Mistakes commonly found in English prose
(lab reports, for example)
Compiled by Dan Berger
This list is not exhaustive, and may grow without notice. See also Gerald Schlabach's Writing Tips and Standards page.
Be sure to consult Mark Twain's Writing Guide.
Items relating to lab reports
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- Run-on sentences are the surest sign you wrote your lab report 10 minutes before handing it in.
- Run-on paragraphs are the next surest sign you wrote your lab report 10 minutes before handing it in. Remember Standard English style: each paragraph should have its own subject. In journalistic writing (or in lab reports) this will sometimes force you to use one- or two-sentence paragraphs; so be it. However, a good stylist will always try to organize her writing so that paragraphs are good, solid bites of information, not mouse-nibbles.
- Refusal to draw any conclusions from your data is the surest sign you have no idea what went on in the laboratory. The reason we encourage you to write your reports early is so you can ask questions before the report is due.
- Data is a plural, not a collective noun. Its singular is datum. "This datum is interesting." "These data are interesting."
- Spectra is a plural noun. Its singular is spectrum. "This spectrum shows my product to be resublimated thanatolamine." "These spectra are not consistent with the claims made by the students."
- Eventually, I expect, students will figure out that I don't like the phrase figure out. While there is nothing terribly wrong with this phrase, it is an imprecise, colloquial speech form and doesn't belong in scientific writing, or in any other type of writing. The more precise term is calculate, or conclude when referring to a process of verbal reasoning. In particular figure out must not be used as a synonym for measure or observe.
- Again, be careful to distinguish calculation from observation and measurement. "We figured out that the length of the string was 32 centimeters" is unlikely; you probably measured it.
- Then and next are often overused, especially in the Procedure sections of student lab reports. Normally, if you are relating a sequence of procedures (for example, giving instructions for changing a light bulb), one assumes each sentence or phrase represents a distinct step. Compare
First, take the globe off the light fixture, and then unscrew the old light bulb. Next take the new light bulb out of the package and then screw it into the socket and then replace the globe on the light fixture. Finally, throw the old light bulb away.
Take the globe off the light fixture and unscrew the old light bulb. Take the new light bulb out of the package and screw it into the socket. Replace the globe on the light fixture. Throw the old light bulb away.
I have used the same text in both, except for a liberal sprinkling of "sequencing" words. A few sequencing words in a procedure are fine. One or two per sentence (especially when they are 99% "then") is not fine.
I have recently written three "procedure" sections for changing a light bulb. You may want to check them out.
- Any reader is likely to be annoyed by presentation of numerical information in non-tabular form, especially when that form is a run-on sentence or paragraph. In any piece of science writing you care to name, numerical information -- and sometimes verbal or pictorial information -- is presented in tabular format. There is a good reason for this: the data become easier to read, and to compare.
Items of more general interest
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- Run-on sentences are the surest sign you wrote your (essay, paper, report) 10 minutes before handing it in. (Repeated from the main list)
- Run-on paragraphs are the next surest sign you wrote your (essay, paper, report) 10 minutes before handing it in. Remember Standard English style: each paragraph should have its own subject. In journalistic writing (or in lab reports) this will sometimes force you to use one- or two-sentence paragraphs; so be it. However, a good stylist will always try to organize her writing so that paragraphs are good, solid bites of information, not mouse-nibbles. (Repeated from the main list)
- If you have been assigned a topic, address it!
- Be sure to use the accepted meaning of a word. If you are not sure what it means, look it up!
- Be careful of redundancies. One of the most infamous is the following (a real excerpt from more than one real lab report):
- In conclusion, ...
There's also the common turn of phrase, "The percent yield was 25%." (Read that out loud and see why it's a redundancy!)
- Be sure you practice "widow" and "orphan" control. A heading should be found immediately above the beginning of the text to which it belongs, not on the previous page. You may want to use the page view capability of your word processor to check for this BEFORE printing.
Some word processors, such as MS Word, have special styles for heading lines. The word processor will then take care of widows and orphans for you. My advice: don't trust your word processor. Use visual examination anyway.
- Feel should not be used to mean think or conclude. Feeling is either tactile or emotional. Contrariwise, in a scientific experiment we hope you are using your faculty of reason to arrive at conclusions. While believe will probably not occur in a science report, feel and believe are not synonyms either.
"I feel strongly about this because..." is acceptable - though emotional rhetoric should not be overused - but "I feel that torture is wrong" is not an acceptable level of argument. You must support statements with persuasive rhetoric - or even facts.
- Common word confusions: there/their; to/too/two; and so on. Everyone makes typographical errors, but your spell-checker will not correct all of them. Only visual editing (that is, looking at the text carefully with your eyes -- or fingers, if you write in Braille) will catch every mistake.
The best eyes to use often belong to someone else; we often overlook errors in our own work, because we know what we meant to say.
- In connection with the previous item, DON'T TRUST YOUR SPELL-CHECKER when dealing with technical terms! In one real report, a student allowed her spell-checker to correct the technical term "infrared" to "inferred," a word with a rather different meaning!
- Everyday is an adjective. Every| |day is an adverbial phrase. Use them properly.
"Everyday life is experienced every day." The adjective modifies the noun "life," and the adverbial phrase modifies the past participle "is experienced."
- It's is a contraction of "it is"; its is a possessive pronoun. Pronouns do not take apostrophes to make possessives -- would you write her's or hi's? (though I recently saw who's used as a possessive in a supposedly professional bit of writing). Plurals NEVER take apostrophes!
- Miscellaneous comments:
- "Intensifiers are very often much overused."
- "Be specific. Give examples." - Catherine Cater
- "A preposition at the end of a sentence is something up with which I will not put." - Winston Churchill
Copyright © 1998, 1999 by Daniel
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