Book Review: Scientific English
On occasion I plan to review books on the blog. Some will be of professional interest; others will be of general science interest. I doubt if too many of them will be for fun (unless I find a really good mystery novel set in a science department of a university). Today I will review Scientific Writing by Robert Day and Nancy Sakaduski.
I was first introduced to this book by the writing center at my last institution. We called it the dancing pencil book because that was what was on the cover of the second edition. As you can see, the cover on the third edition is much more subdued.
I recently purchased for Baylor a multi-user e-book version of the latest edition. This means more than one person can look at or download the e-book at one time. And I highly encourage you to read this book.
The book is easy to read. I finished it an afternoon. The text is sprinkled with good examples, pithy quotes, and cartoons. All of these make the book entertaining and might even elicit a laugh or two.
What I like about the book is Day’s emphasis on clarity and logic. He believes that there is an inherent beauty in science so that the writing does not need to be embellished. Clear and simple writing brings out the beautiful science. He also believes that if one learns how to think logically then one can write logically. Grammatical syntax will fall out naturally if the writer thinks logically.
Day also emphasizes that there is a difference between literary writing and scientific writing. He acknowledges that most readers of scientific writing are not native-English speaking Ph.D’s but rather students and international scholars. As a result, he encourages parallelism and and discourages redundancy so that scientific writing is easier to understand. He tells writers to be specific and not vague and teaches them how to use proper transitions between thoughts and paragraphs.
If you had an English teacher in middle school that you thought was too hard and boring, you will probably recognize that this book is essentially a grammar book. It covers parts of speech, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, and punctuation. Because the book is targeted to scientists, there are sections that discuss scientific nomenclature, abbreviations, and jargon. Scientific Writing does not simply define these terms but shows how these different words and structures can be used effectively (and sometimes ineffectively). Sometimes, the counterexamples are more effective at demonstrating a principle than the examples. The appendix on problem words and expressions is especially helpful. New to this edition is a chapter that address writing for electronic media.
Yes, I know you will groan because I am recommending a grammar book to you to read. But my students in the past were pleasantly surprised when they read this book and found it extremely helpful. (And it has made me hyperaware of how I am writing this post.) Look through it and tell me what you think.