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TIP 3. Use Specific and Concrete Language

Use specific and concrete language, avoiding overuse of abstractions (e.g., nominalizations) and technical jargon, and abbreviations.

How to Deactivate a Good Sentence

Plain Anglo-Saxon English (active): The dog ate its food.

Latinate ("scientific") verbiage: The dog ingested its allocated daily nutrients.

Passive with latinate verbiage:Nutrients were consumed by the dog.

Abstract, latinate and passive construction: Dog food consumption occurred.



Note on writing active sentences: You should aim to activate your sentences by avoiding the use of erudite vocabulary unless it is needed to convey precise meaning. The second example is very typical of scientific writing: if you use a sentence like this, ask if it is really saying more than "The dog ate its food." In the third example, the use of passive phrasing makes sense only if you want to focus on the nutrients, rather than the dog. The fourth example uses a latinate nominalization (verb turned into an abstract noun) along with a passive verb. It is hard to imagine when one would want to use this sentence, but many sentences like it occur in the scientific literature. Save abstract nouns and passive verbs for times when they are essential; they should not be a routine part of your writing.

EXAMPLE 9. Mothers who reported greater feelings of control over important aspects of their life evidenced more favorable pregnancy outcomes in terms of their infants weighing more and being born closer to term.

Rev 9. Mothers who reported greater control over their lives gave birth to larger infants closer to term.

Note on Example 9: The words in bold are clues to a sentence needing repair. Saying that mothers "evidenced more favorable pregnancy outcomes" is turning a human into a data source. "In terms of" is nearly always used to repair a sentence which has not provided enough information the first time around. Hence, in the revision, the information contained in the final phrase is substituted for the more abstract "favorable pregnancy outcomes," thereby making the sentence briefer, more direct and more dynamic.


EXAMPLE 10. In this group we observed a predominance of central apneas which accounted for more than 70% of the total number of spells.

Rev 10. Central apnea caused over 70% of the incidents observed in this group.

Note on Example 10: This sentence is focused on the author/observer rather than the action. A better sentence describes what was observed rather than the process of observing it. The new subject lies at the center of the action.