JAMA 100 Years Ago Section Editor: Jennifer Reiling, Assistant Editor.
"A Plea for Better English in Science" is made in a recent number of Science. The writer has passed judgment on about 100 manuscripts
submitted by scientists, and decides that but 19 per cent. are good, 57 per
cent. fair, and 24 per cent. are poor. Of these authors, about 75 per cent.
have had collegiate or university training, and no fewer than 20 of them are
now professors or instructors in leading universities and schools of science.
Yet most of these 20 are placed in the "fair" class, and some even "poor."
"Thus it appears that scientific and university life, with the preparation
in lower schools which this implies, does not insure good English." This deficiency
is ascribed in large part to neglect, the ability to write clearly and forcefully
is considered as lying dormant, lacking a stimulus properly directed to bring
it to light. If this is the case, then our universities are woefully deficient
in applying stimuli, for it is indeed questionable if better ability to use
our pliable language is to be found among those whose scholastic education
continued beyond the high school than among those who stopped at or short
of that point, but who subsequently have occupied similar places in life.
The collegiate instruction can enable the student to fight shy of the split
infinitive, and to appreciate the horrors of the terminal preposition; but
it can not often succeed in enabling him to write readable letters, much less
interesting ones, if he could not already do it before his matriculation papers
were filed. Writers are surely among those who are born and not made, and
the correct use of English that can be acquired bears little relation to the
forceful and attractive writing of which many of little education are capable.
But why should scientists so often be poor writers and so seldom forceful,
not to say entertaining?
WHY SCIENTISTS ARE POOR WRITERS.. JAMA. 2004;291(2):254. doi:10.1001/jama.291.2.254