Article Text

Download PDFPDF
The use and abuse of language in science
  1. Alan O'Rourke
  1. Sheffield University

    Statistics from

    Request Permissions

    If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.

    There exists a long running criticism of science that it is written in styles that are at best boring and at worst unintelligible. There is also a continuing battle between, on the one hand, the purists who delight in debating the terrors of split infinitives and double negatives and, on the other hand, those who believe that language needs to evolve organically, as long as most of the audience knows what it means. So, one side will tut-tut about phrases like “less unemployed people”, and be shouted down as pedants, and the other side will say most folks get the gist, and be castigated for sloppiness.

    We hear of university students who cannot express themselves in plain English; and of C P Snow's “two cultures”, the literate but scientifically ignorant versus the technically well-versed who can communicate only in jargon, glaring at each other across the barricades. I recently assessed some scripts for a course: one student seemed unaware of apostrophes (or, being perhaps unsure of where to put them, had at least been consistent in omitting them totally); another employed capital initial letters erratically. I would certainly place myself on the side of the conservatives on one issue. Whatever else a country's education system achieves, it is a failure if it turns out students who cannot express themselves concisely and accurately in their own tongue. While accepting that there was a good deal of snobbish elitism in the “classical education”, the underlying motives were often noble:

    “The man we are proud to send forth from our Schools will be remarkable less for something he can take out of his wallet and exhibit for knowledge, than for being something, and that something recognisable for a man of unmistakable intellectual breeding whose trained judgement we can trust to choose the …

    View Full Text


    • Alan O'Rourke is a Lecturer at the Institute of General Practice and Primary Care, Community Sciences Centre, Northern General Hospital, Sheffield University.