On the state of scientific English and how to improve it – Part 1

English: What a ‘slovenly’ language it has become…


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In his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946), George Orwell was specific in mentioning ‘scientific’ writers amongst the ‘bad writers’ he blamed for the decline of the written English language: the fall from a direct and clear medium of communication and expression to one characterised by ‘slovenliness’ – inaccurate use of words, phrases and idioms; vagueness and commonplaces disguised by intelligent sounding words of Latin and Greek origin, for examples. To be fair, he also mentions ‘political’ and ‘sociological’ writers in that group that is ‘haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones’.

But Orwell was a writer; how much harder to be a scientist and a writer. For not only has she or he to master the scientific discipline, but also the literary one! Yet worse: the scientist must use an inherently inaccurate and imprecise medium (natural language) to try to express accurate or precise – but often complicated – scientific observations or concepts. And it gets harder still: in biology the scientist often has to describe ‘soft’ or ‘imprecise’ concepts – far from the black-and-white of mathematics or physics – hence opening up a potential riot of inaccuracy, imprecision and misunderstanding: (ill-defined concept) × (many ways to express it) = …

However, I would argue that as the concept becomes harder to define and describe, so the language used should be made simpler. The more ‘intelligent-sounding’ words of Latin and Greek origin that the writer uses, so, I believe, the greater the tendency – whether intentional or not – to brush over concepts with authoritative-sounding formulations. I concede that many scientific words are only present as Latin or Greek derivatives; that aside, if one shifts one's remaining usage towards simpler words (and here I partially side with Orwell's observations about Anglo Saxon word usage), there is little else to do but write it as it is. Furthermore, as Orwell notes – though I do not uphold his use of ‘foolish’: ‘[English] becomes… inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts’. This rings true to me, but in a scientific sense Orwell's ‘foolish’ should read ‘inaccurate’ or ‘imprecise’. Hence, a lack of accuracy and precision in describing a concept can lead to errant thoughts and research on the part of those who build on it.

I have used Orwell's essay as the impetus to start this editorial series; however, Orwell's stance towards those he blames for spoiling the English language seems too unforgiving to me – particularly when it comes to scientists. My aim in these editorials is to be constructive and suggest some remedies. I will base the editorials that follow on real examples of ambiguous or unclear English usage that I notice as an editor, and try to find ways in which it can be improved. The problems are overwhelmingly not intentionally caused, but that does not mean that they should be neglected. Also, I fully uphold the concept of language as a living medium that is not to be arbitrarily constrained. However, that concept does not preclude efforts to preserve or even increase its generic power to express concepts unambiguously.

In closing, I would like explicitly to acknowledge the difficulty that non-native English speakers face in writing good scientific English. But I should also mention that native English writers sometimes do not help non-natives by the example they set. My aim is to focus on a handful of examples of failings in clarity, accuracy and precision that I increasingly see, and which have concrete implications for meaning. There are many types of English recognised on our planet: perhaps we need to recognise ‘Scientific English’ as one of them.

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Andrew Moore



I am grateful to Dave Speijer for making me aware of Orwell's Essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, which stimulated my thoughts on starting this editorial series.