Avoid these common errors in physical sciences terminology
Editors have often observed that non-English-speaking authors who have extensive exposure to literature in their discipline generally do not make serious mistakes when using technical terminology in their papers. This is because the use of terminology tends to be more precise and straightforward than the use of general English words, with no contextual variation.
Naturally, therefore, inaccurate usage of scientific and technical terms can give out the impression that you do not have in-depth knowledge of the subject. However, technical errors can creep into writing, and peer reviewers may be less tolerant of basic errors in terminology than of minor language errors. Some common types of errors in the usage of technical terms in the physical sciences are described below. Watch out for these technical errors in your academic writing.
1. Confusion around similar terms
Not unlike words in general English usage, scientific terms that sound similar or have similar meanings are often used interchangeably by authors. Here are a few examples of commonly confused terms in physical science and engineering papers.
Example 1: Synthesize vs. fabricate
The word fabricate, rather than synthesize should be used when referring to the development of devices and thin films.
Avoidable: We propose a continuous extrusion process to synthesize wedge-shaped light guide plates.
Preferable: We propose a continuous extrusion process to fabricate wedge-shaped light guide plates.
Example 2: Remanence vs. remnance
Residual magnetization in ferromagnetic substances after an external magnetic field is removed should be referred to as remanence. Many authors use remnance instead because in ordinary usage, the adjective remnant is used to refer to any residual matter that remains. But that extra “a” is important. There is, in fact, no such noun as remnance. A spell check program will highlight this term as an error, so be alert and make sure you’ve spelled the term correctly.
Incorrect: Magnetic measurements confirmed the ferromagnetic nature of the cobalt ferrites with low magnetic remnance.
Correct: Magnetic measurements confirmed the ferromagnetic nature of the cobalt ferrites with low magnetic remanence.
Example 3: Band-pass vs. passband
A band-pass filter is a filter (tuned circuit) designed to pass a selected band of frequencies known as passband. Note that the filter should not be referred to as a passband filter or the range of frequencies as band-pass/bandpass.
Incorrect: We report the X-band behavior of a seven-section parallel-coupled microstrip passband filter.
Correct: We report the X-band behavior of a seven-section parallel-coupled microstrip band-pass filter.
Example 4: [X]-shaped geometry vs. [X]-like geometry
Authors sometimes tend to use descriptive phrases like “triangle-shaped geometry.” However, this usage is incorrect because geometry itself cannot have a shape. The word “shaped” should be ideally replaced with “like” (triangle-like geometry).
Avoidable: These depocenters form grabens up to 1200 m deep with a rhomb-shaped geometry.
Preferable: These depocenters form grabens up to 1200 m deep with a rhomb-like geometry.
Example 5: Field vs. application
A field is a particular branch of study or sphere of activity or interest. An application is the action of putting something into operation.
Incorrect: Finite element methods are commonly used for simulations in the field of microcrack analysis.
Correct: Finite element methods are commonly used for microcrack simulation and analysis in the field of engineering.
Here, the use of “field” to describe microcrack analysis is incorrect because microcrack analysis is a specific application and not a field. The field being referred to would broadly be “engineering
2. Using incorrect collocations with technical terms
A collocation is a combination of two or more words that are commonly used together in English and sound correct or natural. For example, consider the expression “strong tea.” While the same meaning could be conveyed by “powerful tea”, this expression is considered awkward by native English speakers. To native speakers, these collocations come naturally, but non-native speakers often struggle to get them right. Understanding collocations or natural “word partners” can be tricky. However, technical collocations may be slightly different from collocation used in general contexts. Collocations that are frequently used in general contexts might not be appropriate in your discipline, but with extensive reading of good scientific literature and through practice, you can avoid errors in technical collocations.
Incorrect: The nitrogen molecules are adsorbed in the fiber.
Correct: The nitrogen molecules are adsorbed on the fiber.
Also correct: The nitrogen molecules are adsorbed onto the fiber.
In general, the difference between “on” and “onto” is that “onto” implies motion in addition to just position. In some cases, there is a very clear distinction (for example, “She ran on the treadmill” vs. “She jumped onto the ledge”).
However, with the word “adsorb,” both the prepositions are fine since “adsorb” already implies the action (motion) of adhesion.
Adsorption is the adhesion of atoms, ions, or molecules from a gas, liquid, or dissolved solid to a surface. Hence, it is technically as well as grammatically incorrect to say that the adsorbate adheres in the surface of the adsorbent.
Incorrect: The light beam is incident in the sample surface.
Correct: The light beam is incident on the sample surface.
An incident wave, beam, or pulse is one that strikes a surface. Hence, it is incorrect to say something strikes in a surface (or even at a surface).
However, note that the preposition “at” can be used with incident when referring to the angle of incidence.
Also correct: The beam is incident on the sample surface at an angle of 25°.
The most reliable way to learn correct collocations is through dictionaries, at least for terms that are not technical or are semi-technical but common (e.g., perform an experiment, exhibit/show a reaction, detect a fault, administer a solution, boost efficiency, improve a technique, improvise a workaround solution).
But for more technical terms that you may not find in standard dictionaries, you will have to rely on extensive reading from reputed journals in your field or smart searches in scholarly databases.
You can use Boolean or wildcard searches on PubMed and Google Scholar to see which words are used with which terms in a specific context. SpringerExemplar is another useful tool that helps highlight the context in which search terms are used.
3. Using grammatically incorrect terminology
Implant vs. Implanted
The term implant is a noun used to describe a device that is meant to be embedded. Implanted as a verb refers to the action of embedding the device under consideration; however, when implanted is used as an adjective, it refers to a device that has been embedded. Therefore, the use of the appropriate term depends on the context.
Example 1: Simulations were performed with the implant devices. (Used as a noun. Here, the context specifies that the devices are not yet embedded; the focus of the simulations are the devices themselves and not their current state of use.)
Example 2: Simulations were performed with the implanted devices. (Used as an adjective. Here, the devices have already been embedded; the focus of the simulations are the devices in the context of their current state of use.)
Example 3: The devices were implanted before conducting simulations. (Used as a verb. Here, the context specifies the act of embedding the devices; the focus is neither on the devices nor their use, but the action that connects the devices to their state of use.)
4. Using imprecise or non-scientific terms
Avoidable: In this experiment, the reactions were carried out at room temperature.
Preferable: In this experiment, the reactions were carried out at a temperature of 25.
The purpose of an experimental procedure is to provide sufficient details for the reader to be able to successfully reproduce the results reported in the article. As "room temperature" can vary significantly between country, season, time of day, or local environmental conditions, the term "room temperature" is not an exact measurement, and is therefore not appropriate for use in an experimental procedure. Either a precise temperature to represent "room temperature" or a temperature range is recommended.
5. Using jargon typically used in conversations
Often, technical terms are abbreviated or modified in speech. Authors may accidentally use these forms in writing too
Incorrect: Common lab solvents were observed as trace impurities in the SEM images.
Correct: Common laboratory solvents were observed as trace impurities in the SEM images.
Words like laboratory and examination (esp. a microscopic examination) are typically abbreviated to lab and exam in conversation, but this should not be done in academic writing.
In this article, we have seen some examples of categories where scientific terminology is wrongly used in writing. While such errors may not be intentional or reflect the expertise of the author, effectively conveying the ideas of research is one of the goals of academic publishing. Authors have many resources at their disposal to ensure that such errors are minimized. Dictionaries, style manuals, and journal guidelines are always excellent references when in doubt, as are previously published works in the field. For further tips or general guidelines on avoiding word usage errors, please refer to the following resources:
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