September 3, 2009

Language Tips: Position of adverbs & using strong and persuasive language

Posted in position of adverbs, using strong and persuasive writing at 7:36 am by dlseltzer

Embarrassing Sighting 1:

Last week, as you may recall, I ranted about using namby-pamby language and used ‘a number of’ as an example of  meaningless phrases to be avoided. So, of course, yesterday, I sent out an email, that started:

A number of people have asked me lately about how to designate changed text in grant proposal re-submissions using a line down the side of the selection.

And of course, one of our eagle-eyed readers did not let this go by undetected, writing:

Did you notice that you opened this email with “a number of”?

Just a little teasing. 🙂

Well, you got me. I am guilty and not just a little embarrassed!

Tip 1: Position of adverbs

A reader writes:

Hi! Thanks for the excellent blog. English is definitely not my first language, and your blog helps me understand the language better. Can you please help me understand which of the following sentences is correct.

The structure of this protein has been described previously.

or

The structure of this protein has been previously described.

Similarly,

The monocytes demonstrate reduced responses to LTA if they have previously been exposed to a lower concentration.

or

The monocytes demonstrate reduced responses to LTA if they previously have been exposed to a lower concentration.

Surprisingly, there are no real ‘rules’ as to the position of adverbs; however, there are ‘conventions.’ There are some who slavishly attend to the notion that verb phrases must stay together. In the first example, ‘has been described’ is the verb phrase. In the second example, ‘have been exposed’ is the verb phrase. If you subscribe to that view (and I do NOT), the correct versions would be:

The structure of this protein has been described previously.

and

The monocytes demonstrate reduced responses to LTA if they have been exposed previously to a lower concentration.

However, the most common convention (and the one I would recommend-with a caveat) is to split the verb phrase, and put the adverb in the middle.

Let’s pause for a brief interlude as I need to explain auxiliary (or helping) verbs to complete this answer.

An auxiliary verb extends the meaning of the main verb, adding characteristics to the verb such as time, mood, or voice. In these examples, the main verbs are ‘described’ and ‘exposed.’ The auxiliary verbs are ‘has’ and ‘been,’ and together, the auxiliary verbs add a sense of time-in these cases, the past.

To help you remember these verbs, here is a ditty written by a 3rd grade teacher from Nottingham Country Elementary School.

The Helping Verb Song
(sing to the tune of “Jingle Bells”)

Helping Verbs! Helping Verbs! There are 23….
Am, is are! Was and were! Being, been, and be!
Have, has, had! Do, does, did! Shall, should, will, and would!
There are 5 more helping verbs: may, might, must, can, and could!

Now, back to the answer

When there is one auxiliary (or helping) verb, the adverb goes between the auxiliary and the main verb.

She has poorly described the interactions between the two molecules.

This brings me to my caveat: Remember, these are just conventions, not rules There are no right or wrong answers. When in doubt, rely on your ear. For example, the sentence above sounds better to me written this way:

She has described the interactions between the two molecules poorly.

When there are two auxiliary verbs, as in the original examples, the adverb generally goes after the first auxiliary verb. So the preferred usage would be this:

The structure of this protein has previously been described.

and

The monocytes demonstrate reduced responses to LTA if they have previously been exposed to a lower concentration.

So all of the placements of adverbs presented by the reader are correct. In the end, it’s all good.

Tip 2: Using strong and persuasive language

Much of our writing is an attempt to inform, of course. However, I am going to argue that much of our writing in academic science and medicine is also designed to persuade to one degree or another. In a manuscript for a scientific journal, we want to persuade the reviewer of the rigor of our research; in a Curriculum Vitae (CV), we want to persuade a potential employer of our ability to perform competently or better; and, in a grant proposal, most of all, we want to persuade a funding agency that our research ideas are worthy of being supported and that we have the ability to carry out the work.

In order to persuade the grant proposal reviewers that we know our stuff and that we are not only able to carry out the work, we are the BEST ones to carry out this work, we have to project confidence. We don’t want to temporize or seem hesitant. We want to dazzle the reviewers with our know-how and plans. One way to do this is through language: we need to use strong and specific language in our grant proposals.

While reviewing proposals recently, I came across some passages that clearly need to be strengthened:

If early diagnosis decreases length of hospitalizations, our findings could be used as evidence to support these diagnostic tests.

Conversely, if early diagnosis does not have an impact on hospital stays, our results may be valuable to health insurers as they consider what tests to cover.

There are a number of insurers interested in the question of whether early diagnosis using this test will result in shorter hospitalizations.

What makes these statements weak? Well, in the first two sentences, the use of conditional verbs such as ‘could’ and ‘may’ results in a tone that is completely lacking in confidence. These words do nothing to project the author’s self-assurance or to convince the funding agency to support this. A simple fix, then, would be to replace those insipid verbs. This has the virtue of saving the author’s prose.

If early diagnosis decreases length of hospitalizations, our findings can be used as evidence to support these diagnostic tests.

Conversely, if early diagnosis does not have an impact on hospital stays, our results will be valuable to health insurers as they consider what tests to cover.

As to the third sentence, I refer you back to embarrassing sighting #1. Let’s get rid of  ‘a number of.’

Insurers are interested in the question of whether early diagnosis using this test will result in shorter hospitalizations.

All three sentences could be further strengthened by re-writing. Can you do better? Send me your revisions, and I will post them next week.

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