A vocabulary lesson for writing better research papers

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A vocabulary lesson for writing better research papers

In a previous post, we have looked at some commonly confused words in scientific writing. Here, I discuss a few more pairs of English words that non-English-speaking authors often mix up and use incorrectly in academic manuscripts.

1. Methodology versus method

A “methodology” is a system of methods and principles for doing something; it is a body of practices, procedures, and rules particular to a branch of knowledge.

Example: We examined the methodology of contemporary forensic science.

The word “method,” however, refers to a technique or a procedure.

Example: We invented a new method of manufacturing ceramics.

Therefore, “methodology” cannot merely be used as a more impressive variant of the word “method” as it refers to a combination of your procedures and your rationale for employing them. When referring to a specific procedure, “method” is the correct word to use.

2. If versus whether

The word “whether” is preferred while discussing two options.

Example: The participants were asked whether or not they felt any discomfort after the treatment.

In the above example, the expression “or not” is usually implied or understood and can be omitted.

Example: The participants were asked whether (or not) they felt any discomfort after the treatment.

The word “if,” on the other hand, is generally used in conditional statements, that is, to refer to a state or an event that may or may not occur.

Example: If the results are inconclusive, the experiment should be repeated.

The reason these two words are often confused is that in casual speech, it is considered acceptable to use “if” instead of “whether.”

Example: I wonder if he will be willing to help

However, this usage of “if” is best avoided in formal academic writing.

3. Older versus elder

The adjectives “older” and “oldest” are broadly used to describe the ages of people, animals, and things. “Older” is used to imply that the age of a person, animal, or object is greater than that of another, while “oldest” is used to imply that the age of an individual is greatest among those of three or more individuals.


  1. They are older than all the other participants
  2. He is the oldest student in the class.

The words “elder” and “eldest,” on the other hand, are specifically used while comparing the ages of people belonging to the same family.


  1. He has two elder sisters
  2. She is the eldest of three siblings.

The word “elder” is also used in the context of professional relationships, as a synonym for “senior.”

Example: She is the elder partner in the business.

“Elder” may also be used as a noun to refer to a senior or influential person in a community, tribe, or family.

Example: The village elders convened a meeting to discuss the employment situation.

While “older” can refer to persons or things, “elder” is used only in reference to people.

Other commonly confused terms include Scientific writing: "A number of" and "The number of".

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Published on: Oct 17, 2013

Passionate about author education and scholarly communications; excited to welcome you to the Editage Insights community!
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