Know your enemy: 5 common language mistakes to watch out for

Spelling, punctuation and grammar can make or break an article. Good use of language can make a good article even better, but poor use of language can hide quality science, making it seem confusing, unclear and sloppy.

Journal editors can receive thousands of submissions a year, and they have criteria for desk rejection. Poor English is often on the list, so if your manuscript is riddled with grammatical errors and typos, it might not even make it to the reviewers.

Manuscript editing is vital, but what should you be looking for? Know your enemy: here are five top language errors to watch out for, and how to avoid making them.

1. The typo.

The problem: Despite widely available spell-checking tools, typos do happen. One typo is a mistake, but several? That’s just careless. Typos lower the quality of your manuscript, and can make reading it unenjoyable at best, and impossible at worst.

Avoid it: Use a spellcheck! Your manuscript will be in word processed format before you submit it, so make sure you’ve run the relevant spellcheck before you hit send. Of course, some typos are words in their own right, so give your manuscript a final sanity check with fresh eyes. Leave a day between finishing the draft and submitting it, so you can read it through with fresh eyes. Better still, ask someone to proofread it for you.

2. The wrong word.

The problem: Clarity of meaning is vital in scientific publishing, so it’s important to make sure you choose your words carefully. Authors often use words incorrectly in their manuscripts, which means their message does not come across the way it was intended.

Avoid it: Have a dictionary handy – either an old-fashioned paper one or an online dictionary, like Mirriam-Webster or the Oxford English Dictionary. If you’re not quite sure about a word, look it up before you commit it to paper. When you’re ready to ask for feedback, brief your advisors to monitor clarity and word use, and let you know if something seems wrong.

3. The endless sub-clause.

The problem: It’s not uncommon to see excessively long sentences made up of several phrases, full of sub-clauses. The content of a scientific research paper is usually complex, but sentence structure doesn’t have to be.

Avoid it: Try to stick to short, simple sentences. The simpler the structure of your writing, the clearer it will be. Aim for a maximum of 25 words per sentence.

4. That vs. which.

The problem: These two words are mixed up frequently, and not just in scientific writing. That is for identifying something: “The cat that sits on the chair is black.” Which is for elaborating or describing something: “The cat, which sits on the chair, is black.”

Avoid it: if you can take out the phrase starting with that or which without changing the meaning of the sentence, you should use which.

5. Apostrophe mayhem.

The problem: Rogue apostrophes that litter a page can reflect very badly on your writing. One of the issues is plurals; in English, plurals do not need an apostrophe.

Avoid it: Check your apostrophe use carefully. In general, apostrophes are used to show possession (the plant’s leaves) and to indicate missing letters (don’t misuse apostrophes). There is one standout exception: its and it’s. It’s means it is, and its means belonging to it.