Comrade Physioprof started to cover writing with the simple sentence, but I’m going to take this one and run with it. The sentence is the ‘grammatical unit of language’, and as C. Physioprof has already noted contains a subject and a predicate (which is a fancy pants way of saying the terms that modify the subject), starts with a capital letter and ends with a period. Usually.
Pretty simple so far, right? I feel kind of silly even explaining it, but here’s the thing. There are two ways that people commonly go wrong with this simple concept in scientific writing that I see ALL THE TIME when I’m editing. Both may be acceptable in fiction, I don’t write fiction so I wouldn’t know, but I can assure you that they are not at all acceptable in scientific writing.
The first of these common wrong turns is the fragment, aka incomplete sentence:
Such as electrical, chemical or biological engineering.
Suggests the following result.
I don’t see fragments very often, but when I do it’s like nails on the chalkboard. A capital and a period should not be bracketing those collections of words up there, hopefully you recognize why this is so. Fragments do not convey a complete thought, and they are disconnected from the rest of the phrase to which they refer. This is a no-no in scientific writing. Don’t go there.
The second of these issues, and the more common one by far, is the run- on sentence. Oh boy, and I can’t tell you how many times I break down sentences where it seemed like the writer was trying to put the entire contents of their brain between that capitol letter and the period. I’ve got a co-author whom I adore who writes a prize-winning run-on sentence from time to time:
You know who you are and just in case you read this I’ll give you a forum to share all my writing faux pas in some later post, I promise, but since you don’t blog and you are really nice you probably wouldn’t be into publicly outing me on my writing bad habits , but hey this is a blog and all my readers know my weaknesses already, like my crappy spelling and the way I like to use the word quantitate instead of quantify, and then again you are way, way better than me at so many parts of both of our day jobs.
Are you gasping for air, because I am! It is perfectly ok to hook phrases together with a comma, not everything has to be a simple sentence. But don’t try to cover the entire paragraph with only 1 period. Please. I’m begging you, break it up. Give your reader one thought at a time.
Thus ends lesson #2: Don’t leave out necessary parts, and don’t try to cram ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING in between the capital letter and the period.
*Some of you have noted in the comments that my example of a run on sentence, sucks as a sentence but is not really a run-on. It is a terrible sentence although I did connect two sentences without proper punctuation it can still be considered a run-on because of the wild use of comma splicing.
Ya happy now???
I would even argue that the use of too many independent phrases connected with commas is something I see much more frequently in editing scientific writing than the honest-to-god strict definition of a run-on.
(These posts have been pretty uncontroversial thus far, in one of the next posts we will tackle the use of the passive voice- and I’m sure things will get a little more heated.)