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JAMA 100 Years Ago
January 14, 2004

WHY SCIENTISTS ARE POOR WRITERS.

Author Affiliations
 

JAMA 100 Years Ago Section Editor: Jennifer Reiling, Assistant Editor.

JAMA. 2004;291(2):254. doi:10.1001/jama.291.2.254

"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?

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