5.4.6 Adjectives, Adverbs and Split Infinitives

Adjectives and adverbs are often overused when authors are attempting to be precise, with long strings of adjectives particularly common in some theses, so do check for this while proofreading your draft and pay special attention to instances in which you may have used a large number of adjectival nouns. In almost all cases, it is best to use as few adjectives as possible, and such a policy can lead to the use of more precise or expressive adjectives, which is always preferable. When you decide that several adjectives are definitely required, be sure to punctuate them effectively and in a consistent manner throughout your thesis (see Section 5.6.1). Adverbs are especially problematic when they split the infinitive forms of English verbs. In most languages, the infinitive of a verb is a single word: the infinitive forms of the famous Latin phrase ‘veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered),’ for instance, are ‘venire,’ ‘videre’ and ‘vincere.’ In English, however, the infinitives of verbs are formed through the addition of ‘to’ – ‘to come, to see, to conquer’ – and the two elements of the infinitive (‘to’ and ‘conquer’) should no sooner be separated from each other in formal writing than should the ‘ire’ or ‘ere’ ending be separated from the stem of one of the Latin infinitives. Infinitives are usually split by an adverb inserted between the two parts of the verb (as in Star Trek’s famous ‘to boldly go’), and such split infinitives sometimes sound entirely natural because they tend to be used daily in casual speech and informal written communications. In the twenty-first century, split infinitives are even tolerated in scholarly prose (though not by all university departments and thesis committees), so if you find that you simply cannot do without an adverb and yet it proves impossible to word the sentence effectively without splitting the infinitive, the adverb can in some cases be retained within the infinitive of the verb. Some readers still consider split infinitives incorrect grammar, however, so do check with your supervisor, keep such usage to a minimum in your thesis and remember that the safest policy is to reword split infinitives whenever possible, replacing ‘to successfully write a thesis,’ for instance, with ‘to write a thesis successfully.’ Rewording sentences containing split infinitives will no doubt prove challenging at times, and in certain instances a sentence may have to be thoroughly rewritten to accommodate a necessary adverb or adverbial phrase more effectively, but do make your best effort before deciding to retain a split infinitive.

5.4.7 Verbs: Tense, Voice and Contractions

The correct use of verb tenses (present, perfect, pluperfect etc.) can be tricky and thus problematic at times. The nuances of the various tenses communicate different temporal messages, and the temporal message of each verb should accurately reflect the reality reported, be consistent with other verbs expressing similar temporal messages and change according to the nature of the content. The problem is complicated in scholarly prose because referring accurately and effectively to the ideas and results found in sources can be challenging. As a general rule, much of what is said in previous scholarship can be referred to in the present tense: for example, ‘Taylor (1996) argues that’ and ‘according to Fergusson (2013), the argument is.’ However, when studies done at different times are compared or contrasted, the tense will need to be varied: ‘Taylor (1996) argued [perfect] that the problem could not be overcome, but Fergusson (2013) sheds [present] new light on the situation.’ Often using a compound form with ‘has’ or ‘have’ is more effective than a simple past or perfect tense when speaking of scholarly trends or developments: for instance, ‘several studies of the problem have been published since the 1980s.’ However, studies that are already published were in fact conducted in the past, so the perfect tense, too, can be correctly used when referring to sources and their authors: for example, ‘Fergusson (2013) explored the problem by following the recommendations of Taylor (1996).’ Sensitivity to the expression of temporal reality through appropriate verb tenses should be applied not just to the discussion of sources, but to the whole of your thesis.

The use of the passive rather than the active voice can also present problems in formal scholarly prose. In the active voice, a subject is clearly stated and the verb is active: ‘I investigated the use of domestic robots among elderly residents of the Sunset Manor.’ In the passive voice, on the other hand, the object becomes the subject and the verb is passive: ‘The use of domestic robots among elderly residents of the Sunset Manor was investigated.’ Both sentences are correct English, but because the passive voice does not name the person (or people) doing the investigating, it can fail to convey with precision who did the research – the author of the present thesis as part of the current study, for instance, or a third party (or parties) working at some other time who ought to be cited? Some doctoral candidates will deliberately use the passive voice in an abstract, perhaps due to a misconception that the passive voice is scholarly, but a scholarly voice is never vague as the passive voice can be, and some guidelines will ask that the passive voice be avoided, especially in abstracts where precision expressed via as few words as possible is particularly important. However, the passive voice can be used effectively (and often is in the sciences) when the point is to emphasise the object of research rather than the agent doing the research, so do check university and department guidelines and/or ask your supervisor about the use of the passive voice. When proofreading your thesis draft, pay careful attention to what sentences using the passive voice actually say and do not say, and whenever you think that such sentences might prove imprecise, ineffective or confusing for your readers, reword them using the active voice.

Contractions of verbs, which are frequently used in casual speech, often slip into formal prose, especially when an author is writing quickly as he or she thinks through problems. Examples include ‘didn’t’ (for ‘did not’), ‘shouldn’t’ (for ‘should not’), ‘won’t’ (for ‘will not’), ‘can’t’ (for ‘cannot’) and ‘wouldn’t’ (for ‘would not’) in which a verb is combined with the word ‘not,’ as well as verbs combined with pronouns such as ‘I’ll’ (for ‘I will’), ‘he’s’ (for ‘he is’ or ‘he has’), ‘it’s’ (for ‘it is’ or ‘it has’) and ‘they’re’ (for ‘they are’). Such contractions are not considered scholarly and should only be used in your thesis when you are accurately quoting direct speech and similar informal text from sources that use contractions (I use them in some of my examples, for instance). In your own prose, however, all such contractions should be expanded, so do watch for these as you proofread your chapter drafts. For more information on contractions, including those that are acceptable in scholarly prose, see Section 5.6.3.

5.4.8 Consistency and Variation in Word Use

It is important to strike a balance between consistency and variation in the vocabulary used in a thesis. While variety can contribute to an interesting writing style and is important for retaining the reader’s interest, precision and consistency are absolutely essential to reporting results and presenting an argument effectively, so it is always better to tip the scales in favour of clear communication. Many minor words in a sentence can easily be changed or eliminated to create variety and avoid repetition without altering the meaning of your text, but if you vary or eliminate terms that define important aspects and elements of your research, methodology and argument or that report the precise results of tests and trials, ambiguity and misinterpretation can result. In the case of comparison, for instance, the exact details of each side of a comparison or contrast should be clearly outlined, and a sentence such as ‘I compared the scores the executives earned in the third trial with the employees’ is confusing and simply wrong: the scores earned by the executives were no doubt compared with the scores earned by the employees (not the employees themselves), and the employees’ scores were probably obtained in a numbered trial as well, so the reader needs more precise information. A statement such as ‘purple hats were given to half of the executives, but yellow to employees’ is also problematic. The reader can easily supply the verb (‘were given’) missing from the second half of the sentence and it is also fairly clear that ‘yellow’ stands for ‘yellow hats,’ but he or she may be wondering ‘to how many employees?’ Does the author mean that hats were given to half of the employees or to all employees included in the study? Clearly, further explanation is needed here as well, and the use of specific numbers and percentages would probably be far more effective. Finally, the terms and definitions used for specific concepts and categories should remain consistent throughout a thesis, especially when those concepts and categories are central to the study or argument: for example, if the study groups have been introduced as ‘smokers group,’ ‘nonsmokers group’ and ‘control group,’ that terminology should not change part way through the thesis or be different in tables and figures that accompany the thesis; and if questionnaires are labelled A, B and C, they should not be referred to without the letters or via numbers instead because such references can increase the possibility of unnecessary confusion.

PRS Tip: The well-educated proofreaders at PRS are specialists in a variety of disciplines and experts in the English language. They know how scholarly writing in English should read because they are scholars, and some of them have published their own academic or scientific writing. So there is a great deal they can do to help you make your scholarly voice just what it should be, but it is essential that you do everything you can to ensure that your vocabulary, grammar and syntax are as correct and clear as possible before you send your thesis or proposal chapters for proofreading. Remember that if a seasoned professional proofreader familiar with academic and scientific prose, your specific discipline and the errors commonly encountered when working across languages is not able to make sense of what you are trying to say, it is very difficult for him or her to provide assistance. When PRS proofreaders read documents for clients, they generally strike up a dialogue in marginal comments, and clients are welcome to initiate a dialogue with their proofreaders as well. If you are having trouble with a particular construction or a specific section in your thesis, you should therefore feel free to explain the problem as well as you can in a marginal comment within your Word document or in the instructions you include with the document. This sort of proactive approach will enable your proofreader to direct attention where it is most needed and help you maximise the effect of the money you spend on professional proofreading.

Why PhD Success?

To Graduate Successfully

This article is part of a book called "PhD Success" which focuses on the writing process of a phd thesis, with its aim being to provide sound practices and principles for reporting and formatting in text the methods, results and discussion of even the most innovative and unique research in ways that are clear, correct, professional and persuasive.

The assumption of the book is that the doctoral candidate reading it is both eager to write and more than capable of doing so, but nonetheless requires information and guidance on exactly what he or she should be writing and how best to approach the task. The basic components of a doctoral thesis are outlined and described, as are the elements of complete and accurate scholarly references, and detailed descriptions of writing practices are clarified through the use of numerous examples.

The basic components of a doctoral thesis are outlined and described, as are the elements of complete and accurate scholarly references, and detailed descriptions of writing practices are clarified through the use of numerous examples. PhD Success provides guidance for students familiar with English and the procedures of English universities, but it also acknowledges that many theses in the English language are now written by candidates whose first language is not English, so it carefully explains the scholarly styles, conventions and standards expected of a successful doctoral thesis in the English language.

Individual chapters of this book address reflective and critical writing early in the thesis process; working successfully with thesis supervisors and benefiting from commentary and criticism; drafting and revising effective thesis chapters and developing an academic or scientific argument; writing and formatting a thesis in clear and correct scholarly English; citing, quoting and documenting sources thoroughly and accurately; and preparing for and excelling in thesis meetings and examinations. 

Completing a doctoral thesis successfully requires long and penetrating thought, intellectual rigour and creativity, original research and sound methods (whether established or innovative), precision in recording detail and a wide-ranging thoroughness, as much perseverance and mental toughness as insight and brilliance, and, no matter how many helpful writing guides are consulted, a great deal of hard work over a significant period of time. Writing a thesis can be an enjoyable as well as a challenging experience, however, and even if it is not always so, the personal and professional rewards of achieving such an enormous goal are considerable, as all doctoral candidates no doubt realise, and will last a great deal longer than any problems that may be encountered during the process.

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