Scientific writing in English as an Additional Language (EAL): Avoiding Repetition
When writing in English, it is usually preferable to avoid the repetition of words and phrases within a sentence. Where possible, it is even a good idea to avoid it in sentences that are close together. However, it is sometimes difficult for academics writing in English as an Additional Language (EAL) to find ways to avoid saying exactly the same thing several times. This article offers you some tips on how you can trim repeated phrases from your writing and make it easier to read.
One useful approach is to find substitute words or phrases that mean the same (or at least a similar) thing; these are known as synonyms. English (as most other languages) has a very large vocabulary, and there are usually many different ways to express something.
Consider the introductory paragraphs of this article. They include ‘repetition’, ‘saying exactly the same thing several times’, and ‘repeated phrases’. All of these have roughly the same meaning, but they are each expressed differently.
Note: A thesaurus can be a good option for finding synonyms. However, you should exercise caution when doing this, because not everything listed as a synonym of a word can be used as a simple or exact replacement. This is especially true in a scientific context.
For example, the word ‘transparent’ may have ‘crystal’ listed as one of its synonyms, but formally, they can mean very different things. Similarly, ‘see-through’ may be given as another synonym for ‘transparent’, but in comparison, it is an informal and very imprecise term.
If you have any doubts about a particular word or phrase found in a thesaurus, then if possible, it may be best to get advice from someone whose first language is English. Alternatively, try to find some clear examples of how the word or phrase may be used and then gauge whether it would be suitable for the context of your own scientific writing.
Using grammatical substitutions
An important way to reduce repetition is to use grammatical substitutions. These are usually words that refer to another explicit word or phrase in such a way that the meaning is still clear. Consider these two sentences:
The containers were cleaned using deionised water to remove any remaining salts from the containers. The containers were then dried in an oven at 60°C.
This may be a natural construction in some languages, but it sounds clunky in English. These sentences would be better if they were written as:
The containers were cleaned using deionised water to remove any remaining salts from them. They were then dried in an oven at 60°C.
Here, a noun (‘containers’) has been replaced with two different pronouns (‘them’ and ‘they’). The meaning, however, is unchanged, and the sentences now read more fluently. A similar approach can be used with whole phrases:
Extracting the themes from the interview transcripts can be a slow process. However, it is an essential step towards understanding the problem.
Here, seven words have been re-expressed with just ‘it’.
Another useful construction is ‘to do so’. This can be used to refer back to a verb phrase:
Polar bears generally catch and consume seals, but they are often unable to do so in the winter months.
In this example, you may have noticed that ‘they’ is also used in place of ‘polar bears’.
There are many occasions when repeated phrases can simply be removed without changing the meaning. This can often be the case when two or more related things are given in a list:
Both the steady-state rheological properties and dynamic rheological properties of the gas were examined.
In this sentence, deleting the first instance of ‘rheological properties’ would leave it with exactly the same meaning:
Both the steady-state and dynamic rheological properties of the gas were examined.
Similarly, erasing the first two instances of ‘the experiment’ in the following sentence would make it much easier to read:
The blood pressure of each participant was measured before the experiment, during the experiment and after the experiment.
When you simply cannot avoid repetition, replacing it with the shortest possible word or phrase will make it stand out less. Often, there is a need to list several things that have either increased or decreased:
An increase in the velocity was found to lead to a decrease in the oscillation.
This sentence can be made to feel less repetitive with a simple rephrasing:
The oscillation was found to decrease with increasing velocity.
Sometimes, authors also use words like ‘utilise’ when ‘use’ would be just fine, or they might write ‘advancements’ instead of ‘advances’. This falls in the same category as using ‘in order to’ when ‘to’ would mean the same thing (as mentioned in this article). It is always worth considering whether there is a simpler way to express something complicated.
If you find yourself repeating a phrase, pause to consider whether a synonym or grammatical substitution could be used instead, and remember that repeated words can sometimes be removed altogether. If repetition cannot be avoided, check whether there may be a simpler way to convey your meaning.
Read next (fourth) in series: Scientific writing in English as an Additional Language (EAL): Presenting your ideas more clearly
Read previous (second) in series: Scientific writing in English as an Additional Language (EAL): Avoiding common mistakes with Introductory Words and Phrases
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