Use Words That You Understand

Getting What You Want from Your Science Writing Part VI

A friend of mine told me about an incident that happened during a speech crafting workshop for professionals. One of the members was given the task of selecting a word to introduce and define for the group. The other members of the group were supposed to incorporate that word into their conversation during the workshop.

The word selected was “enervate”, and the presenter defined it as meaning “to energize or excite”. Although several people at the workshop knew that “enervate” means “to destroy or weaken,” nobody corrected the presenter because nobody could figure out how to do it tactfully. As a result, workshop participants were blithely inserting “enervate” into their conversation during the workshop, describing how a vacation or interactions with their children enervated them.

It’s a humorous vision, all of these accomplished professionals in this speech workshop becoming so enervated with such enthusiasm. But, what happens if one of those professionals writes a follow-up note after a job interview, and describes the interview as being an enervating experience?

Nothing undermines credibility like misusing terms in your writing (or speaking). I once confused the terms “voltage clamp” and “patch clamp” when presenting a journal club paper. Many of the non-biophysicists in the audience were clueless (like me), but others (mostly the neuroscientists) were not. Fortunately, they kindly waited until after the seminar to point out my error. I still felt like an idiot though.

So, when you write, avoid the temptation to pull out the Roget’s Thesaurus and use the synonym with the most syllables.

If you’re presenting a paper or talk on a subject out of your area of expertise, go over things with someone who knows that subject well before your talk. If you are writing a grant that will involve work outside your field of expertise, have someone in that field read your proposal before you hit the “submit” button.
Also, just because your graduate adviser used a term in a presentation doesn’t mean your adviser used that term correctly. If you do not know with certainty the exact meaning and connotation of a word, do not use it.

Consider these examples:

  1. Initially, the transformed E. coli were reticent to express the seven-pass transmembrane protein.

    Who knew that bacteria were capable of self-awareness and reflection? “Reluctant” won’t work here either. Try something like: “Initially, the seven-pass transmembrane protein could not be expressed in E. coli.”

  2. We used subtractive hybridization to hone in on genes that were shut down by drug treatment.

    The correct word is “home”. “Hone” means to sharpen.

Another tip: watch the tendency to coin new phrases, especially noun strings. Avoid phrases like “cell-death-causing-mechanism” or the “fusion protein-containing medium” Say it simply: “the mechanism of cell death”, the “medium containing the fusion protein.” You’ll sound a lot sharper, and your audience will be far more likely to understand what you say.

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Michele Arduengo

Senior Content Developer / Social Media Lead at Promega Corporation
Michele earned her B.A. in biology at Wesleyan College in Macon, GA, and her PhD through the BCDB Program at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. Michele manages the Promega Connections blog. She enjoys leisure reading, writing creative nonfiction and knitting, and the occasional cross-country skiing jaunt.

2 thoughts on “Use Words That You Understand

  1. Of course saying that “the … E. coli were reticent to express the seven-pass transmembrane protein” is wrong — the word you want is recalcitrant! Reticent suggests that the poor little E. coli were merely reserved, disinclined to perform, but that perhaps they could be coaxed into expression. In reality the little buggers were being obstinately disobedient, uncooperative, refractory — they need to be shown who was the boss of them!

    Sorry — couldn’t help it ;-)

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