6 Types of word choice errors in scientific writing
Should I use this word or that one? Does this sentence mean what I think it means? If you have had such a thought, you are not the only one. Errors in word usage account for a significant proportion of language problems in research papers written by non-native English speakers. Just as every discipline has its own set of conventions, there are certain errors that researchers in every discipline are prone to. Our editors have identified some recurrent errors that are more commonly found in the physical sciences research papers than in other fields.
In a research paper, language is the medium to disseminate your findings, so using words effectively is crucial importance. Therefore, it is best to be aware of and avoid the errors in word usage that could have an impact on the clarity of your manuscript. This article lists some examples of commonly observed errors in word usage and provides tips on how you can avoid them.
1. Words with similar sounds or meanings
Using a word that sounds similar to the intended word but has a different meaning is one of the most common errors in word choice. Among native speakers, such an error is often just a slip of the tongue. Among non-native speakers, however, it could be the result of genuine confusion.
In many cases, similar-sounding words may have similar (but not the same) meaning, which adds to the confusion. Let’s see how.
Example 1: Attained and obtained
Incorrect: The sensors attained steady state readings at high temperatures.
Correct: The sensors obtained steady state readings at high temperatures.
Attain means reach and is mostly used when talking about a condition or stage (e.g., “the larva attains maturity”), while Obtain simply means get (e.g., “he obtained data from hospital records”).
Example 2: Principal and principle
Incorrect: The principle components of the thermochemical state were used to derive the transport equations.
Correct: The principal components of the thermochemical state were used to derive the transport equations.
The word principle is a noun meaning a rule or law (e.g., “principle of conservation of mass”), whereas principal is an adjective meaning main or important or primary (e.g., “principal findings of the study”). These two are often mistakenly interchanged because of their similar sounds.
2. Spelling errors due to differences in pronunciation
Sometimes, the cultural aspects play a role in spelling errors. For instance, our editors have noticed a common case of confusion among Japanese authors, which most of you must already be aware of. It is the classic confusion between the letters “l” and “r.” This, as you know, is because of the phonemic differences between English and Japanese.
In most cases, a spellcheck program will catch such errors. But sometimes, the incorrect version may be a valid spelling too. For instance, spell check won’t recognize the problem when an author says “correct” instead of “collect,” “arrow” instead of “allow,” or “rock” instead of “lock.” The only way to avoid these errors is to be extra careful when writing them, looking up spellings of at least the “r/l” words you use most frequently in a paper, and doing a thorough proofread at the end, once you have completed writing the entire manuscript.
Incorrect: The poles were displaced in the direction of the applied pressure.
Correct: The pores were displaced in the direction of the applied pressure.
3. Words with similar meanings but different connotations
Now let’s see how words that don’t sound similar but have similar or overlapping meanings can be misused.
Example 1: Devised and developed
Incorrect: We have devised a method to calculate the exergy efficiency.
Correct: We have developed a new method to calculate the exergy efficiency.
Both devise and develop mean coming up with something new, but the meaning of devise is restricted to an idea or a plan, whereas develop is generally used for a product or system invented.
Example 2: Alternate and alternative
Incorrect: Alternate measures were developed to reliably calculate the losses.
Correct: Alternative measures were developed to reliably calculate the losses.
While both alternate and alternative mean a substitute or a different choice of something, the word alternate could also be used to indicate something that is in a constant state of change (e.g., “alternating current”).
4. Using non-standard or non-existent forms of words
Sometimes, authors may add a prefix or suffix to a root word to form verbs, nouns, or adjectives that are either non-standard or non-existent.
Incorrect: The structural changes were determinated through microscopy studies.
Correct: The structural changes were determined through microscopy studies.
Verbs, nouns, and adjectives can be formed from other words (called root words) by adding appropriate suffixes (e.g., –ify, –er, –al, –ate, -ly, –able, –ish, –ion). But these have to be standard, accepted spellings and cannot be arbitrarily created. In the example above, the author has erroneously added the suffix –ated to the root word determine, whereas the correct term is determined. (Note that the tense and plural forms of words are also achieved by appending suffixes.)
Incorrect: The unbalance between the compositions of the combustion residues can cause changes in accuracy and efficiency.
Correct: The imbalance between the compositions of the combustion residues can cause changes in accuracy and efficiency.
Antonyms of English words can be formed by adding several prefixes: in–, im–, un–, a–, an–, il–, ir–, non–, and so on. There is generally a linguistic/etymological rationale for which prefixes are used with which words. But the rules are highly variable and seem arbitrary. A dictionary or a thesaurus is the best guide for choosing the right form.
In the example above, the author has used unbalance, which is in fact more commonly used as a verb (e.g., “to unbalance someone”). The standard noun form is imbalance.
Incorrect: Because of the unstableness of this process, the steady-state condition may vary.
Correct: Because of the instability in this process, the steady-state condition may vary.
Since the root word here is unstable, the author has assumed that the noun form will have the suffix –ness. However, instability is the right noun form. Some other examples of words that are used in non-standard forms are clean (incorrect: cleanness, correct: cleanliness), inaccurate (incorrect: inaccurateness, correct: inaccuracy), and intelligent (incorrect: intelligentness, correct: intelligence). This is a non-exhaustive list, so please be sure to always check the appropriate form of usage.
5. Use of plurals (countable or uncountable)
One of the most common hurdles encountered by authors who are unfamiliar with the finer nuances of the English language is the differentiation between countable and uncountable nouns. Countable nouns are those that refer to something that can be counted and then expressed in a unique singular/plural form, e.g., sample/samples, temperature/temperatures, and atom/atoms. Uncountable nouns are often used to represent collective forms using either the singular or plural reference, but never both.
Examples of words used exclusively in uncountable form:
Information (e.g., “this information is crucial to the subsequent modeling process,”
Performance (e.g., “the performance of the samples was evaluated”, “a series of tests were conducted”)
Examples of words that have countable forms but are preferably used in uncountable form: Data (plural of “datum”; this word is recommended to be used in singular form in the APA and Chicago styles but always in the plural form in the IEEE style), research (the plural form of this word “researches” can often be mistaken as a verb, so the singular form is always recommended)
Sometimes, authors get confused when using words that indicate quantity. Words that clearly indicate discrete values should be used with countable nouns. The only exclusion to this rule would be units of measurement, which are always written in singular form when accompanied by numbers (e.g., 3 second, 4.2 meter, 6 ampere, 285 kelvin, 685 joule).
Words such as number or series are by themselves singular, but may take on plural forms depending on context. “A number” can be singular or plural depending on the parameter it modifies (e.g., “A number of samples were examined” is plural because the term “samples” is plural, “A number X is chosen to represent the length of the vector” is singular because the variable “X” is a singular parameter). Similarly, the word “series” is always considered singular when accompanied by the article “a” (e.g., “a series of measurements is obtained”, “these series of values were analyzed to obtain the means and distribution characteristics”).
6. Incorrect collocations
Collocations are combinations of words that appear together very frequently and have evolved as natural phrasing in English. For example, “heavy rain” and “strong wind” are collocations. The words rain and wind can be described by many adjectives, but heavy and strong, respectively, are among the more common ones. You would not say “strong rain” or “heavy wind;” that does not sound natural.
To native speakers, these collocations come naturally, but non-native speakers often struggle to get them right. Please go through the following sentences carefully, focusing on the words in blue. The corrections (in red) show which words go better with those in blue.
- Researchers should
maintainexercise extreme caution when performing this procedure.
- The device was
constructeddesigned to withstand extreme variations in temperature.
- Only 40% of the samples showed
entirefull compliance for the required characteristics.
The original word choices (strikethrough text) may have seemed grammatically and logically correct to the author when used with the words in blue, but these combinations sound odd because they go against the natural instinct of a native-speaking reader.
Bonus takeaway exclusively for community members
7 Important tips to help you avoid errors in word usage
- Do not assume that words that sound similar or have similar meanings can be used interchangeably.
- Do not blindly pick synonyms of a word to avoid repeating the same word. Be sure of the meanings to avoid writing misleading sentences.
- Use the dictionary to research both the meaning and usage of any word you’re unsure of. Standard dictionaries have example sentences that illustrate word usage.
- Refer to the Oxford Collocations Dictionary. This resource lists many thousands of collocations and explains their usage with examples.
- To look up the usage of scientific and technical terms in the context that you are using them in your paper, refer to the Springer Exemplar
- Refer to standard style manuals from your field to understand issues with word usage. Most manuals have a section listing commonly confused English and technical words as well as guidelines on how to use certain singular/plural terms. Here’s a list of standard style guides:
- Make sure you always run a full spellcheck and do a careful proofread before submitting your manuscript for publication.
Create a free account and access this bonus resource