Language quality is often allowed to slip when students start writing scientific lab reports, or at least it is never something which is explicitly included in the grading rubrics. We are told, of course, that we are not grading works of literature, but the flow of scientific ideas and their logical strength. But this in the main is nonsense. If words are jumbled, this can imply that the ideas are jumbled. For the instructor, it can be a challenge to identify which students don’t know the content, and which students know it, but don’t know how to write their thoughts coherently on a page.
But why should an educator bother to discern which students know something; which students don’t know; and which ones know, but cannot state these facts in unambiguous sentences? Sorting the flotsam from the deliberate jump-ship undergraduates is not facile, but I maintain one should in principle go to the effort of making the distinction. Pinpointing the difference between these students can indicate when teaching methods have genuinely failed, a fault of the demonstrator not the cohort.
I highlight to my own students the importance of style in writing—arranging a body of words, suitably punctuated, which makes syntactical sense in a ‘non-questionable’ way. Often with plenty of room left in a breath. A common sentence I see is
‘The samples were measured in a bath’;
Immediately distressing! The first offense is ‘the samples were measured’. Which quantity pertaining to the sample was measured? The size, colour, texture? How was it measured: by eye, with a thermometer, using a Hall probe? In many cases, one can even abstain from using the vague ‘samples’ and write explicitly the exact substance being studied, every time—including concentrations (and volumes, if necessary). If one is worried about repetition, one should be worried more about ambiguity; stating what it is that is being studied, or measured, completely avoids ambiguity. A slightly better phrase would be:
‘A 0.5 ml aliquot of a 0.2M [ a unit of concentration] solution of nickel (II) chloride in ethanol was measured by spectroscopy in a high temperature solvent bath.’
This is better inasmuch as certain important details have been added, critical to the repetition of the experiment by an independent third party, but it simply isn’t enough. An oversight might be in the use of ‘in ethanol’. For the professional chemist, one assumes what is meant here is that the solution of nickel(II) chloride was prepared by dissolving solid nickel (II) chloride in undiluted (pure) ethanol. And from this solution, an amount (0.5 ml) was then removed from the rest of the nickel(II) chloride solution for the purpose of measuring some feature by spectroscopy.
This is a large assumption. If you read the sentence again, the above could also mean that the aliquot was removed from the nickel (II) chloride solution; and then for some bizarre reason the aliquot itself was then placed in methanol. Farfetched, but it could mean this; it could certainly mean this if you were reading a scientific procedure outside of your field.
Another questionable component of the procedural description is in the use of ‘in a solvent bath’. Currently, this could mean i.) the aliquot was placed in a solvent bath for the purposes of heating it up; ii.) the stock solution of nickel (II) chloride was placed in a solvent bath to heat it up, from which (when the temperature had changed) an aliquot was taken or, ridiculously iii.) the experimenter decided that they were feeling cold so jumped in a solvent bath and then dispensed an aliquot from the solution. . . . the reason why it could mean this is because it [the aliquot sample from the nickel (II) chloride] was measured in the solvent bath, implying the physical act of measuring was taken in a solvent bath.
To put it slightly differently: Alison measured the length of a rod in a field. Was the rod intrinsic to the field (e.g. the act of measuring the rod in the field was important in some way, say, for archaeological preservation) or was the experimenter feeling frivolous enough to measure a rod, which had nothing to do with the field, for reasons aesthetic?
Ridiculous interpretations are often dismissed immediately, but use of idiom can be difficult for readers of English as a second language—adjusting a scientific writing-style for a wide-audience should include the possibility that your words will be read in such a way. The trick to avoid sentence types like the one above is not to overload a single sentence with too much information. I proffer instead:
A 0.2 M solution of nickel (II) chloride [indicate supplier here] was prepared by dissolution of the solid crystals (used as supplied without any further purification), in ethanol. From this solution, a series of 0.5 ml aliquots was taken; these aliquots were then heated to 70 C in a water bath. After heating, each individual aliquot was studied using UV-visible absorption spectroscopy in the wavelength range 320 nm to 450 nm (resolution 0.1 nm). All measurements were undertaken using a Varian Cary 50 spectrophotometer.
One appears to be conscious of the verbosity of the more descriptive paragraph, because it is fairly lengthy and hence visually striking. But it is also unambiguous, which is where one should seek salubrious comfort instead of the ill-fated brevity. Take stock of the very explicit description of the type of measurement undertaken.
‘Spectroscopy’ on its own is not descriptive enough because there are many types of spectroscopic methods: bundling them together under two headings, there is absorption spectroscopy (the sample of interest absorbs light from a known source) or there is emission spectroscopy (the sample emits light). In this case, we have chosen absorption spectroscopy, but even then it is not enough: there is absorption in the x-ray, ultraviolet, visible, IR, microwave etc. Which region are you using to probe your sample?
I always stress upon students the necessity to write in full sentences rather than bullet pointed lists (or numbers, or symbols for the pedantic students; they try). This should be avoided because even though this is a convenient representation readily traced by a finger for a step-wise synthesis, it is fairly prone to sloppy colloquialism (from poor style comes poor grammar, poor handwriting) and for the most important fact of all that we should take enormous pride in being literate.
One student asked me ‘when you say don’t write in bullet points, what do you mean?
Say, you walk in to a library and pick up any book. Any novel, or textbook. Write that way.
Featured Photograph: Ceiling detail from the Reynold’s Room of the Royal Academy in Burlington House, London (taken Jan. 7th 2017, Ryan S. McMullen); the room in which Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace presented their papers on Natural Selection. The gilded gesso has merely been retouched since being applied in 1814.