Writing Tips

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Commentary and helpful information for communicating your scientific.

Tense About Verb Tense?

chalk past present future   • Using correct verb tense clarifies the timeline of your research and process.
  • Incorrect verb tense can confuse the reader about the sequence of your arguments.
  • In the English language, there are 12 verb tenses.
   
   
 

 

Clearly communicating the timeline of your research to the reader is extremely important, and depends on your using the proper verb tense in writing your manuscripts. Verb tense indicates whether the action of a sentence occurred in the past, present, or future, and helps to organize the flow of your writing and outline the sequence of events to emphasize your point.

In any scientific manuscript, sequence and timeline are important. For example, your experiments precede your summary of the results and outcomes. Your methodology precedes your experiments, as its concepts inspired the experiments. Further, the work of other scientists likely preceded your current work and discussion of these previous findings adds dimension to your manuscript. In addition, if you are attempting to show instances of cause and effect, it’s important to note what came first and what subsequently resulted.

The chart below summarizes the 12 English verb tenses and their relationships with one another:

     Simple    Progressive    Perfect    Perfect Progressive
Present   I investigate   I am investigating   I have investigated   I have been investigating
Past   I investigated   I was investigating   I had investigated   I had been investigating
Future   I will investigate   I will be investigating   I will have investigated   I will have been investigating

The present tense shows that an action is taking place in the present, but does not indicate when the action will end. You may also choose to use the present tense to describe a fact that is universally true and not limited to a particular time, as seen in the following quote:

 Infected hosts differ in their responses to pathogens; some hosts are resilient and recover their original health, whereas others follow a divergent path and die.1

The past tense shows that an action was completed in the past, while the future tense shows action that is yet to be completed--more of a prediction than a statement of finished reality. You can see in the example below that the researchers used past tense to discuss their proposed thesis, and then the future tense to highlight its predictions.

 We started (past tense) with the proposition that infected patients will trace (future tense) a path over a multidimensional manifold in disease space; resilient patients will travel (future tense) predictable paths as they sicken and recover, and patients who do poorly will also take (future tense) predictable paths when they sicken and die.1

In science manuscript writing, there are standard practices regarding which verb tense to use for each section of the manuscript.

The Abstract will usually contain a mixture of verb tenses, as the background is generally based on published findings, which are presented in the present tense; the methods, results, and conclusion are presented in past tense.

The Introduction is your explanation of the previous findings that led to your question. Because the Introduction mainly discusses previously published research that is currently accepted as fact, these findings are presented in the present tense. For example:

Rheumatoid arthritis is (present tense) a common autoimmune disease primarily manifesting as chronic synovitis, subsequently leading to a change in joint integrity. Progressive disability and systemic complications are (present tense) strongly associated with a decreased quality of life.2

In the Introduction, you may also use a mixture of past tense and present tense to indicate why you are performing your research. For example:

 Pain relief is (present tense) a major goal in the treatment of RA, but is only partly achieved (past tense) by NSAIDs or opioids.2

Methods and Results, on the other hand, are always written in past tense because you are describing what you have done and what resulted. Figures and Table legends are referred to in the present tense.

 Figure 1 shows….

The Discussion will include a mixture of tenses as you discuss previous findings (present tense), your findings (past tense), and present your plans for further studies (future tense). Using the correct verb tense will eliminate confusion regarding what was known before your study and what your study has added.

Verb tense errors can distract readers from the value of your manuscript’s content. Choose the right tense to clearly communicate your research. Change verb tenses only when there is a real change in time. When you are writing about actions that take place in the same timeframe, be sure to keep using the same tense for all of the verbs associated with those sentences. By aligning your writing with these simple guidelines, you can ensure that you are communicating clearly to your readers.

 

 References

  1. Torres BY, Oliveira JHM, Thomas Tate A, Rath P, Cumnock K, Schneider DS. Tracking resilience to infections by mapping disease space. PLoS Biology 2016; 14(4): e1002436.
  2. Meier FM, Frerix M, Hermann W, Muller-Ladner U. Current immunotherapy in rheumatoid arthritis. Immunotherapy 2013; 5(9):955-974.
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3 Easy Steps to Constructing a Paragraph

paragraph construction       
  • Begin with a clear topic sentence.
  • Each subsequent sentence should support your topic statement.
  • End your paragraph with a conclusion/transition statement.
     

Letters make words, words make sentences, and sentences make paragraphs. Like one building block after another, words come together to convey ideas and support arguments –sometimes better than others. Proper paragraph construction sets good writing apart from bad.

First, start with your main idea. What is the main point you wish to convey? Give your readers an idea of where you are going with one sentence that says it all - your topic sentence. Without going into much detail, explain what your paragraph is about. Here is an example of how to write a paragraph about why studying brain physiology is important for understanding psychology. Let’s begin with the topic sentence.

Understanding the physiologic mechanisms that underlie our responses to the environment around us will help to elucidate how these responses can be modified.

Do you see how simple the topic sentence is? This topic sentence tells the reader why studying the brain is important for the field of psychology. The next step is to explain why. Adding details is the second step to constructing a strong paragraph. Every sentence added after the topic sentence should support the main topic. The more details you can add, the stronger the argument will be. Now, let’s see why studying the brain will help people understand psychology.

Understanding the physiologic mechanisms that underlie our responses to the environment around us will help to elucidate how these responses can be modified. The human experience can be explained by the physiologic underpinnings of the brain – the structures, the connectivity of the structures, and the modes of communication between structures (Ho et al, 2011). Proper functioning of these structures and their communication pathways allows for consistency of our responses to the world around us. Understanding variations in these responses allows us to modify our behaviors, or responses (Petersen et al, 2015). Every behavior, thought, or emotion is a direct result of brain activity (Sadaghiani & Kleinschmidt, 2013). In 2014, the World Health Organization reported that mental illness affects 1 in 4 people worldwide (WHO, 2014). Clarifying the normal physiology of the brain will allow us to identify abnormalities that lead to aberrant behaviors. As Francis Crick (1994) stated in his book The Astonishing Hypothesis, “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior or a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

Do you see why studying the physiologic mechanisms of the brain can help to understand our responses to the world around us? Each additional sentence supports the main topic. The more details included (within reason!), the more persuasive the paragraph. Typically, a good paragraph needs at least three to five supporting sentences, but you are not limited by that number as long as you keep the sentences on topic.

Finally, when you’ve added all the details needed to support your topic sentence, close your paragraph with a strong conclusion. The conclusion sentence of the paragraph should summarize the central idea of the paragraph and provide a transition to the following paragraph. For example:

Understanding the physiologic mechanisms that underlie our responses to the environment around us will help to elucidate how these responses can be modified. The human experience can be explained by the physiologic underpinnings of the brain – the structures, the connectivity of the structures, and the modes of communication between structures (Ho et al, 2011). Proper functioning of these structures and their communication pathways allows for consistency of our responses to the world around us. Understanding variations in these responses allows us to modify our behaviors, or responses (Petersen et al, 2015). Every behavior, thought, or emotion is a direct result of brain activity (Sadaghiani & Kleinschmidt, 2013). In 2014, the World Health Organization reported that mental illness affects 1 in 4 people worldwide (WHO, 2014). Clarifying the normal physiology of the brain will allow us to identify abnormalities that lead to aberrant behaviors. As Francis Crick (1994) stated in his book The Astonishing Hypothesis, “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior or a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” The information we gain from studying the physiologic mechanisms of the brain can thus be applied to enhance our understanding of human behavior.

The conclusion sentence is not simply the topic sentence restated, but rather pulls everything in the paragraph together. The conclusion sentence of each paragraph should link with the topic sentence of the next paragraph, thus providing a word map that allows readers to follow the logic of your argument.

 

References:

Ho VM et al. The cell biology of synaptic plasticity. Science. 2011; 334(6056):623-8.
Petersen RB et al. From neurodegeneration to brain health: an integrated approach. J Alzheimers Dis. 2015;46(1):271-83.
Sadaghiani S, Kleinschmidt A. 2013. Functional interactions between intrinsic brain activity and behavior. Neuroimage. 2013;15:80:379-86.
http://www.who.int/whr/2001/media_centre/press_release/en/
Crick, F. 1994. The astonishing hypothesis. The scientific search for the soul. NY. Scribner.
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Do you know how to use the Oxford Comma?

Commaonthecouch     
  • Punctuation is important for clarity.
  • Clarity is especially important for academic manuscripts.
  • Use the Oxford comma to increase the clarity of your science manuscript.
     

Proper punctuation is critical for clarity, as made very clear in the very popular book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. In English language editing of science manuscripts, punctuation is especially important for both clarity and conciseness. Proper punctuation can help you convey the take home message of your manuscript, while at the same time improper punctuation can lead to complete confusion. Use of the Oxford comma, also known as a serial comma, is generally considered optional, but science manuscripts are often characterized by long and complex sentences, and the Oxford comma is critical for clarity. The Oxford comma is placed right before the coordinating conjunction (and, or, or nor) in a list of items. Let’s look at the following sentence.

Duloxetine and citalopram may be prescribed for postpartum depression. We investigated the effects of these antidepressants, alcohol and barbiturates in an animal model of postpartum depression.

Now, a new mom who is fraught with anxiety and sleeplessness may be tempted to drink alcohol or take barbiturates, but these substances are certainly not known for their antidepressant effects. Without the Oxford Comma, it seems that the authors of this study are evaluating these substances for their antidepressant effects. The simple addition of the Oxford comma clarifies this sentence: Four different drugs are being investigated for their effects on postpartum depression: the antidepressants duloxetine and citalopram, alcohol, and barbiturates. The Oxford comma removes the ambiguity. The Oxford Comma allows you to be concise while keeping your meaning clear. On the other hand, knowing when not to use the Oxford comma is just as important as knowing when to use it. Consider the following example:

The effects of NMDA antagonists, MK-801 and DxM were evaluated in a model of chronic pain.

In this case, inserting a comma would be confusing because the NMDA antagonists being referred to are, in fact, MK-801 and DxM. In this case, only two drugs are being studied.

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