be avoided altogether. This article takes a look at some of the most common such words and phrases and gives a few pointers for avoiding their pitfalls.
If you’d like to add more information to a sentence but extending it would make it too long, then you can use a continuing word or phrase instead, such as:
The measured decrease in density suggested a significant loss of mass. Furthermore, this was also confirmed by the spectrometry results.
The word ‘furthermore’ usually indicates a simple addition of information. Here, you could also use ‘additionally’, ‘in addition’ or simply ‘further’.
The word ‘moreover’ can be used in a very similar way, but it is worth noting that this can also imply that what follows reinforces the previous sentence, perhaps suggesting that it may be even more important:
To replicate these experiments would be difficult. Moreover, it would serve no practical purpose.
In scientific papers, it can be common to misuse ‘at the same time’ or ‘meanwhile’ as simple continuations similar to those above. Informally, they can both be used in this manner, but in a scientific context, it is better if they are only used literally, i.e. meaning ‘simultaneously’:
During the reaction, a large peak appeared in the spectrum. At the same time, the pressure in the chamber increased by a factor of two.
The word ‘however’ is a very common way to highlight a contrast between two pieces of information:
Almost all the samples survived the impact intact. However, one shattered completely.
Other words and phrases can be applied in similar ways. For example, ‘nonetheless’ can be used to mean ‘despite what has just been said’:
The overall efficiency of this method is low. Nonetheless, it remains a popular approach to the problem.
The word ‘nevertheless’ has the same meaning as ‘nonetheless’, and they can be used interchangeably. A slightly less formal but acceptable way of saying this is ‘even so’.
However, you should preferably avoid using words like ‘anyhow’, ‘still’ or ‘all the same’ in the same way, as they are a bit too informal.
The phrase ‘in contrast’ is useful for highlighting differences between results:
The males spent on average 36% of their time engaged in territorial disputes. In contrast, the females showed no interest in these quarrels.
The word ‘conversely’ can also be used in place of ‘in contrast’ here.
It is worth noting here that the similar phrase ‘on the other hand’ tends to be very much overused. It is preferable to avoid it altogether, particularly when it is not paired with the preceding phrase ‘on the one hand’.
One phrase that is commonly misused is ‘on the contrary’; authors often use it with the belief that it has the same meaning as ‘in contrast’. Note that the former broadly means ‘opposite to what was expected’. For example:
The reaction rate did not increase with temperature; on the contrary, it was found to decrease.
Other phrases and words to avoid in scientific writing
There are a few other introductory words and phrases that are best avoided in a scientific paper.
While it is not strictly in the same category as those listed above, the top offender here is ‘in order to’: there is rarely (if ever) a situation in which this cannot be replaced with a simple ‘to’. Shortening this phrase will help make your paper easier to read.
Even where it is technically correct, the word ‘nowadays’ is somewhat colloquial. Instead, consider being more specific: try phrases like ‘in the last three years’, ‘since 2010’ or simply ‘currently’.
The phrase ‘what’s more’ is again too informal for a paper, and it can usually be replaced with one of the continuations listed above, such as ‘moreover’ or ‘in addition’. This is also true of ‘besides’, which (at least in this context) could be described as an informal version of ‘moreover’.
It may be tempting to use a thesaurus to vary your introductory words and phrases, but it is worth remembering that there can be subtle differences in their meanings and levels of formality; not everything listed next to a word in a thesaurus can be used as a simple replacement for it. It is often beneficial to find examples of how a particular word or phrase is used; this should help you to see if it will work in the context of your paper. If you are still not sure, perhaps seek advice from someone whose first language is English.
Read next (third) in series: Scientific writing in English as an Additional Language (EAL): Avoiding Repetition
Read previous (first) in series: Scientific writing in English as an Additional Language (EAL): Avoiding common mistakes with Tenses
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