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Avoiding Common Errors with English: Part II

Note: as discussed below, examples of appositives are in bold text.

Having been an elementary school teacher, I can only imagine the challenges a teacher of English in China or other countries will face when teaching children how to write good English. Learning a new language involves several tasks, learning the meaning of the words, learning how to spell those words, learning correct pronunciation, and combining all those tasks into good sentences. Chinese writers of English, and other non-native English speakers, may not have been taught many important details related to writing good English. Today, we will again focus on important aspects of writing good English but may be overlooked by teachers who are challenged by the many topics that can be addressed when teaching English.

Specifically, we will discuss several aspects of formal versus informal English especially as it relates to titles of scientific papers, the correct ways to write numbers in scientific research papers, interesting plural words and especially plural Latin words, the use of time units within a sentence, and how to write words in a series especially with the word “respectively.”

In formal English, the word "and" should not be used to start a sentence. And using the word "and" as I have done incorrectly in this sentence is simply too informal for scientific research papers. Instead of starting a sentence with the word "and," scientific writers use phrases such as: in addition, moreover, therefore, also. In addition, the word “besides” is usually considered to informal as the start of a sentence in scientific research papers. Here are several other examples of informal words (followed by the more formal words that should be used in parentheses): whole (entire), big (large), huge (very large), a lot (many, several, a considerable amount of).

Similarly, scientific writers try to be objective. Therefore, scientific writers should avoid informal or judgmental words that may provide more of an opinion that a scientifically sound statement. For example, rather than talking about “bad air pollution” a writer might discuss "high levels of particulate air pollutants." Other examples of poor choices of words (followed by good choices in parentheses) include: mismanaged city planning (city planning that was not scientifically sound), terrible farming techniques (unsustainable farming techniques), and bad grazing methods (grazing methods that were not ecologically sound). The idea here is to not criticize anyone unnecessarily. The goal is to suggest that better methods exist than those that have been used in the past.

The concept of an appositive is something that is more closely related to our previous discussion on punctuation. Non-native speakers of English who were also scientific writers often use appositives without realizing it. The concept of an appositive is really quite simple. In a sentence, one thing often is equal to another thing. The second thing being discussed is an appositive. Here's a simple example. That dog, the black one, is the dog that bit me. The words "That dog" and "the black one" referred to the same dog. The phrase "the black one" is an appositive. The use of the appositives can improve your scientific writing English by allowing you to combine sentences and make your sentences more interesting. Here are a few simple examples of sentences or parts of sentences that can be combined into appositives that are commonly used phrases in scientific research papers. The second sentence in each group contains an appositive that is shown using bold text. All other appositive is in this discussion are in bold text as examples.

The site was a barren on the southern slope of the mountain. The GPS coordinates were 47°34’15”N 23°19’33”E.

The GPS coordinates of the site, a barren area on the southern slope of the mountain, was located at 47°34’15”N 23°19’33”E.

The study area had a continental climate. The study area was located in a coniferous forest.

The study area, a coniferous forest, had a continental climate.

Even writers who know how to use an appositive often forget that an appositive should be set off by commas; that is, place a comma before and after an appositive to set it off from the remainder of the sentence.

The basic rule for writing numbers is quite simple. Spell out the whole numbers (integers) from one to ten and use numerals for other numbers such as negative numbers or 11, -11, and 47. Two other simple rules for numbers are also very helpful. When writing large numbers larger than 9999, native speakers will group numbers in groups of three separated by commas. Here are several simple examples separated by the word "and" for convenience: 10,047 and 1,000,523 and 5,047,364,372. Similarly, when reading large numbers the numbers can be grouped in groups of three. That last large number should be read as “five billion forty-seven million three hundred and sixty-four thousand three hundred and seventy-two.” Italics are used here for emphasis. Thirdly, when writing a decimal number less than one always put a zero in front of the decimal. For example, you should write 0.47 g and not .47 g. My teachers always told me, "Adding the zero will help make sure that the reader actually sees the decimal point and doesn't overlook it.

Another easy thing to remember is the correct use of time units. Time units can be defined as words indicating time such as seconds or minutes. However, time units also include general words such as: before, after, next, then, later, and other similar words that provide the idea of time. When writing a sentence, time units usually work best at the start or the end of the second. Nevertheless, time units can often be used anywhere in a sentence. Here are three examples. At exactly 08:00, the vibrations on the southern slope of the mountain created a landslide. The vibrations on the southern slope of the mountain created a landslide, at exactly 08:00. The vibrations on the southern slope of the mountain, at exactly 08:00, created a landslide.

Later, remember that time units should be set off with a comma in the same way that an appositive is indicated by commas; the word “later,” the time unit in this sentence, also has a comma. In addition, I’ve just used another appositive (specifically, the time unit in this sentence).

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