5.4 Word Use, Syntax and Sentence Structure

Although the advice on writing formal scholarly prose provided in this section will prove especially helpful for those who are just developing their scholarly voice (as is the case with many doctoral candidates) and/or those whose first language is not English, even students who consider their English writing skills excellent may well find some of the information useful. Please note that while the focus here is on words and their order in English sentences, a sentence must also be properly punctuated to function effectively, so Section 5.6 on various marks of punctuation and their use should be consulted in conjunction with this section. Some matters of punctuation can be determined by author preferences or university or department guidelines because there is more than one correct approach (using a serial comma or not, for instance: see Section 5.6.1): in such cases one acceptable method should be chosen and used consistently. With other aspects of punctuation, however, there are right and wrong ways of proceeding (a comma splice should always be avoided, for example: again, see Section 5.6.1), and in those cases the correct punctuation should be used in all relevant instances. In all cases, punctuation should enhance and clarify the structure, language and meaning of your sentences whether they are short and simple or long and extremely complex.

5.4.1 Using Words in a Scholarly Fashion without Bias

Word use is not only an enormous and wide-ranging topic, but, like punctuation, the use of individual words can be not only correct or incorrect, but also a matter of authorial choice, which means that the writer of a thesis must choose his or her words with care. Dehumanising language, for instance, should always be avoided when writing about human beings, and words that assert the presence or role of human beings in a study should not be omitted. There is a tendency, however, for study participants to be reduced through a kind of shorthand to the condition they represent in a study: ‘diabetes and nondiabetes’ might be used, for instance, instead of the more humanising ‘participants with and without diabetes’ or ‘participants with and without a diagnosis of diabetes.’ While such shorthand language is sometimes necessary to convey results efficiently, especially in tabular form, it should be avoided as much as possible and certainly not used when first introducing the people involved in a study. Some departments or thesis committees may even frown upon the use of ‘subjects’ instead of ‘individuals’ or ‘people’ because it is too impersonal, and most will want the age of participants and other people to be referred to accurately: young men and women, for instance, should not be called ‘boys’ and ‘girls,’ which, as a general rule, should be used only of children 12 years of age and under. It can therefore be helpful to discuss such language with your supervisor and check university or department guidelines for any restrictions of this kind, and it is also important to keep the particular context in mind and use common sense while considering each term. For example, while referring to a 25-year-old man as a ‘boy’ is inappropriate in most cases, referring to a 40-year-old prostitute as a ‘working girl’ may not be if that is what the prostitute calls herself and you use the term in quotations and/or with appropriate explanation.

Appropriate word use of this kind is a matter of achieving precision and avoiding bias. If, for instance, an author refers to a 30-year-old man as a ‘man,’ but refers to a woman of the same age as a ‘girl,’ or uses the masculine pronoun ‘he’ when writing of doctors and the feminine pronoun ‘she’ when writing of nurses without specifying a context and details that justify this treatment, it may not be a deliberate distinction, but it will come across as both inaccurate and biassed. Bias can occur in terms of race, nationality, sex/gender, class, education, age and so on, and can involve arbitrarily prioritising one group of people over another or stereotyping any particular group of people (see the advice on avoiding bias of various kinds in the Publication Manual of the APA, 2010, pp.73–77). Some readers might extend this to historical times and their people (the idea, for example, that any one time is better than another or the common notion that people now are more intelligent or more imaginative than people were in the past) as well as to animals and other creatures (with the prioritisation of people over animals or the environment, for instance, smacking of anthropocentrism). Avoiding gender bias is particularly important in western (including English-speaking) societies of the twenty-first century, so be sure to reflect on any instances in which you mention men or women alone: if women are the only subjects of the study or if women alone are relevant for a particular statement (only women can actually bear children, for instance), using ‘women’ alone is appropriate, but if both men and women are involved (both men and women can be parents, for example), both should be mentioned or an alternative that implies both (such as ‘parents,’ ‘people’ or ‘participants’) should be used.

5.4.2 The Precise and Appropriate Use of Pronouns

Although uncomplicated in many instances, the gender-specific pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ must always be used with care. Their use is straightforward when speaking of a male or female person, but when ‘a person’ (singular) is used more generally or hypothetically, problems can arise because ‘he’ (once used in most situations of this sort: e.g., ‘When a person is learning to write scholarly prose, he requires sound examples’) is no longer acceptable as a neutral pronoun, and although ‘she’ is now used as neutral by some authors, it really just inverts rather than solves the problem. A better choice is the singular pronoun ‘one,’ which is suitably neutral but can sound artificial to some writers and readers, or ‘he or she’ (or ‘s/he’) which covers the necessary ground but can come across as awkward, especially if used frequently. Some writers uncomfortable with using ‘one,’ ‘he or she’ or ‘s/he’ (as well as ‘him or her,’ ‘his or her,’ ‘himself or herself’ and ‘him/herself’) would argue that ‘they’ (along with ‘them,’ ‘their’ and ‘themselves’) is an acceptable non-gender-specific substitute for the singular forms (When a person is learning to write scholarly prose, they require sound examples). However, ‘they,’ ‘them,’ ‘their’ and ‘themselves’ are all plural, so they are not really appropriate or correct as pronouns referring to singular nouns, and using them as though they are can quickly become extremely confusing. So if you use ‘a person,’ ‘an individual’ or similar phrasing, you need a singular pronoun, and both ‘he’ and ‘she’ are required to render the language inclusive: ‘When a person is learning to write scholarly prose, he or she requires sound examples.’ Only if the noun is plural is the plural pronoun appropriate: ‘When students are learning to write scholarly prose, they require sound examples.’ Careful proofreading of your own writing will catch most problems associated with gender-specific language, but for more information on sexist and nonsexist language, see Miller and Swift (1995).

Pronouns can be problematic in a number of other ways as well. On the topic of referring to people appropriately, for instance, a person, participant, student, woman, father, teenager or child is never an ‘it,’ which as a neuter pronoun should be used of inanimate objects (e.g., ‘When the questionnaire is finished, it will be circulated online’) and is appropriate when referring to countries, which, like ships, are generally not referred to with feminine pronouns as they once were (Canada should reconsider its treatment of immigrants). ‘It’ should not be used when referring to people, however (When the student wrote the exam, he was feeling ill). Relative pronouns should be used similarly, with ‘who,’ ‘whom’ and ‘whose,’ not ‘that,’ representing people – ‘the student who wrote the exam’ or ‘the woman who felt depressed,’ not ‘the student that wrote the exam’ or ‘the woman that felt depressed’ – although conversely the possessive form ‘whose’ can be used of inanimate objects as well as of people (‘the house whose door was purple,’ which is often preferred to ‘the house of which the door was purple’). The essential point is that pronouns – ‘it,’ ‘who,’ ‘he,’ ‘she’ and others – should be used with the utmost accuracy so that the relationship between each pronoun and its antecedent is clearly established, leaving no doubt about the meaning of the pronoun. For example, in ‘The boy thought his sister was lost. She was actually at a friend’s house,’ ‘She’ can only refer to the sister, so there is no risk of confusion. However, in ‘The girl lost her cat Tigress. She was actually at a friend’s house,’ the antecedent of ‘She’ is not clear. Since the ‘girl’ is the subject of the first sentence, the reader might expect ‘She’ in the second sentence to refer to the ‘girl’ as well, but it could also refer to the female cat named Tigress, so confusion is created about what is actually being said and thus about the implications of the text. Is the cat safe at a friend’s house, or did the girl lose the cat at a friend’s house and thus in a less familiar and potentially more dangerous landscape? Is there continuing cause for worry or not?

The ambiguity possible even in so simple a sentence hints at the kind of confusion that can result if a long and complex sentence reporting and discussing detailed results and conclusions opens with ‘It’ and contains two more instances of that pronoun as well as a ‘they’ and a ‘them.’ Such a sentence may fail to communicate your meaning clearly to your intended audience, especially if you are also dealing with the challenge of writing in a language not your own and perhaps use one ‘it’ when referring to a plural antecedent and ‘them’ for a singular one by mistake. In most cases, five pronouns are too many for a sentence in any case, but whether you use many pronouns or only one in a sentence, it is vital that the antecedent for each can be identified readily and with certainty. Sometimes the grammar-checking function in Word will catch an incorrectly or oddly used pronoun, but much like the spell-checking function, this is far from reliable. If you detect the potential for ambiguity in your use of pronouns, your meaning would definitely be clearer were you to use nouns or noun phrases instead. Beware in particular of using pronouns to refer to large or abstract ideas which are difficult to define or explain: such concepts are far clearer and more effective in scholarly writing if they are referred to via precise terminology and carefully explained, difficult though that may be, so such an approach will not only improve your writing style, but also your argument in major as well as minor ways.

As a general rule, the pronoun ‘you’ (as well as ‘your’ and ‘yourself’) should be avoided altogether in academic and scientific prose. In quotations such as those from the direct speech of interviews or the informal answers on questionnaires, ‘you’ is fine because it is not expressed in the author’s own voice, but the reader should not be addressed directly in this way in scholarly prose: in most contexts using ‘you’ simply establishes too personal a voice for formal academic or scientific writing. This is rarely a problem for authors, but since I use the second-person voice frequently and informally in this book to adopt a casual tone and facilitate concise expression of the advice I am offering, I thought I best mention the discrepancy (definitely an instance of ‘do as I say’ rather than ‘do as I do’). ‘I’ (as well as ‘me,’ ‘my’ or ‘mine’ and ‘myself’ in the other cases) can usually be used, however, when referring specifically to yourself as the author of the thesis (e.g., ‘I circulated the questionnaire,’ ‘I detected in the results’ and ‘I discovered a striking difference’). In fact, when used specifically and with discretion, ‘I’ is often preferable to potentially awkward third-person circumlocutions such as ‘the present author’ and ‘the present investigator.’ Do check with your supervisor or department before using the first-person voice, however, as its use varies among disciplines, and deliberately avoiding this voice (perhaps to create an impression of objectivity) is still considered standard for scholarly writing in certain fields. If you do decide to use the first-person voice at times, remember that ‘I’ should never be considered interchangeable with ‘we’: a thesis has only one author and ‘we’ is never appropriate when referring to yourself. If you had assistance in conducting certain parts of your research, ‘we’ might be appropriate when you are describing what was done, but you must also make it clear who exactly you are referring to when you use ‘we.’ ‘We’ can also be used successfully (though with care) when referring to researchers or practitioners as a group, such as ‘we geologists’ or ‘we as manuscript specialists,’ especially if the thesis relates to methodology, the accumulated knowledge of a discipline and/or the self-awareness or education of the group concerned.

‘We’ used in a general or fictional sense that implicitly includes the reader or even the whole of humanity is best avoided in scholarly writing, however. Phrases such as ‘we can observe that,’ ‘we see here,’ ‘we now know that’ and ‘we human beings do not’ in which the author implies or assumes that the reader (and others) are part of that ‘we’ may be acceptable for writing in some areas and media, but they are not, generally speaking, a feature of academic and scientific theses, and avoiding them is one of the characteristics of a professional scholarly voice. The use of the fictional ‘we’ can be particularly problematic when it is used to include the reader in assumptions that have not yet been proved with convincing results or established via analysis and an effective argument, and using the ‘we now know’ stance as a substitute for true scholarly argumentation is simply unacceptable and can weaken both your writing and your thesis. It is therefore a good idea to do a search (by using the Find and Replace box in Word’s Home menu, for instance) for all occurrences of ‘we’ and perhaps ‘I’ once you have your thesis drafted, and to consider each instance carefully to be sure that you are using these pronouns accurately, effectively and professionally.

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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