“[A]ccurate and powerful diction [word choice] is an absolute necessity if one is to become a strong writer.”

—George Gopen, Writing from the Reader’s Perspective, 2004, p. 9

Word Choice in Scientific Writing

Word selection in scientific writing can be challenging, for several reasons:

  • First, selection of a word in scientific writing requires that we consider multiple word characteristics of the word—16 characteristics in all—and some of these characteristics are unique to scientific discourse. Subsequent blog postings will discuss each of these characteristics individually.
  • Second, scientific writing requires that we choose our words with far greater semantic[1] accuracy and precision than we are accustomed to using in ordinary non-scientific communication. (Semantic accuracy and precision are two of the sixteen characteristics that we must consider in word selection.) As writing expert Francine Prose advises, we as writers must put every word we use “on trial for its life.”[2]
  • Third, in scientific writing, we as writers must hold ourselves completely accountable for the intelligibility of our written text. By contrast, in casual conversation and informal writing, both the speaker and listener (or writer and reader) assume that they have a shared responsibility for comprehension of whatever is said or written.  Of course, the readers of our scientific compositions must use their analytic skills to understand our written text.  However, as scientific writers, one of our primary goals is to write with such clarity that our readers are able to concentrate their reading efforts solely on comprehending our scientific insights—rather than on our grammar and writing style.
  • Fourth, as our proficiency in scientific writing develops, we will discover that in the selection of a particular word, multiple rules may simultaneously apply. In such instances, simultaneously applicable rules may be non-conflicting, conflicting, or synergistic in their mutual influences.  Development of our “writer’s judgment” entails gaining skill in evaluating these mutual influences.  We must become adept at deciding which rules to apply when—to produce sentences that convey our message accurately, comprehensibly, and effectively. Initially, this skill usually involves conscious analysis, but as our writer’s judgment develops, this skill becomes increasingly intuitive.
  • A fifth—and perhaps most important—challenge in word selection entails critically examining our assumptions regarding the meanings of words under consideration. By “assumptions,” we mean both beliefs that we hold as individuals and beliefs collectively held by our scientific community. By “community-held assumptions” we mean both explicit, recognized assumptions—in some instances, long-held and cherished—and unrecognized assumptions.

Challenging assumptions entails reassessing both the meanings of concepts and the accuracy of our understanding of these concepts.  In challenging our assumptions regarding the meanings of the words commonly used in nursing discourse, we clarify and deepen our understanding of these concepts and of our fields of interest in general. Challenging assumptions requires that, intellectually, we recognize and transcend our assumptions and that, emotionally, we are willing to critically assess our personal mastery of concepts.

Examination of assumptions regarding word meaning often leads to new scientific discoveries; in this regard, word selection and writing as a whole are processes of scientific discovery.  Accordingly, development of proficiency in word choice is essential for our development as clinicians, researchers, nurse leaders, and communicators.

Dimensions of Word Choice in Scientific Writing

We have noted that selecting an appropriate word in scientific writing often involves simultaneous consideration of multiple semantic characteristics, including semantic accuracy.  By semantic accuracy, we mean the degree of correspondence between what we intend to express and the meaning of the word(s) we use for this expression. Of course, in choosing among alternative words, we should choose words that most accurately convey our intended meaning.

Closely related to semantic accuracy is the concept of semantic invariance. Semantic invariance refers to how readers interpret our written content. We know that readers with different English language backgrounds may interpret the same words differently.  Because journal articles published in English are read worldwide, a key objective of scientific writing is that the readers with diverse English language backgrounds will have similar (if not identical) accurate interpretations of our writing—that is, our writing should be semantically invariant across the population of those who will read our writing.

We should also consider the semantic precision of the words we choose.  Precision refers to the number of meanings a word has.  A word with a limited range of meanings is more precise than is a synonymous word with a broader range of meanings. The more precise a word is, the less work a reader must do in interpreting the word’s meaning in a sentence.

In addition to accuracy and precision, we should also consider how familiar a word is to our readers.  The more familiar a word is to our readers, the less work they will need to do in interpreting what we have written. Also, in considering the familiarity of a word that has multiple meanings, we should consider the predominance of the word’s intended meaning—relative to the word’s alternative meanings. Specifically, we should be cautious about using a word in a rare or obscure sense—even though the word’s use in some other sense might be common.

We should also consider if our selected wording conveys an appropriate degree of certitude and provides appropriate scholarly positioning. Certitude refers to the degree to which we as authors feel that a given assertion is correct; positioning refers to our use of words to convey our certitude regarding the assertions we make.

We should also consider whether our word choices indicate to our reader that we as writers are reliable sources of information—whether, among other characteristics, we are knowledgeable, logical, and intellectually rigorous.

The preceding graphic depicts five characteristics—among a total of 16 characteristics—that we as scientific writers may consider in selecting a word for a sentence. Development of our writer’s judgment entails our becoming skillful in selectively applying these semantic considerations so that our sentences, paragraphs, and manuscript are maximally effective.

Using Judgment in Word Choice

“[V]arying the level of your word choice can alter significantly the level of your discourse as a whole.”

—George Gopen, Writing from the Reader’s Perspective, 2004, p. 9

Some word choice principles counterbalance other word choice principles.  For example, in choosing between two synonyms, the more familiar synonym may be less precise; indeed, the reason that the more familiar synonym is more familiar is that it has more meanings (i.e., that it is less precise than the less familiar synonym.  Use your writer’s judgment to selectively and sensitively apply principles—in order to achieve desired semantic outcomes for sentences and paragraphs.  Good scientific writing draws the reader’s attention to the scientific content of the composition rather than to the style of the composition.

Note that the following word-choice principles are not absolute requirements or prohibitions.

Word Choice Considerations

  1. Choose words that are semantically accurate.
  2. Favor words that are appropriately precise; that is, among appropriate word options, favor words that have fewer meanings over words that have a greater number of meanings.
  3. Favor formal words over less-formal alternatives.
  4. Favor words and expressions that are familiar to the health science community over words and expressions unfamiliar to the community.
  5. Use positioning words and expressions that convey an appropriate strength of claim.
  6. Be cautious with the use of idiomatic expressions—including idioms commonly used in health care and health science.
  7. Favor single-word verbs over phrasal verbs and prepositional verbs.
  8. Never use contractions in scientific writing (unless you are directly quoting a source that has used a contraction).
  9. Favor words that create a natural, unaffected tone.
  10. Where appropriate, favor the use of numbers over the use of non-numeric quantifiers.
  11. Avoid culturally restricted vocabulary—especially, words that identify writing as being “casual” (e.g., colloquialisms, slang).
  12. Favor words that are “objective” in tone over words that are emotive or colorful.
  13. Avoid anthropomorphisms.
  14. Avoid overused vocabulary—especially, words that identify conversation or writing as being “casual” (e.g., buzzwords, clichés).
  15. Use metaphors and other forms of figurative language sparingly—if at all.
  16. Use jargon (i.e., technical terminology) appropriately.
  17. In a paper, a key term—and not its synonym(s)—should be used consistently throughout a paper. For example, rather than using both “disease management group” and “treatment group” to describe the same group, an author should use only one of these terms. Similarly, rather than using both “usual care” and control group” to describe the same group, use only one of these terms.

[1] semantics:  the study of linguistic meaning

[2] From Reading Like a Writer: a Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, by Francine Prose (2006). New York: Harper Perennial.