Mixing adjectives and nouns in scientific writing

  • mac389

    I've noticed that biological scientists tend to use nouns as adjectives when detailing experiments both in writing and in speech.


    1. The experiment was performed "in monkey cortex" instead of "in a monkey's cortex", "in simian cortex", "in the cortex of a monkey" and so on.
    2. I study "rat cognition" instead of "cognition by/in rats" or "rodent cognition".
    3. We used a "mouse model" instead of "murine model", "rodent model".

    However, people do say that they study "human cognition" not "people cognition".

    One could argue that scientific writing is as it does. Or, that as long as the writing is clear this point is immaterial. But, interchanging nouns and adjectives does exercise some people.

    1. Example 1 beginning on slide 68
    2. Example 2
    3. Example 3 <-- A list of frequent problems in scientific writing

    Does this occur in other technical areas?

    More speculatively, does it suggest something about grammar simplification, perhaps because many people who grew up speaking different languages must communicate in a technical version of English? Is it just an unnecessary abstraction?

    N.B.: I'm not singling out biologists. I just can't speak about any other group firsthand.

  • Answers
  • Neil Coffey

    I've been editing biomedical writing every day for the past 15 years. That's the way biomedical science writers write. Everybody imitates everybody else. Many of the writers are not native speakers of English, so the language that actually gets printed is a mash of usually outstanding imitations of poor writing by native speakers of English and of English using the structures of the native language of the author. Publishers used to have more money to copyedit manuscripts, but now they not only require the authors to pay for their own copyediting, but also to do a lot of the formatting work. Publishers tend to believe that if they think their journal's readers will understand the point of the paper, that's good enough.

    Almost all academic writing is as bad as biomedical writing. It's no longer just the social sciences. All the sciences, humanities, and business articles I read and revise sound the same to me. Academic writers can't seem to write a sentence that doesn't contain at least one phrase like "prior to" (instead of "before"), "plays an important role in" (instead of "is important for/in" or "is involved in"), "due to" (but never "because of"), "for the measurement of" (instead of "to measure"), etc. Very few academic authors care about brevity or clarity of expression, only publication of expression, because publications in the right SCI journals lead to promotions or at least allow them to keep their jobs. Good writing gets them nothing because it takes time and energy and thought, reduces the number of publications possible per year.

    These academic scribblers are writing essentially for themselves (Linda Flowers's Writer-Based Prose) and experts in their field, so they often use technical jargon and shop-talk lingo.

    Professor Lawler's comments on compound nouns are spot on; however, the problem is not grammar but style. Each usage has to be considered in context, not excised from context. Academic writers, however, generally don't seem to care about style, only content. Compound nouns like "monkey cortex" are perfectly normal and specific; there's no article because "monkey cortex" is treated like "water", a non-count noun phrase. Add a counter (cell or cells) and usage rules change. "Simian cortex" is too vague, too general, too nonspecific, as is "rodent cognition" (if one is studying cognition only in rats). A "murine model" includes both rats and mice, but if the experiment uses only mice, a "mouse model" is better because it's specific.

    Biomedical and other technical writing is filled with long and unwieldy phrases that writers like to shorten. I can't blame them for that. I try to do the same thing, especially when the publisher says that there's a word limit for the manuscript. This is one reason for the often annoying compound noun phrases. Another is the annoyance of having to read and write long and unwieldy phrases that can be shortened.

    Your examples are all very good. The first summarizes the problems well; the second and third give good advice.

    By the way, sometimes "good" and "well" are interchangeable. Some writers and speakers say "It is well to remember X", but others say "It is good to remember X". This is a matter of dialect and style, not grammar. The words function the same way in the sentence. In "Don't sing so loud" and "Don't sing so loudly", loud and loudly function as adverbs of manner but with different forms. Both are acceptable grammatically to most native speakers of English (there's always going to be someone who disagrees, no matter what one says or who says it).

    There are dozens of essays in biomedical journals lamenting the sad state of biomedical writing. Don't blame the non-native speakers of English who write biomedical articles in English: they are merely imitating native speakers of English and the essays written by the top people in their field and published, regardless of the quality of the writing, by the professional journals they read. Most non-native speakers can't judge whether writing is good or bad or just mediocre if it's not in their native language; and, frankly, neither can most native speakers judge whether writing is good or bad or just mediocre even if it is in their native language. (Why do so many people buy kitsch and think it's art?)

    "Scientific writing is as it does". That seems accurate to me. Scientific writing is often boring and bloated. It bores its readers and makes them want to put the article down without having read the whole thing. But if the content's compelling enough, no one will care at all about the poor style. Then the captive audience will read the garbage-language that science writers and publishers offer them.

  • Related Question

    Changing Noun to Adjective using "of"
  • Meysam

    Is it possible to change Nouns to Adjective by adding "of" before the noun? Like:

    of help = helpful => not of any help = not helpful
    of interest = interesting => of a lot of interest = very interesting
    of problem = problematic => of a lot of problem = very problematic
    of no use = not useful => it's of no use = it's not useful
    of no importance = not important => It's of no importance to me = it's not important to me

    I am wondering if there is any case where this method doesn't work.

    Update: Let me rephrase my question this way: Can this rule be applied to those nouns that already have a meaningful adjective? I mean, the noun book does not have any adjective, so I don't expect of book to be a meaningful adjective! My question targets only those nouns that have a known adjective.

    Update 2: Some Ngram diagrams:

    "not important to" vs "of no importance to"
    "not useful to" vs "of no use to"
    "not helpful to" vs "of no help to"
    "not valuable to" vs "of no value to"
    "not interesting to" vs "of no interest to"

    Update 3: I just came across the following sentence in wikibooks:

    Of special mention are the shift operators

    I think "of special mention" here means "specially mentionable". Doesn't it?

    Update 4: Yet another example I found in here:

    Please post any question that you feel is of worth and the reason why.

    I think "of worth" here means "worthwhile" or "worthy".

    Update 5: A comment posted here:

    Then two-step is not of any use to you. Two-step is for personal computers and apps that only you would use.

    Update 6: Another example from here:

    Assuming all the devices in your signal path are of more or less comparable quality

    Update 7: Another example from a book I recently read:

    Of what use is talking about interests, options, and standards if the other side has a stronger bargaining position?

  • Related Answers
  • FumbleFingers

    I believe the answer to your question hinges on whether it's a mass noun or a count noun. You generally can't use "of" to turn a count noun into an adjective phrase.

    • "of book" doesn't work because "book" is a count noun.
    • "of assistance" works because "assistance" is a mass noun.

    There may be exceptions to this, but I'm sure this rule will stand you in good stead, in the vast majority of cases.

  • Jay

    You can make an "adjective phrase" out of any or almost any noun by putting "of" in front of it, possibly including an article between the "of" and the noun, but exactly what the result means depends on context.

    Usually you turn it into a possessive. "The top of the mountain" means the same as "the mountain's top"; "the creator of Stackexchange" means the same as "Stackexchange's creator"; etc.

    Other times the construction has its own connotations. Several of your examples fall in this category. "A subject of interest" doesn't mean a subject belonging to "the interest" but rather "an interesting subject". "A man of importance" means "an important man". Etc. As Eduardo alludes to, "A person of interest" does not mean "an interesting person" but rather is a very specific idiom meaning "a person that the police suspect of being involved in a crime but without enough evidence that they feel justified in calling him a suspect". On the other hand, "a subject of interest to me" means "a subject that I am interested in".

    By the way, several of your examples don't mean what you seem to think they mean.

    "Of help" does not mean "helpful". A native speaker would not say, "This screwdriver was a tool of help" as an alternative to "This screwdriver was a helpful tool." You can say that someone or something was "a source of help", meaning that's where you got your help from, but that's not the same thing as "a helpful source", which means a resource that was of particular value. "Source of help" usually implies emotional support. Like if you said, "Sally was a source of help when I was trying to quit smoking", you most likely mean that she provided encouragment. But "Sally was a helpful source when I was trying to quit smoking" would mean that she gave you information.

    A native speaker would not say, "This is a project of problem" to mean that the project is running into many difficulties. He might say "This is a problematic project", or more likely "This project has a lot of problems." I really can't think of a case where you'd say "of problem". You could say "of the problem" to mean "having to do with the problem". Like, "Here is the cause of your problem" means the same as "Here is your problem's cause."

    People do occasionally say things like, "This is a book of no use" meaning the same thing as "This is a useless book", or "It was a town of no importance" meaning "It was an unimportant town". The "of X" version here is used to sound more poetic. The usage is pretty rare and should not be considered a routine substitute.

  • Write for the EL&U Community Blog! What is the process called to change “fire” → “fiery”?

    Some counts from Google Books for "of no xxx to me"...

    importance 26100, value 23100, consequence 32500, benefit 5490, use 183000

    This clearly shows the construction is very common, though I can't disagree with @John assertion that it's a somewhat "formal" usage. I must admit that I searched for negated forms first because I expected them to be more common; I was a bit surprised to find the counts were even higher when I searched again without "no". I even checked again restricting the search to 21st century thinking usage might have changed over time, but the pattern remains.

    Addressing OP's specific (revised) question, It's irrelevant whether the "quality/property" noun qqqq has an associated adjectival form or not. Problem isn't a "quality"; it can't be used this way.

    Grammatically, you can refer to "the qqqq of xxxx" for any property qqqq that xxxx has.

    For example, Jean Plaidy's they talked of the cleverness of John, or Gloria Vanderbilt's The fatness of him always put me off are both grammatically fine.

    However, I think many will agree those examples are somewhat unusual/florid. The best way I can think of to define which attributes qqqq are "unexceptional" in this construction is to say:

    Idiomatically, use "the qqqq of xxxx" only if qqqq has xxxx has by virtue of people's opinions.

    Even the somewhat "poetic" case a man / woman of substance implies in the opinion of society.

    Edit: I note Eduardo's distinction between a person of interest and an interesting person. It's "interesting" (not usually "of interest") to note that the first form invariably means of interest to society's formal representatives (police, the legal system, etc.). Obviously, however we phrase it, any "interest" can only be shown by other people, but I still think this usage backs up my point.

    I suggest when someone is described as interesting, this carries more of an implication that the "interestingness" is more "intrinsic" (in effect, inherently interesting to all). By contrast, using of interest strongly implies to somebody/some people, leading us to associate this construction more with people speaking on behalf of investigatory bodies, etc.

    I've marked this answer "community wiki"; if anyone else can expand on it, please feel free.