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Confused, Misused, or Abused: English Words and Phrases in Scientific Writing

It’s hard enough writing in English if you’re a non-native speaker, but it’s even harder writing about science. First, you need to have all the technical words correct. Then, you have to make sure the rest of the writing is clear too, which is not easy. On a good day, English is a confusing language. On a bad day...well, let’s not talk about that.

There are so many words that sound the same but mean very different things. Or phrases, when incorrectly used, that can make intellectually sound work seem faulty. Don’t let confusion about English become an excuse for its abuse! Check out the list below for correct usages of some commonly encountered words and phrases in science writing.

About vs. approximately

About is used most often in English, except in the sciences. In science writing, approximately is preferred.

Accept vs. except

To accept something is to receive it or regard it as proper. For example, “Most scientists accept Darwin’s theory of evolution.” Except means to exclude something or to leave it out. For example, “Student members of the society are excepted from paying membership dues.”

Accord vs. accordance

An accord is an agreement. For example, “The Paris Accord is a climate agreement.” However, accordance means conformity. For example, “The enzyme levels in the HeLa cells were in accordance with previous studies.”

Adapt vs. adopt

In science, adapt means to repurpose or modify something for another use. For example, “The protocol of Sambrook et al. (1989) was adapted in the following way.” This means that changes were made to the protocol, which would then be described. To adopt something is to take on, accept, or follow a plan. For example, “The protocol of Yu et al. (2001) was adopted.” This means that Yu et al.’s protocol was used as described without any changes.

Adverse vs. averse

Adverse means something harmful or unfavorable. For example, a drug can have an adverse effect. Averse means feeling negatively about. For example, “She was averse to asking for advice about her failed experiment.”

Affect vs. effect

To affect (verb) something is to influence it, but an effect (noun) is something that has an influence on something. For example, “The relative humidity in the chamber affects the growth of the plants,” but “The relative humidity in the chamber has an effect on the growth of the plants.”

Alternate vs. alternative

As adjectives, an alternate is a substitute for something, but an alternative is usually a better choice. For example, “We can synthesize this compound via the alternate reaction,” indicates that the other reaction works just as well as the first one. “We can synthesize this compound via the alternative Michael addition,” implies that the Michael addition is a better choice for synthesizing the compound. As nouns, the two words can be used interchangeably. For example, “He is a good alternate for the keynote speaker,” and “He is a good alternative to the keynote speaker,” mean the same thing and are both acceptable.

Analog vs. analogue

Analog should be used when referring to computers or electronics. Analogue should be used when you want to express that something is similar to something else or for chemical compounds.

As yet; as of yet

Avoid these two phrases. Instead, use yet, still, or so far.

At the present time; at this time; at present

These can be substituted by the simpler now, today, or currently.

At the time that; at the time when

Avoid these phrases. The word when works best.

By means of

This phrase is unnecessarily wordy. Use by or with instead.

Compare with vs. compare to

These phrases are often used interchangeably, but they are subtly different. Use compare with when comparing both similarities and differences. Use compare to when you want to highlight similarities between things. For example, “The percent yield with our method was higher and lower compared with the yields obtained by Brett et al. and Tsing et al., respectively.” An example with compare to would be, “The morphological changes were similar compared to those observed by Kwak et al.”

Comprise vs. compose

These two words are very often confused. To remember how to use these words, remember that “The whole comprises the parts,” and “The parts compose the whole.” For example, you could write “The genus Glycine comprises several species, including max and soja.” However, you would write, “The species max, soja, and others compose the genus Glycine.”


Criteria is the plural of criterion. It is incorrect to write criterias.


In science writing, data is plural; datum is singular.

Disk vs. disc

Disk is the most common spelling, except in some specialized terminology. Please check your field-specific terminology to determine whether disk or disc should be used. For example, you would write “disc gel electrophoresis” but “disk drive”.

Due to the fact that

This is overly wordy. Keep it simple, and use because instead.

If either is used alone as a subject, it must be used with a singular verb. For example, you would write, “Either buffer works for gel electrophoresis.”

If using “either…or”, the construction must be parallel. For example, “Either the DNA or the RNA can be diluted using DEPC water.”

Farther vs. further

Often, these terms are used interchangeably, and this is acceptable. However, traditionally, farther refers to a physical distance, whereas further refers to a distance that isn’t measurable. For example, tradition would have you write “The restriction fragments of BamHI migrated farther than those generated by SacI,” but “Further study is needed to understand the mechanism underlying the virus’ entry into the host.”

First, second, third vs. firstly, secondly, thirdly

First, second, third, etc. is the preferred form for lists, but it is not wrong to use firstly, secondly, thirdly, etc.

I.e. vs. e.g.

I.e. is the abbreviation for id est, or “that is”. E.g. is the abbreviation for exempli gratia, or “for example”. If using these abbreviations, they should be followed by commas.

If vs. whether

In science writing, whether is more appropriate.

Impact; impactful

Please note that impact is not a verb, although it is often misused as such. It is a noun. Therefore, “This research will have a large impact on the field,” but “This research will impact the field,” is not. The first sentence would be better written as, “This research will have a large effect/influence on the field.” In addition, impactful should not be used. Use influential instead.

Imply vs. infer

Imply means to hint or suggest, but infer means to deduce. For example, you would write, “The increased enzyme activity during gastric cancer implies that the enzyme plays a role in gastric cancer,” but “Because the enzyme activity was increased during the initiation of cell division, we inferred that it played a role in this process.”

Please also see:

Induce vs. deduce

Induce and deduce are opposites when used in scientific writing. Induce means to form a general principle based on observations, but deduce means to draw a conclusion based on the use of general principles. For example, “Based on close observation of the flora and fauna of the Galapagos Islands, Darwin induced his theory of evolution,” but “We were able to deduce that the genes would be closely related between the two species of fly based on the theory of evolution.”

In order to; in order for

Keep it simple; just use to or for.

In regard to

This phrase is correct, but it can be simplified using words such as about, regarding, or concerning.


This one is not a real word. Don’t be tricked into using it. Regardless or irrespective are correct. For example, you could write, “Regardless of the wind speeds, we were able to obtain depth data.”

Its vs. it’s

Its and it’s are often confused, but its is the possessive form of it, and it’s is a contraction for it is. For example, “Its radioactive nature was detected using a Geiger counter,” and “It’s a challenging time to be a researcher,” are both correct.


In science, lead is a metal, and the past of the verb to lead is led, not lead. For example, “The results led us to conclude that there was no correlation between the two factors,” is correct.

Less vs. fewer

Use less for volumes or masses; for example, “Less buffer was needed for running the smaller agarose gel.” Use fewer with countable nouns or individuals. For example, “Fewer bacteria were found in the water column,” and “Fewer data were obtained for the swamp transect.”

Media vs. mediums

In science and when discussing mass communications, the plural of medium is media. For example, “The bacteria only grew on two of the three media tested.” Mediums refers to spiritualists.


This construction follows the same rules as for either...or.

On the one hand/on the other hand

If used, these two constructions must be used together. For example, “On the one hand, my results support my hypothesis. On the other hand, they are opposite to those obtained by Greer et al. (2001).” Although technically correct, the use of on the one hand/on the other hand is wordy. The preceding example can be written more simply as, “My results support my hypothesis. However, they are opposite to those obtained by Greer et al. (2001).” While, whereas, and in contrast can also be used to get the same point across in a straightforward manner.

Please also see:

Partly vs. partially

Both of these words mean “to some extent” or “in part”. However, partially has the additional meaning of “incompletely”. For example, “The cell culture contamination is partly responsible for the failure of the experiment,” just implies that the contamination was one of the reasons that the experiment failed. However, “The cellulose was partially converted to sugars by cellulase,” indicates that not all of the cellulose was converted to sugars.

Peak vs. peek

A peak (noun) is an apex, whereas a peek is a quick glance. For example, “The peak level of hemoglobin was achieved when the root nodules were initially formed,” is correct. Peak can also be used as a verb. For example, “Hemoglobin peaked 7 days post-inoculation with the symbiont.”


Phenomena is the plural of phenomenon. Phenomenas is incorrect.

Please also see:

Principle vs. principal

As nouns, a principle is a rule, whereas a principal is a person of high authority. For example, “Archimedes’ principle can explain why boats can float,” but “The principal of the private school was strict.” The word principal can also be used as an adjective, meaning “most important”. For example, “The principal factor in the patient’s demise was an overdose of warfarin.”

Proved vs. proven

Proved is the past tense of the verb prove, whereas proven is an adjective. For example, “The Hershey-Chase experiments proved that DNA was the genetic material,” is correct, but “The Hershey-Chase experiments had proven that DNA was the genetic material,” is not. However, “SDS-PAGE is a proven technique for separating proteins based on their molecular weights,” is correct.

Regime vs. regimen

Please note that these are two words with very different meanings. A regime is a period of rule, a form of government, or a social system, but a regimen is a systematic schedule.

Respective; Respectively

These words imply a one-to-one correspondence between members of two different series. If there is only one series or none, then these words should not be used. For example, “There were 5, 10, and 15 wasps in nests 1, 2, and 3, respectively,” is correct. However, “There were wasps in nest 1, 2, and 3, respectively,” is not.

Please also see:


Since is a slightly milder form of because, but the two words can be used interchangeably in modern English.

That vs. which

Without discussing restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, here is a simple trick for remembering when to use that and which. If removing the words that follow that or which would change the meaning of the sentence, use that. For example, “The experiments that were done at 20 °C were successful.” If you removed “that were done at 20 °C”, the sentence would read, “The experiments were successful.” This sentence is now saying that all of the experiments were successful, not just the ones carried out at 20 °C. If the sentence was, “The experiments, which were done at 20 °C, were successful,” this would mean that all of the experiments were successful. Please remember to add a comma before which but not before that.

Please also see:

Use vs. utilize

Use is preferable to utilize most of the time. However, utilize is acceptable when the specific meaning is” to find a practical use for”. For example, “Duct tape was utilized to hold the vacuum tube in place when the stopper wouldn’t stay in the flask.”

(Please retain the reference in reprint:

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