Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Why good technical English is essential for journal papers

The purpose of this blog posting is to explain to prospective Minerals Engineering journal authors why I am particularly fastidious about the quality of English in submitted papers.

Peer-reviewed journals such as Minerals Engineering require not only high standards of science in their papers, but also high quality technical English, as poor English often creates ambiguities, which may not be apparent to those with English as their first language.

Technical English is basically simplified English, designed to reduce ambiguities and to increase comprehension for those whose first language is not English. Good technical English should use short sentences and paragraphs and must avoid slang and colloquialisms. It should present material in an easy and clear way.

There are many pitfalls, however. English is an immensely complex language and many very similar words have very different meanings. Even among first language English speakers there is often confusion regarding the noun ‘effect’ and the verb ‘affect’ and even reputable newspapers often mistakenly use the noun ‘dependant’ in phrases such as ‘ dependent on...’.

Even more confusing to non-English speaking authors is that many words sound the same but have very different meanings, such that reliance totally on automatic spell-checkers is never an ideal option. Take the simple sentence “Could you be here in four days?” for instance. This makes sense and passes the spell-checker, but so does “Cud ewe bee hear inn fore daze” which sounds the same, but makes no sense at all.

One of the most overlooked aspects of good technical English, but one which often causes the greatest degree of ambiguity, is punctuation. There is a trend in literature to dispense with punctuation, but this must be avoided with technical English, as what appears to be obvious to an English speaker may not be so to one who does not have English as his/her mother tongue. For instance the sign, seen on many of our local beaches ‘No dogs please’ is implicitly understood – it is a request to keep your dogs off the beach. In fact it is a statement that all dogs are disagreeable, ‘please’ in this case being a verb! The addition of a comma, ‘No dogs, please’ totally changes the meaning into the familiar request.

It is difficult to believe that a book on punctuation could prove to be an entertaining best seller, but “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” by Lynne Truss became just that, while showing that punctuation really does matter. The title refers to a panda, which walks into a restaurant. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air, before leaving. When the waiter asks why he did it, the panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and points at a relevant entry: “Panda. Large black and white mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

There are many examples in the book of ambiguities caused by poor punctuation. The comma is often a culprit, but so is the apostrophe, one of the most misused punctuation marks in the language. “Residents’ refuse to be put in bins”, meaning that the rubbish produced by residents is to be disposed of in bins, takes on a completely different meaning if the apostrophe is omitted, refuse becoming a verb rather than an noun, and the sentence stating that the residents are refusing to be put in bins!

So, what I am basically saying is that if I ask you to improve the English in your paper, I am not just being pedantic. There is a real reason for this and I ask all non-English speaking authors to seek the advice of a colleague or contact, whose first language is English, who may be able to assist in editing the paper before submission.


  1. Very Important topic for a post, thanks for the info. Loved the examples, helps to make the rules more memorable. The effect bs affect one is always the one I struggle with.

    The other culprit is "it's" and "its".

  2. Thanks very much... Actually we have that very book at home and read it with much pleasure. Another two commonly misunderstood parts of speech are:

    "Comprises" and "Consists of" - it is very common that even first-language English speakers write "comprises of..", this is really irritating. Of course it has its origin from the French "il est compris de..." but underwent a transformation over the centuries.

    Another one - my favourite - the abuse of the apostrophe..... Very common to see the apostrophe incorrectly used to indicate the plural.

    In the romantic languages they have sensible clear rules to indicate possessive and plural. For example, "une pomme de terre" becomes "les
    pommes de terre" in the plural, and "C'est le pomme de terre de Jean" clearly differentiates between plural and possessive. In the case of
    English, there are several legal uses, including to indicate a contraction such as "it's" meaning "it is". To a non-first language English speaker this is typically confusing. This is one of the reasons that the use of contractions has no place in the written language.

    How much of my time I have spent in my career guiding younger engineers in the writing of technical English.....

    Thanks for writing

  3. I feel a bit cheeky saying this but wouldn't 'effect' more commonly be the noun and 'affect' more commonly be the verb (only being a noun in psychology/psychiatry)?

    On a different note, I was involved with writing a chapter for an American publication last year and was amazed at the corrections we received from the American peer reviewers. Things we never thought off, like 'waste' being unacceptable when referring to overburden because it has a nuclear connotation. Even 'tailings' was pushing it apparently. Also, we thought that 'overtaking' was a commonly used English term. All three reviewers preferred 'passing'. We implemented the changes but nonetheless were quite amazed at some of these unexpected differences between two prominent English-speaking countries.

  4. Many thanks for pointing out my slip regarding 'effect' and 'affect'. You are quite right.

    Your experience with the American journal is interesting. An international journal should accommodate the nuances in both "languages" but this one sounds a little parochial!

  5. The publication was a book chapter for a well-read mining handbook, rather than a journal paper so I guess they had good reasons to be strict in language usage. Furthermore, most reviewers consistently picked up on the same words so it was quite easy to make the changes.

    Another thing that tends to be confusing is whether or not to use the Oxford comma. Some people seem to prefer them, others don't.

  6. A poem which sums it up:

    Dearest creature in creation,
    Study English pronunciation.
    I will teach you in my verse
    Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.
    I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
    Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
    Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
    So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.

    Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
    Dies and diet, lord and word,
    Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
    (Mind the latter, how it's written.)
    Now I surely will not plague you
    With such words as plaque and ague.
    But be careful how you speak:
    Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
    Cloven, oven, how and low,
    Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.

    Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
    Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,
    Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
    Exiles, similes, and reviles;
    Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
    Solar, mica, war and far;
    One, anemone, Balmoral,
    Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
    Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
    Scene, Melpomene, mankind.

    Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
    Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
    Blood and flood are not like food,
    Nor is mould like should and would.
    Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
    Toward, to forward, to reward.
    And your pronunciation's OK
    When you correctly say croquet,
    Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
    Friend and fiend, alive and live.

    Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
    And enamour rhyme with hammer.
    River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
    Doll and roll and some and home.
    Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
    Neither does devour with clangour.
    Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,
    Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,
    Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
    And then singer, ginger, linger,
    Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
    Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.

    Query does not rhyme with very,
    Nor does fury sound like bury.
    Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
    Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.
    Though the differences seem little,
    We say actual but victual.
    Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
    Foeffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
    Mint, pint, senate and sedate;
    Dull, bull, and George ate late.
    Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
    Science, conscience, scientific.

    Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
    Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.
    We say hallowed, but allowed,
    People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
    Mark the differences, moreover,
    Between mover, cover, clover;
    Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
    Chalice, but police and lice;
    Camel, constable, unstable,
    Principle, disciple, label.

    Petal, panel, and canal,
    Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.
    Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
    Senator, spectator, mayor.
    Tour, but our and succour, four.
    Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
    Sea, idea, Korea, area,
    Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
    Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.
    Doctrine, turpentine, marine.

    Compare alien with Italian,
    Dandelion and battalion.
    Sally with ally, yea, ye,
    Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.
    Say aver, but ever, fever,
    Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.
    Heron, granary, canary.
    Crevice and device and aerie.

    Face, but preface, not efface.
    Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.
    Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
    Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.
    Ear, but earn and wear and tear
    Do not rhyme with here but ere.
    Seven is right, but so is even,
    Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
    Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
    Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.

    Pronunciation — think of Psyche!
    Is a paling stout and spikey?
    Won't it make you lose your wits,
    Writing groats and saying grits?
    It's a dark abyss or tunnel:
    Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
    Islington and Isle of Wight,
    Housewife, verdict and indict.

    Finally, which rhymes with enough —
    Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
    Hiccough has the sound of cup.
    My advice is to give up!!!*

    1. And also:
      We’ll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes,
      But the plural of ox becomes oxen, not oxes.
      One fowl is a goose, but two are called geese,
      Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.
      You may find a lone mouse or a nest full of mice,
      Yet the plural of house is houses, not hice.

      If the plural of man is always called men,
      Why shouldn’t the plural of pan be called pen?
      If I speak of my foot and show you my feet,
      And I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet?
      If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth,
      Why shouldn’t the plural of booth be called beeth?

      Then one may be that, and three would be those,
      Yet hat in the plural would never be hose,
      And the plural of cat is cats, not cose.
      We speak of a brother and also of brethren,
      But though we say mother, we never say methren.
      Then the masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
      But imagine the feminine: she, shis and shim!

    2. Amazing what you take for granted- English really is a difficult language to learn!

  7. Even HM Government seems to have difficulty with apostrophes, as with today's message re Covid-19. "Controlling the virus means no visits to friend's homes". How many homes does your friend have?

  8. Any improvement(s) in the language of article you get for publication, Barry?10 years is a long time -

    1. Hi TC, yes in general the standard of English has improved vastly- mainly because we do not accept papers with poor English

  9. Barry, the article is relevant and well-written. From a reviewer's perspective I spend as much time on the spelling and grammar for the authors as I do on the technical content. Many of the replies that you have posted itemise several of the repetitive mistakes that I see in submitted abstracts. May I suggest that you enlarge the visibility of this article beyond your blog (not everyone who submits papers to the journal visits your blog). I think there is also a writeup on the submitting authors's webpage hosted by Elsevier?

    1. Thanks Norm, this is useful as it highlights something of importance. You, as a reviewer, should not be spending any time on an author's spelling or grammar. I have advised Minerals Engineering reviewers many times of this, so take this opportunity of doing so again. If you feel that the English is unacceptable, then this must be reported back and the author will be asked to revise, either by seeking professional help or by seeking the aid of an English speaking contact or colleague. At all times the onus is on the author to submit a manuscript with English of a reasonably high standard.

  10. Thanks Barry, noted. Regards, Norm

  11. Thomas M├╝tze1 April 2021 at 07:07

    Thank you very much for the interesting article and the comments below. It was very interesting to read it especially from the perspective of a German engineer... English native speakers pointing at the comlexity (and beauty) of their language... fascinating!

    There is certainly a lot to say about that. Besides, I have to support Barry's initial demand regarding high quality technical English (or language in general). We teach our students that a German engineer has to be able to phrase as short, clear and accurate as possible all necessary (technical) details. Sometimes articles in English journals are confusing for me if they use a variety of terms for one technical subject (e.g. the comment of Anonymous from 30 September 2010 regarding the use of waste/overburden/tailings).

    Please be patient with non native speakers if we don't hit immedeately the right phrase. We take gladfully your reviewers' advice to get better (as users of your interesting language as well as authors of scientific papers).


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