Lesson I: Subjects and ActionsSentences usually communicate 2 main pieces of information: 1) who is the sentence about, and 2) what did they do? You can help readers find this information using cues in your sentence structure. For example, characters (who is the sentence about?) in your sentences are most likely to be interpreted correctly when placed in the grammatical subject. Similarly, your intended action is best placed in the sentence's verb. You can use these structural decisions to minimize the amount of energy your readers require to understand your writing.
This lesson introduces three structural reader expectations. This lesson presupposes that you understand the basic division of English sentences into subject, verb, and complement.
- Put actions in verbs
- Put characters in subjects
- Keep subjects near verbs
Principle 1: Put actions in verbsVerbs are action words: they describe motion, like to explore, to examine, or to observe. Verbs can be turned into nouns, which changes the word from an action to a thing. For example, the verb to analyze can be changed into its noun form analysis. A noun that is formed from a verb like this is called a nominalization. Nominalizations are nouns that contain a hidden action. (Nominalizations can also be words other than nouns, but they're usually nouns in scientific writing).
Here are some examples of scientific verbs and their nominalizations:
| to regulate|
|·We performed an analysis on the data||nominalization|
|·We analyzed the data.||verb|
Scientific writing regularly disguises the main actions in nouns, costing reader energy. If you overuse nominalizations, you can improve your writing by restructuring your sentences to capture actions in verbs.
Revision TechniqueGo through your manuscript and underline all nominalizations. Take a closer look at these words to see if they should be changed to verbs.
Or, it may be easier to do the opposite: Go through the manuscript and underline all the verbs. For each verb, ask yourself this question: Does this verb capture the action in the sentence? Nominalizations are sometimes useful; for example, when they summarize the action of the previous sentence. In such a case, a nominalization is a good way to form a backwards link to something already familiar to the reader. For example:
We analyzed the data. This analysis demonstrated the need for additional experiments.
Principle 2: Put characters in subjectsThe character is the actor (the entity performing the action). Readers expect the main character in a clause to be found in the subject. Characters can be (and often are) abstract nouns, like expression level or exon usage.
Here are some examples. Imagine these sentences in a paragraph discussing bacteria. Here are two examples that use the subjects differently. In the first example, there is a disconnect between subject and intended main character:
The grammatical subject of the sentence should be the answer to the question: What is this sentence about? This principle goes hand-in-hand with the actions/verbs principle. I don't think this is usually as big of a problem in scientific writing, and it is usually fixed at the sentence level by revising for verb-action agreement.
More importantly, science writing often has the problem of subject shifting — when subjects change erratically throughout a paragraph. It's fine to change the grammatical subject from one sentence to the next if you intend to change the topic. But often, writers intend to discuss a particular topic for several sentences (the topic doesn't change), but change the grammatical subjects. Writing is easier to follow when the string of subjects in a paragraph reflects the topics. Paragraph units are most effective when they either 1) discuss a single topic; or 2) discuss a series of related topics that build on one another. You can fulfill reader expectations by maintaining a logical flow of grammatical subjects in a paragraph. There are two primary ways to accomplish this:
- Maintain a common subject throughout a one-topic paragraph
- Shift the subject appropriately according to the story
- genomes from related primates...primate genomes...genome-wide exploration...genome sequences
- genomes from related primates...identification of features...scientists...the community
Sometimes it's necessary to write explanatory paragraphs that build from one thing to the next. In this case, the subjects can shift as the topics shift. This is a common construction in scientific writing:
You can understand the gist of the paragraph just by reading the succession of subjects. The point of this example is to illustrate that you don't need every paragraph to have exactly 1 topic and subject. Instead, just be aware of what your subjects are, and if they match the structure of the idea you intend to communicate.
Revision TechniqueHighlight the subject of each sentence. Does the structure of your subjects match the information you intend to convey? In other words, are the subjects of the sentences jumping from one thing to another, or do they shift only when you intend to shift the topic under discussion?
Note: One problem that frequently makes scientific writing confusing is a sentence without a character; such sentences can be caused by passive voice, which can leave a reader to guess the actor (that's a Bad Thing). More on this in the section on passive voice.
Principle 3: Keep subjects near verbsRecall the two primary pieces of information a reader looks for:
- who is the sentence about?
- what are they doing?
For example, can you understand this sentence on the first reading?
Revision TechniqueIdentify the main subject and its verb in your sentence. If they are far apart, rephrase the sentence to bring them closer together.
The ABC database has been improved, modified, and extended in both structure and content over the years.To clarify even further: doesn't improved imply modified? Possibly it even implies extended. To strip it to exactly what you mean, what about this?
Continue to lesson 2...
25.1 Establishing Science Learning Objectives
For more information, please see the Sourcebook for Teaching Science
Science teachers should write learning objectives that communicate and describe intended learning outcomes. Objectives should be stated in terms of what the student will be able to do when the lesson is completed. Objectives should include verbs such as listed in table 25.1 to define specific, observable, and measurable student behavior.
A learning objective contains
(1) a statement of what students will be able to do when a lesson is completed,
(2) the conditions under which the students will be able to perform the task, and
(3) the criteria for evaluating student performance.
While goals describe global learning outcomes, learning objectives are statements of specific performances that contribute to the attainment of goals. Learning objectives should help guide curriculum development, instructional strategies, selection of instructional materials, and development of assessments.
Table 25.1 Verbs for use in writing learning objectives
Metfessel, N., Michael, W., and Kirsner, D. (1969). Instrumentation of Bloom’s and Krathwohl’s Taxonomies for the Writing of Educational Objectives. Psychology in the Schools, 4(3), 227-231.
B. S. Bloom (Ed.) (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals; David McKay Company, Inc.