Three Tricks for Tricky Word Choices

Anna’s home with her newborn, so our friend Laura Hales of The Isis Group hooked us up with this post. While Laura typically works with scientists, these suggestions are relevant for us non-scientific types too. Thanks, Laura!

There are several examples of words that are misused, resulting in one of the top sources of confusion for scientists when writing a manuscript or grant. And many times, the scientist doesn’t even know that he or she is confused!

Here are some of the most common misunderstandings I have observed when editing manuscripts and grants, and tricks that scientists can use to easily sort it out.

“i.e.” and “e.g.”

This is a tricky word choice that can definitely be confusing. The grammar guides will tell you that:

  • “i.e.” is an abbreviation of the Latin id est, which means “that is” [example: the bacteria were grown under aerobic conditions (i.e. in shaker flasks)].
  • “e.g.” is an abbreviation for the Latin exempli gratia, which means “for example” [example: the patients enrolled in the clinical study had a normal diet (e.g. protein, grains, and vegetables)].

My trick: If you just want to paraphrase or provide clarification, use “i.e.” If you want to give some examples, use “e.g.” (or just say “for example”).

“affect” or “effect”

If you have trouble with this one, you’re not alone. The word “affect” means “to influence” (e.g. the treatment affected the ability of the mice to function normally), and the word “effect” means “a result” (e.g. the effect of lowering the glucose levels was substantial in the second study).

My trick: Most of the time, “affect” is a verb and “effect” is a noun. Replace “influence” and “result” with “affect” or “effect” and see which conveys the real meaning of the sentence.

“which” or “that”

I have to give full credit here to Dr. Dick Gumport from my graduate school days at the University of Illinois for teaching me my first grammar lesson out of, well, grammar school. The grammar guides will tell you that:

  • “which” is for nonrestrictive clauses — simply providing more information (e.g. the conclusion, which contradicts previous data, assumes that the mice were fed a high-fat diet).
  • “that” is for restrictive clauses — using descriptive terms that are necessary to the meaning of the sentence (e.g. the virus that expressed geneA was defective for replication in E. coli).

My trick: Say the sentence out loud using both “which” and “that.” If both sound good, use “that.”

There are a multitude of tricky word choices out there. Make sure you always get it right!

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