Communication Skills

Communication Skills
The requirements for writing a report, essay and literature review have been provided in the
First Year Skills booklet and you should be fairly proficient in these styles by now. In
Intermediate courses you will need to further develop your mastery of these styles and
take time to develop an appropriate scientific style of communication. Brief notes on
writing a practical report, an essay and a literature review are given in later sections of this
manual. The following section on Scientific Writing is more related to the effective use of
English and gives details on general scientific writing style, scientific conventions and
Using the English language to successfully communicate scientific findings does not come
easily to most people. Choosing the correct words and using correct grammar are skills
now rarely taught in schools, so many University students are at some disadvantage. The
following notes are designed to encourage you to think more carefully about how
effectively you write and to give you an introduction to the format and conventions
required for different types of written scientific works. There are a number of questions,
written in italics, throughout the text. You should answer these as you work through the
notes. Answers to certain questions are available at the Generic Skills Website.
Good research is meaningless unless you can communicate your findings in a clear and
interesting fashion. The days in which scientific papers were works of great literature is
past but we can still strive to make our writing informative and worth reading. Woods
(1989) writes ‘The purpose of any writing other than lecture notes or pieces that start with
“Dear Diary” is to influence your reader. If you are writing great fiction you may move
your reader to tears. This can also happen with scientific writing, but generally you do not
want to make your reader weep.’ (We hope this does not happen when we mark your
The importance of good writing cannot be over-emphasised. In many cases the written
word is the only means by which scientists communicate and it is the main way in which
students communicate with and are assessed by their teachers. The table below provides a
few published thoughts by University lecturers:
‘...for a student to succeed in a science course, and to become an adequate scientific
practitioner, [they] must have better expression skills than are necessary for almost any
other course or vocation. Vagueness, ambiguity and inability to express clearly and
succinctly are intolerable in a scientist.’ (Towns, 1990)
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‘Offer me a choice: two [University] entrants of the same IQ (if such a measure can, for
a moment, be accepted as valid). Both have natural curiosity about science,1 and
sensible ambition. One has inadequate chemistry but good literacy skills, the other the
converse. Which do I feel has the greater chance, given strong motivation, of succeeding
in a science degree and beyond? Well, I shall take the literate one. Those who disagree
with me are quite welcome to the other.’ (Towns, 1990)
‘The fundamental purpose of scientific discourse is not the mere presentation of
information and thought, but rather its actual communication. It does not matter how
pleased an author might be to have converted all the right data into sentences and
paragraphs; it matters only whether a large majority of the reading audience accurately
perceives what the author had in mind.’ (Gopen and Swan, 1990)
Whether you are writing an essay, literature review or the discussion in a practical report,
you will have the task of presenting a logical series of facts and reasoned argument to your
reader. Your sentences and paragraphs should be in a logical order so that the reader can
easily follow your argument and reach the same conclusion you have. Each paragraph
should be able to stand on its own and be internally cohesive. A long piece of writing can
be made more readable if you use subheadings to organise the prose into sections. Be
cautious about writing the first phrase that comes into your head and get into the habit of
writing several drafts of any report or essay.
You want your reader to understand what you are writing, to maintain respect for you and
not to become annoyed with you. This can be done if you write simply, succinctly and
without grammatical errors. Correct spelling is also a great help!
A note on computer spellcheckers
Correcting a final draft of a piece of writing is not something that can be left to the efforts
of the spellchecker in your word processing program. They are useful for a first scan of
your work but they are not infallible and will miss many errors, for example:
- if you have used there instead of their, the spellchecker will not recognise it as a
mistake as the words are correctly spelt;
- if you have typed the instead of then, the Spellchecker will ignore it as the is
correctly spelt.
Remember to select an English/Australian dictionary in your word processing program,
especially if you use Autocorrect, so that American spellings are not accepted in your
work. (Note that some computer ‘Australian-English’ dictionaries accept American
spelling. The words center, hemoglobin, anemia, and color are NOT English.) See
Appendix 1 for a cautionary tale about Spellcheckers.
N.B. If you use computers on campus or you are connected to the University of Sydney
server from your home computer you can access the Complete Oxford English Dictionary
Refer to the Generic Skills Website, Tip of the Week, for discussion of the “Oxford comma”.
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A note on computer grammarcheckers
Hmm! Several years ago I would have suggested that you not waste your time with them.
However, they have improved recently and are useful for picking up repeated words, nonsentences, multiple spaces between words and my favourite, the correct usage of ‘that’ and
‘which’. (See entry under 3.2 Common errors of word usage.)
‘Keeping up with the literature’ is a common obsession of successful scientists. That
ominous phrase ‘the literature’ generally refers to the published journal and review papers
on a particular subject.
2.1 Journal papers and practical reports
A journal paper reports the results of original research. As an undergraduate you will be
required to write reports on laboratory and fieldwork; these correspond in purpose and
style to journal papers. You have received instruction on how to write a laboratory report
in First Year and there are further instructions on report writing later in this manual. See
also pages 63 - 68 of Lindsay (1984).
2.2 Literature reviews and essays
A review paper presents the previously published facts and theories in a particular field
but is more than a mere catalogue of previous literature. A good review is a critical
summary or synthesis of the current knowledge in that field. It should highlight areas in
which further research should be carried out and should stimulate readers to carry out this
research. It should point out any deficiencies or inaccuracies in previous research. The
author of a review is free to use his own interpretation and opinion, e.g. ‘I believe Brown
(1980) is mistaken because ...’. Such interpretations must be supported by sound
reasoning (note the word ‘because’) and normally result from years of experience in the
As an undergraduate you will write essays or literature reviews, which correspond to
review papers. You do not have the experience of the average review author but it should
still be possible to inject some originality into your review, rather than just presenting a
catalogue of facts. You can reassess the conclusions of the original authors in the light of
more recent knowledge and compare and contrast the results and conclusions of different
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3.1 Save trees! (and eschew terminological obfuscation!)
‘Use words with precision and economy to construct sentences that are exact, clear
and as simple as the subject permits.’
CBE Style Manual.
Many students have a tendency to write in a flowery fashion and use many more words
than are really necessary in order to tell their reader what they want to say. The previous
sentence, for example, could be written: Many students use flowery language and more
words than necessary to say what they want. There are no extra marks for writing longwinded, convoluted sentences, or using seven-syllable words. In scientific writing only
your ability to communicate clearly is on trial. Compare the following lists of wordy and
concise statements:
... if conditions are such that
... if
... in order to
... to
... there can be little doubt that this is
... plants exhibited good growth
... bright green in colour
... by means of
... created the possibility
... due to the fact that
... fewer in number
... for the reason that
... in all cases
... this probably is
... plants grew well
... bright green
... by/with
... made possible
... because
... fewer
... because, since
... always
... in view of the fact that
... since, because
... it is often the case that
... often
... it is possible that the cause is
... it would appear that
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... the cause may be
... apparently
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In the early twentieth century, W. H. Fowler was commissioned by Oxford University
Press to write a book on English usage. He and his brother Frank had previously produced
The Concise Oxford Dictionary and The King’s English. Following his brother’s death,
W.H. Fowler proposed to his publisher that he write an ‘idiom dictionary’, for the ‘halfeducated Englishman of literary proclivities who ... has idioms floating in his head in a
jumbled state and knows it.’ The project was eventually accepted and the book was
published in 1926 as The Oxford Guide to Modern English Usage. It is still regarded as
the final word on grammar and word usage. Fowler formulated five simple rules as a
starting point for good writing; more recent authors have modified these rules and they can
be summarised as follows:
Prefer the familiar word to the unfamiliar word
(e.g. ‘linkage’ rather than ‘concatenation’)
Prefer the concrete word to the abstract word
(e.g. ‘Investigate’ rather than ‘Make an investigation into’)
Prefer the active voice to the passive voice
(e.g. ‘Our experiments show’ rather than ‘It has been shown by our experiments’)
Prefer the single word to the round-about phrase
(e.g. ‘because’ rather than ‘due to the fact that’)
Prefer the short word to the long word
(e.g. ‘orient’ rather than ‘orientate’)
The rules are in order of merit and the second and third make a similar point. Fowler’s final
rule was to prefer the Saxon word to the Romance; however recent authorities suggest that
strict adherence to this rule would beggar the richness of the English language.
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Question 1. Rewrite the following sentences using as few words as possible.
(a) It is generally thought that the most common reason for the difference in experimental
results in biological experiments can be said to be due to the large amount of variability
between individuals of any population that is being studied.
(b) The question of whether or not students should be expected to pay tuition fees continues
to be under debate.
(c) Use a great deal of care to ensure that your fingers do not come into contact with the
bunsen flame.
The references provided (end of section 8) contain many more examples but the message is
the same: your first thought or written sentence will usually be more wordy than
necessary, so read critically and remove words and phrases that are not essential.
3.2 Common errors of word usage
Good communication in science requires exactness. The following words are often
confused. Learn the differences between them (or suffer the wrath of your lecturers and
demonstrators!). Consult the glossary (section 9) for the meanings of grammatical terms.
Affect and effect
These two words have very different meanings and are regularly misused.
Affect is a verb. e.g. Stomatal closing affects the temperature of a leaf.
Effect is (in most cases) a noun. e.g. Stomatal closing has a significant effect on leaf
There is one case in which effect is used as a verb: when it means ‘to cause or bring about’,
as in to effect a change. If you have trouble with the distinction between these two
words refer to any of the references on usage. (Any student guilty of their misuse will be
severely penalised and held up for general censure.)
Alternate and alternative
Alternate = ‘occur or arrange by turns’. e.g. TV programmes during the non-ratings
period alternate between awful and terrible.
Alternative implies that a choice is possible. e.g. The alternative to watching these
appalling programmes is to hire videos.
Consist of and comprise
Consist(s) takes the preposition of but comprise(s) does not. e.g. A virus consists of a
core of nucleic acid and a protein coat; Your Intermediate classwork comprises lectures,
practicals and tutorials.
(Use comprise only when ALL of the components are listed - if they are not, then use
include. e.g. in the statement Your Intermediate classwork includes lectures and
practicals, comprise would be incorrect.)
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Less and fewer
Take note our illiterate politicians!
Less = ‘a smaller amount of’ and takes a singular noun.
e.g. There is less work available during a recession.
Fewer = ‘a smaller number of’ and takes a plural noun.
e.g. There are fewer jobs available during a recession.
From Column 8
‘An ex-teacher of Turramurra sympathises with her former
colleagues’ problems but wishes they would be a bit more careful
with their advertising stickers. ‘Less teachers, pupils suffer’ was
what she read on a Commodore window at Fairfield. ‘Fewer,
please,’ she pleads.’
It’s and Its
It’s is the contraction of it is or it has. Its is the possessive pronoun and has no
e.g. ‘It’s a long way to the top’; The garden snail gets its helical shape through the
process of torsion.
Similarly the possessive pronouns hers, ours and yours have no apostrophe.
That and which
Use that at the beginning of a defining (restrictive) clause. (See glossary)
e.g. Each student should write a list of the references that they used in their essay.
The clause that they used in their essay defines a particular set of references. It is not
separated from the main clause by commas.
Use which for a non-defining (non-restrictive) clause. (See glossary)
e.g. Students should refer to a large number of references, which are found in the
The clause which are found in the library simply provides further information about
references in general. It is separated from the main clause by commas.
(To anyone who has a copy of Burchfield’s revised edition of Fowler’s Modern English
Usage, which allows the use of which in a defining clause, I would recommend burning it at
Note that who replaces that and which when you are referring to particular people. The
rule about placing a comma before a non-defining clause remains the same (refer to the
doctor example in the glossary.)
There, their and they’re
Compare the following:
‘There is a house in New Orleans ...’
Their house is in New Orleans.
They’re (they are) living in a house in New Orleans.
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Shall and will, should and would
Shall and should express obligation. Will and would express determination or resolve.
e.g. He should be more careful. You would say that!
(Legend has it that a Scotsman once drowned because he cried ‘I will drown and no-one
shall save me’ and the Englishmen on the bank took him at his word!)
Many pages in formal usage texts are devoted to the distinction between the use of shall in
the first person and will in the second and third person to express simple futurity (1 and 2)
or as an auxiliary (3 and 4).
e.g. 1. I shall go. 2. You/he/she will go. 3. I should like to thank you. 4. He would
like to come.
In common practice it is now acceptable to use will/would for all persons and using shall
and should is considered archaic by some authorities. The first person should must still
be used for formal writing, especially in formal correspondence. (Remember this if you
write to the Queen’s private secretary.) (On no account may you address any letter to the
Queen personally.) (Debrett’s Correct Form)
Various, varying and variable
Various means ‘of several kinds’. Varying and variable imply changing from one kind to
e.g. Nets of varying mesh size are used to collect different sized organisms from
plankton implies that a net is capable of changing its mesh size, and is incorrect.
Problematic plurals
The word data is plural. e.g. Data are tabulated in Fig. 1. The singular is datum and is
rarely used.
* Bacterium is singular. e.g. The bacterium E. coli is the microbiologist’s white rat.
The plural is bacteria. e. g. Bacteria are killed by various antibiotics.
* Medium is singular. e.g. The bacteria were cultured in a nutrient medium.
The plural is media. e.g. Several different media were used to culture different
strains of bacteria.
* Phenomenon is singular. e.g. An interesting phenomenon.
The plural is phenomena. e.g. These phenomena are odd.
* Criterion is singular, meaning ‘standard by which something is judged.’ e.g. One
criterion for success is...
The plural is criteria. e.g. The criteria for awarding the prize are ... (Note the form of
the verb ‘to be’ in each case.)
* The plural of taxon is two or more taxa.
* The plural of genus is two or more genera.
* The plural of phylum is two or more phyla.
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* There is and There are are frequently misused. There is or There’s can only precede
a singular entity. e.g. There’s several reasons ... incorrect! This should be written
There are several reasons ...
(Note: ‘There’s too many of you ‘(Temple scene, Jesus Christ Superstar) is incorrect!)
No-one in the Australian media knows the distinction between these two forms, especially
advertisers. Listen carefully the next time you turn on the television or the radio and be
Words and phrases to avoid
being; though; furthermore; in addition; Firstly, Secondly, Thirdly at the beginning of a
series of sentences. (I have read some student writing in which every sentence in some
paragraphs begins with furthermore.)
Read on
This is not an exhaustive list, merely some of the very worst offenders. Fowler (1965),
Gowers (1986), Partridge (1973) and the The Oxford Miniguide to English Usage include
extensive lists of similarly confused words and they make fascinating reading. If you are in
any doubt at all about the correct usage of words you are using then look them up in any
(or all) of these references. Check the Generic Skills Website for further advice and links to
English usage sites.
3.3 Scientific conventions and nomenclature
Use of italics
Specific names of organisms are written using a capital letter for the genus name (Homo)
and a small letter for the species name (sapiens). Italics are used for specific names in
printed works, but in handwritten reports the entire specific name should be underlined.
Do not underline any other taxonomic name (such as class and family names).
e.g. The fat-tailed dunnart, Sminthopsis crassicaudata, is a member of the Family
Or: The fat-tailed dunnart, Sminthopsis crassicaudata, is a member of the Family
Italics (or underlining) are also used for foreign words, especially Latin terms such as in
vivo, in vitro, a priori, exemplia gratia (e.g.), id est (i.e.), etc.
(N.B. Some journals require the common names of species to be written with a capital
letter [e.g. the Koala] but there is no absolute convention for this.)
Taxon names and common names
All names of taxa above the rank of genus should start with a capital letter. If the name of a
taxon is used as a common name then it starts with a lower case letter. e.g. Phylum
Platyhelminthes, platyhelminths; Phylum Annelida, annelids; Class Malacostraca,
malacostracans; Phylum Crustacea, crustaceans.
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The endings of taxon names are standardised, although the standards are different for
zoological, botanical and bacteriological taxa. In the Zoological Code, superfamily names
end in -oidea, family names in -idae, and subfamily names in -inae. e.g. Superfamily
Vombatoidea, containing the Families Vombatidae and Phascolarctidae. Phylum, class and
order names have various endings, although many end in -a.
In the Botanical Code, class names end in -ida, order names end in -ales, and family names
end in -aceae.
If you wish to use an abbreviation for a chemical or generic name, write the full name the
first time it appears in the text. e.g. Glyceraldehyde 3-phosphate is converted to 1,3diphosphoglycerate (1,3-DPG). Henceforth in the same manuscript you can simply refer
to 1,3-DPG (unless it is at the beginning of a sentence). The second time you refer to the
fat-tailed dunnart you can use S. crassicaudata. Never abbreviate the species part of a
scientific name (i.e. you must always write crassicaudata in full).
Do not use an abbreviation at the beginning of a sentence. Avoid using abbreviations in a
summary or abstract, unless the same expression is to be used several times within the
summary itself. You should also avoid using contractions such as don’t, can’t, wasn’t, etc.
in scientific works.
Numbers and numerals
Always write the full word for single digit numbers (e.g. five, not 5). For double-digit
numbers, write the numerals (e.g. 35, 287).
The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines a sentence as ‘a series of words in
connected speech or writing, forming the grammatically complete expression of a single
thought.’ A sentence must contain a subject and a verb that directly relates to the subject.
More formally this definition is expressed as a subject and a predicate, where predicate
refers to what is said about the subject.
Subordinate clauses - or how to write a non-sentence
A common error is to mistake a subordinate clause (containing a verb) for a complete
sentence. A subordinate clause (preceded by words such as that, which, who, if, although)
provides extra information about the main clause and cannot exist on its own as a complete
sentence. (See the glossary for further information on clauses.)
e.g. The birds that migrate to southern Europe, where the climate is milder. is not a
sentence. It does contain verbs but neither of them directly relates to the subject of the
sentence - The birds. Compare the true sentence The birds migrate to southern
Europe, where the climate is milder. in which the verb migrate directly relates to the
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A good way to check that you have written a true sentence is to read it without the
subordinate clauses and check whether it makes sense. In the first example above, the
clause that migrate to southern Europe defines the birds and the clause where the
climate is milder gives more information about southern Europe. If you leave out these
clauses it reads The birds. and this is clearly not a sentence. In the second example, the
shortened sentence reads The birds migrate to southern Europe. and this is a true
Though and although precede a subordinate clause and that clause alone does not
constitute a sentence. e.g. Though it looked like rain. is a non-sentence.
Question 2. (a) Which of the following are true sentences?
(b) Rewrite any ‘non-sentences’ to make them true sentences.
(i) The forest ecosystem that is currently under threat from logging, vandalism and the
impact of feral cats and foxes.
(ii) The sheep rumen contains large populations of protists, fungi and bacteria, which
break down cellulose.
(iii) Although the experimental conditions were optimal.
Keep your subordinate clauses close to the subject. A classic example of misplaced clauses
is: Rugby is a game played by men with funny shaped balls. And this was written in a
New Zealand train timetable: The carriages are comfortable, fully carpeted and are
equipped with wool-covered seats featuring large panoramic windows. Similar
confusion can be created by ordering adjectives in the wrong way: owners of a koala
sanctuary asked readers of Column 8 to send them ‘used women’s stockings’ to tie up their
sapling eucalypts. The editor agreed to print the request provided the wording was
changed to ‘women’s used stockings’.
The present participle - or how to write a non-sentence
The following examples illustrate a common student error - that of using the present
participle (that’s the verb form that ends in ‘ing’) in place of the present or past tense.
e.g. The blue whale being the largest mammal on Earth. (should read The blue
whale is the largest mammal on Earth.)
My advice is if you have used (or have the slightest inclination to use) a verb ending in ‘ing’
in your writing then BEWARE. Take some time to ensure that the sentence makes
grammatical sense. ASK ME if in doubt! Let’s refer back to the definition of a sentence, as
containing a subject and verb that directly relates to the subject: being the largest
mammal on Earth is a subordinate clause and the word being does not relate directly to
the subject (The blue whale).
Verb agreement - or how to write a nonsensical sentence
Do not write sentences that are so long that the reader loses track of the main point. Split
any such sentence into smaller ones. Keep the subject and verb close together, as this will
help you to avoid errors of tense and of verbs not agreeing with their subject.
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Question 3. What is wrong with the following sentence? Rewrite it (using more than one
sentence) to make it grammatically correct.
The lion, which lives in Africa where it is greatly feared by the natives and which feeds on
kudu, eland, gnus, wildebeeste, zebras and a wide variety of other animals, which are
usually stalked and killed by the lionesses, are savage.
“But I know how to use punctuation!” I hear you cry. To use that immortal line from the
movie Betrayal, I would reply: “Are you sure?” Here are a few brief and very introductory
pointers on correct punctuation. Refer to any of the suggested references on usage [in
particular pages 152 - 175 of Gowers (1986) or pages 587 - 592 of Fowler (1965)] for more
detail. Used wisely, punctuation makes your prose readable. However, do not fall into the
trap of using punctuation as an excuse for poorly structured sentences.
Stops are used to break up your prose. In order of increasing strength they are the comma,
semicolon, colon and full stop.
Comma ( , )
‘The correct use of the comma - if there is such a thing as “correct” use - can only be
acquired by common sense, observation and taste.’ (Gowers, 1986). This immediately
poses a problem for the average undergraduate student, who may not possess any of these
qualities. A good rule is to use a comma only if your meaning would be unclear without
one. Another useful technique is to read your work aloud and use a comma where you
pause for breath. If any sentence you write contains more than four commas, reword it or
break it up into smaller sentences.
A common error is to use a comma where a firmer stop (fullstop, colon or semicolon) is
required, thus running several sentences together so they read as nonsense.
e.g. The words significant difference refer to the results of statistical tests, you
should therefore use them discriminately. Incorrect! Use a conjunction (and or so,
deleting therefore) or separate the two parts by a semicolon or fullstop.
If you use commas to insert parenthetical phrases, be careful to correctly place both
e.g. It is useful when recording references, to write each one on a record card.
Incorrect! (Place a comma after useful or omit all commas.)
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Authors have different preferences for placing a comma after the second last item in a list
and there is no absolute rule for this. e.g. Little girls are made of sugar, spice and all
things nice vs Little girls are made of sugar, spice, and all things nice. The comma
preceding the last item in a list is called ‘the Oxford comma’. I would recommend not using
the comma unless it is necessary to clarify groupings.
e.g. Annelids were classically divided into three groups: polychaetes,
clitellates, containing the leeches and earthworms, and the group comprising
pogonophorans and vestimentiferans. (Also consider how useful the Oxford comma
would have been to the author who dedicated her book ‘to my parents, Ayn Rand and
Do not use commas to parenthesise a defining (restrictive) clause. (See glossary)
e.g. Students, who are lazy, will obtain poor results. Incorrrect!
(This sentence says all students are lazy. Without the commas [correct] the sentence
would describe what happens to certain students [the lazy ones] only.)
Do not use commas to separate two main clauses, each of which could stand alone as a
complete sentence. e.g. We went to the beach and played volleyball. (No comma after
beach.) (Note that when joining two main clauses the subject need not be repeated - see
Semicolon ( ; )
Use a semicolon:
(i) to divide a sentence, when the two parts are too closely related to be separated by a full
e.g. Biological evolution may be slight or substantial; it embraces everything from
slight changes in the proportion of different alleles within a population (such as
those determining blood types) to the successive alterations that led from the
earliest protoorganism to snails, bees, giraffes, and dandelions. (Futuyma, 1987).
(ii) to separate members of a list when the members are long, or contain their own commas.
e.g. The major tenets of the evolutionary synthesis, then, were that populations
contain genetic variation that arises by random (i.e. not adaptively directed)
mutation and recombination; that populations evolve by changes in gene frequency
brought about by random genetic drift, gene flow, and especially natural selection;
that most adaptive genetic variants have individually slight phenotypic changes so
that phenotypic changes are gradual (although some alleles with discrete effects
may be advantageous, as in certain colour polymorphisms); that diversification
comes about by speciation, which ordinarily entails the gradual evolution of
reproductive isolation among populations; and that these processes, continued for
sufficiently long, give rise to changes of such great magnitude as to warrant the
designation of higher taxonomic levels (genera, families, and so forth). (Futuyma,
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Colon ( : )
Use a colon:
(i) to separate two parts of a sentence that are in antithesis.
e.g. “Fair is foul: foul is fair.”
(ii) to introduce an explanation or a list.
e.g. The oxidation of organic carbon has a special metabolic function for the
heterotroph: it provides energy for growth.
(It would be correct to insert a colon after were in the first line of example (ii) under
Full stop ( . )
Use a full stop at the end of a sentence and at the end of abbreviations where the final letter
is not the final letter of the full word, e.g. Capt. - Captain; e.g. - exemplia gratia. Compare
Dr - Doctor; and wt - weight. An exception to this rule is for abbreviations of SI units,
which do not require a full stop (e.g. kg - kilogram)
Quotation marks ( “...” or ‘...’ )
Double or single? Here pragmatism can prevail, and Fowler recommends that you use
single quotation marks for a quotation and only use double when a quotation is enclosed in
a quotation. Use double quotation marks for spoken text.
Parentheses (Brackets or paired dashes)
Use brackets or paired dashes to insert an illustration, explanation or additional piece of
information into a sentence that is logically and grammatically complete without it. Make
sure you correctly pair (or close) your brackets or dashes.
e.g. His distinctive contribution was to show that ‘fixed air’ - namely CO2 - is taken
up by photosynthesis.
(See also the second example under Semicolon.)
(N.B. If you enclose a complete sentence in brackets, place the fullstop inside the closing
bracket.) (Use a different bracket type if you enclose a second set of brackets inside the
first [as in this example].)
NOTE that parentheses create a pause in a sentence so you do not to surround the words
enclosed in brackets by commas as well!
Question 4: Changes in punctuation can markedly alter the meaning of a sentence. To
illustrate this, write as many different versions of the following sentence as you can, by
changing the punctuation only.
What is this thing called Love?
There are at least ten possibilities.
(Selected answers available at the Generic Skills Website. Send any more you come up
with to Elizabeth.)
Intermediate Skills Manual 2001
Biological Sciences
Apostrophe s (‘s) denotes possession, not plurality! Use s’ if the subject that is doing the
possessing is plural. e.g. the student’s book (one student), the students’ books (more
than one student). (Note that the students’ book would be correct if one book were
jointly owned by several students.) (Column 8 in the Sydney Morning Herald occasionally
records readers’ examples of misplaced apostrophes [and other misuses of the English
language]). The most common error is to use an apostrophe to denote a simple plural
entity, e.g The student’s were protesting in the Main Quad. is incorrect.
Do not use an apostrophe before the s for the plural of acronyms, e.g. CDs (not CD’s),
PCs (not PC’s).
A paragraph is essentially a unit of thought, not of length (Fowler, 1965). Each paragraph
should be homogeneous in content and should treat the content in logical and sequential
order. There is no general rule about the length of a paragraph and it should be a matter of
common sense (that terrible phrase again!). Avoid writing lots of very short paragraphs or
excessively long paragraphs. Sensible paragraphing gives your reader a rest and indicates
that you are going on to the next point.
A paragraph should be able to stand alone and be understandable independent of the
preceding paragraph so do not start a paragraph with Its ..., These ..., They ... or any other
pronoun that is defined in the preceding paragraph.
A good way to check that your prose flows logically is to summarise the point of each
paragraph with a single sentence or phrase. Check whether the flow is logical, with ideas
moving easily from one to another, as you read through the summary. If you follow the
principle that a paragraph is homogeneous in content, it should be easy to summarise the
guts of it in a phrase or sentence.
The information you write in any piece of scientific work could come from one of several
sources: your own mind or experience; a written source such as a journal paper or textbook;
or the words or experience of a colleague, tutor or lecturer. If you include any facts or ideas
obtained from any place other than your own head or analysis of your own data, you
MUST indicate the original source.
Written works
The name-and-year system (or Harvard system) of citation is most commonly used in
biological journals and you will be required to use this system in all your written work.
Some journals use a numbering system but this is normally due to space limitations and is
not acceptable for assignment or thesis work.
Intermediate Skills Manual 2001
Biological Sciences
Choose a logical point within your sentence to write in brackets the surname of the
author(s) and the year of publication of the journal or book. Placing a comma between the
author and year is optional (but should be consistent within any one manuscript).
e.g. Anaerobic fungi extensively colonise plant material in rumen digesta
(Bauchop, 1979).
Citations and punctuation
If the author’s name forms part of the sentence, write the year in brackets. NOTE that
any punctuation mark is placed after the closing bracket. This rule also applies to any
other stop in the sentence (comma, semicolon or colon).
e.g. The role of brown adipose tissue in the increased heat production of coldacclimated rats was clearly demonstrated by the blood flow studies of Foster and
Frydman (1979).
Two authors
Write both names separated by and (or &).
e.g. Thermogenesis in cold-exposed placental mammals involves heat generated by
muscle and brown adipose tissue (Foster and Frydman, 1979).
Three or more authors
Write the first author, followed by et al., which stands for et alia (= and others).
e.g. The synergistic action of three enzymes is necessary for sufficient breakdown
of cellulose in the termite, Macrotermes mulleri (Rowland et al., 1988).
(Note that et al. (i) is italicised (or underlined) because it is Latin; and (ii) ends with a full
stop because the last letter of the abbreviation is not the same as the last letter of the full
* Do NOT include a page number in a reference citation. A page number is only required
for direct quotations, which, you recall, should be avoided).
* The full reference for every citation (including surnames and initials of all authors)
should appear in your reference list (called References, References Cited, or Literature
Cited but NEVER Bibliography). Note carefully how each reference is written in the
reference lists in your course manuals and in the scientific papers you read.
* If you cite articles written in foreign languages you must indicate, in your reference
list, whether you are citing the original article, a translation or an abstract.
DO NOT USE FOOTNOTES to list references. And do not use ibid. - you must write
the reference citation each time you use the reference.
* In instances where you have cited several different publications by the same author in the
same year: these are cited in the text as (Smith, 1980a), (Smith, 1980b), etc. and are listed in
the order a, b, etc. in your reference list.
Intermediate Skills Manual 2001
Biological Sciences
Unseen references
You should avoid citing references that you have not read. If it is really unavoidable (e.g. if
the original paper cannot be found or is in a foreign language) then you must cite both the
original work and the reference in which you found the cited material.
e.g. The French strain of the parasite Trioxys pallidus was not effective in reducing
numbers of the walnut aphid (van den Bosch & Messenger, 1971, in Dixon, 1977).
This example indicates that you read the reference by Dixon (1977), in which the author
cited the reference by van den Bosch & Messenger (1971). The complete details of both
references should appear in your reference list. Be warned that more than two such
citations in any submitted work will be viewed with grave suspicion!
Direct quotations
Direct quotations should also be avoided. If you cannot paraphrase an author’s work and
feel that only a direct quotation will do the job, you should enclose the quoted section in
single quotation marks (unless you are quoting speech, in which case you use double
quotation marks). Place any comma or full stop inside the closing quotation mark but place
any colon (:) or semicolon (;) outside the closing quotation mark. Include the page number
in the reference citation (ONLY for direct quotations). If you omit a section of the original
quotation, indicate this with three full stops (ellipsis marks) and if you insert your own
words to clarify anything within the quotation, indicate this by square brackets. Be careful
that you do not change the author’s meaning when you do this.
e.g. ‘[One] case for regarding the ... Mollusca as being derived from the
turbellarian-rhynchocoel phyla ... hinges on the conclusion that metameric
segmentation ... does not occur in primitive molluscs.’ (Russell-Hunter, 1979, p 618)
Verbal references
If you use information that another person told you, cite the initials and surname of the
person, followed by pers. comm. (for ‘personal communication’). This is often used in
journal papers to include unpublished results passed on to the author from another person.
e.g. Preliminary experiments have shown the insecticide to have no significant
effect on genetic mutants of Drosophila (W. N. Bingle, pers. comm.).
If you use the words or work of another person without citation or proper quotation you
are guilty of plagiarism and at University this amounts to a charge of academic
misconduct. A charge of academic misconduct can result in exclusion of a student from
the University for up to two years. The charge of plagiarism and academic misconduct
extends to use of another student’s work.
Intermediate Skills Manual 2001
Biological Sciences
The full reference for every citation (including surnames and initials of ALL authors)
should appear in your reference list (called References, References Cited, or Literature
Cited but NEVER Bibliography). Note carefully how each reference is written in the
reference lists in your course manuals and in the scientific papers you read.
List references in alphabetical order according to first author. Do not re-arrange the order
of authors within a reference. (The order usually indicates the relative contribution of each
author to the work.) Each reference must give the reader all the information required to find
the original paper or monograph. When you use any reference, even if you make only a
few brief notes from it, record the full reference at the same time. It is extremely irritating
to have to relocate the journal just to find out such details as the page numbers. Writing
each reference onto a file card is a convenient method of keeping track and it is then a
simple matter to order the appropriate cards alphabetically to compile your reference list.
(Alternatively use a reference database program such as Endnote.)
Titles of journals are normally abbreviated and there is an international convention for
this. The accepted abbreviation is usually printed as a header on the first page or
every page of the paper. If in doubt, write the full journal name. Abbreviations for
the names of common journals are listed in the World List of Scientific Periodicals and
Sources for the Biosis Data Base, which are available in Fisher and Badham libraries.
Examples of references and their text citations
Journal paper
Surnames and initials of all authors
Weider, R. K. and Lang, G. E. (1982) A
critique of the analytical methods used in
examining decomposition data obtained
from litter bags. Ecology 63 : 1636 - 1642.
(Year of publication)
Full title of paper.
Name and volume number of journal:
Text citation: (Weider and Lang, 1982)
Page numbers of paper.
Monograph (book)
Griffiths, A.J.F., Miller, J.H., Suzuki,
D.T., Lewontin, R.C. and Gelbart, W.M.
(1996) An introduction to genetic analysis.
6th edition. (W.H. Freeman: New York)
Surnames and initials of all authors
(Year of publication)
Full title of book.
Number of edition (if there is more than
Text citation: (Griffiths et al., 1996)
(Publisher : City or Town of Publication)
Intermediate Skills Manual 2001
Biological Sciences
Paper or chapter in a monograph
Full title of paper or chapter.
Savage, J. M. (1982) The geographic
distribution of frogs: patterns and
predictions. (In) Evolutionary biology of
the Anurans. (Ed. J. L. Vial) pp 351 - 445
(University of Missouri Press : Columbia)
(In) Title of book
Text citation: (Savage, 1982)
(Eds Initials and surnames of all editors)
(Note that Editor abbreviates to Ed.
(fullstop) and Editors abbreviates to Eds
(no fullstop). Note also the position of
initials and surnames for editors.)
Surnames and initials of all authors
(Year of publication)
Page numbers of paper or chapter
(Publisher : City or Town of Publication)
Surname and initials of author
Wannan, B. (1986) Systematics of the
Anarcadiaceae and its allies. Ph. D.
University of N.S.W.
(Year of submission of the thesis)
Title of thesis.
Degree for which the thesis was submitted.
Text citation: (Wannan, 1986)
Name of University
Publishers vary in the conventions required for typesetting and punctuating references, e.g.
presence or absence of bracketing, commas, fullstops after author initials, italicising, bold
type, underlining, etc. Provided all the required information is present and you are
consistent within the one work, you may go with your own preference for punctuating
references in essays and assignments. Compare the reference lists in a variety of
publications to see the range of conventions. Placing brackets around the year and placing
the year immediately after the author(s) does make it easier to read.
So, how do you translate the information in a title page or journal page into a
correct reference listing?
For a monograph, the date is the year of copyright, which is usually printed on the page
after the title page. If there is more than one edition of the book, include the edition
number in the title and make sure the date you cite is the correct copyright date for that
edition. For a paper or chapter in a book, make sure you record the author(s) of the
paper or chapter, the first and last page numbers, and the full title, editors and publication
details of the book. For a journal article, the abbreviated journal title, volume number and
page numbers are usually written in a header or footer on each page. (If not, record all this
information when you photocopy the article!)
Intermediate Skills Manual 2001
Biological Sciences
Publication details
If the place of publication or location of a University may not be well known, include
either the city, state or country as necessary, e.g. (Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs, New
Jersey); (Bond University: Queensland, Australia). Do not include Co., Pty Ltd, Inc., &
Sons, etc. in the name of a publisher. Note that U.S.A., U.K. or Aust. are not sufficient to
indicate the place of publication! Do not confuse the place of publication with the city
where the publication was typeset and printed: they usually differ. Some publishers may
have several towns or cities listed on the title page; the place of publication is the first
town or city listed and the address of that office is usually printed on the next page.
References (cited in text above)
Gopen, G.D. and Swan, J.A. (1990) The science of scientific writing. Amer. Scientist 78:
Towns, P. (1990) Is literacy important? Aust. Biochem. Soc. Newsletter 3: 21
Woods, A. (1989) English Tutorial notes. University of NSW
Useful student references
Pocket guides to English
1. Hardie, R. G. (1990) Collins Gem English grammar. (Eds P. Hanks and A.
Grandison) (Collins: Glasgow)
2. Weiner, E. S. C. (1983) The Oxford miniguide to English usage. (Oxford University
Press: Oxford) (Fisher 423/99)
General writing style and word usage
1. Australian Government Publishing Service (1995) Style manual for authors, editors
and printers. 5th edition. (AGPS Press: Canberra) (Badham reference; Fisher 808.041
101 F)
2. Fowler, H. W. (1965) A dictionary of modern English usage. Second edition.
Revised by Sir Ernest Gowers. (Oxford University Press: Oxford)
(reprinted also
1968, 1983) (Fisher 428/13D) (The 3 edition, edited by R.W. Burchfield, was
published in 1996.)
4. Hudson, N. (1993) Modern Australian usage. (Oxford University Press: Melbourne)
(Fisher Reference 428.00994/3 Not for Loan)
Scientific writing
1. Council of Biology Editors, Committee on form and style. (1983) CBE Style Manual.
5th edition. (American Institute of Biological Sciences: Washington) (Badham 808.02 69)
2. Lindsay, D. (1984) A guide to scientific writing. (Longman Cheshire: Melbourne)
3. O’Connor, M (1991) Writing successfully in science. (Chapman Hall: London
(Health Sciences 808.0665 OCO)
Intermediate Skills Manual 2001
Biological Sciences
Noun: a ‘naming’ word - a word that labels a person, place, thing or idea.
e.g. table, gait, conscience, Paul, Sydney.
Pronoun: replaces a noun previously used or indefinite.
e.g. he, her, it, anyone, something.
Adjective: gives further information about (describes) a noun.
e.g. Oh, you sexy thing!
A group of words (phrase) can sometimes act as an adjective (adjectival phrase).
e.g. The girl with the black velvet band ...
Verb: a ‘doing’ word - a word that tells about an action or a state of being.
e.g. jump, be, carry, learn.
A verb usually has a subject (the thing that does the action). Verbs may or may not have a
direct object (the thing that receives the action).
Verbs that take a direct object are called transitive verbs.
e.g. I killed the flies.
Verbs that do not take a direct object are called intransitive verbs.
e.g. I must learn some grammar; I can kill flies.
Some verbs take a direct and an indirect object. The indirect object names the person or
thing to whom/which an action is done.
e.g. I gave the textbook to my sister. (the textbook is direct; to my sister is indirect)
Adverb: gives further information about (describes) a verb.
e.g. They ran quickly.
A group of words (phrase) can sometimes act as an adverb (adverbial phrase).
e.g. Her room at college
a complete mess.
(adjectival phrase)
(adverbial phrase)
Preposition: gives information about position or movement.
e.g. on, over, in, there, to, with.
Intermediate Skills Manual 2001
Biological Sciences
Sentence: a group of words that contains a subject and a verb that directly relates to that
subject. A sentence may consist of a single clause (simple sentence) or two or more
clauses (compound or complex sentence).
The cricket ball shattered the window.
(compound) We went to Adelaide and visited the Barossa valley.
We travelled through Victoria, which was dry and dusty.
Clause: a group of words that contains a verb, the subject of the verb and often the object
of the verb.
e.g. The insecticide killed the flies ...
(verb) (object)
Two clauses in the one sentence can be joined by a coordinating conjunction (e.g. and, but,
neither, nor, yet). In this case the two clauses are of equal importance.
e.g. The insecticide killed the flies and retarded metamorphosis of the pupae.
(main clause)
(main clause)
(It is not necessary to repeat the subject. However, if the sentence were separated into
two sentences, then the subject [or its pronoun] should appear in the second sentence.)
When a clause is preceded by a subordinate conjunction (e.g. that, which, who, since,
because, when, if) it becomes a subordinate clause. A subordinate clause cannot exist on its
own as a sentence!
e.g. When applied in sufficient concentration, the insecticide killed the flies.
(subordinate clause)
(main clause)
A defining (restrictive) clause defines a noun and limits the possible reference of the noun.
It is never separated from the noun by a comma!
e.g The flies that were not killed by the insecticide were naturally resistant.
(The defining clause defines a particular set of flies - those that were not killed by the
A non-defining (non-restrictive) clause simply gives more information about a noun,
without limiting its possible reference. It is always separated from the main clause by
e.g. The flies, which were bred at CSIRO, were naturally resistant to insecticide.
(The non-defining clause simply gives additional information about the flies.)
Compare: (defining) The brother who lives in Canberra is a doctor.
(There are several brothers. The one living in Canberra is a doctor.)
(non-defining) The brother, who lives in Canberra, is a doctor.
(There is one brother. He is a doctor. He lives in Canberra.)
Intermediate Skills Manual 2001
Biological Sciences
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