December 1, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: citations and punctuation & wimpy words

Posted in punctuation and citations, Punctuation w/footnotes, weak language, would at 6:41 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Citations and punctuation

I’ve recently seen a deluge of disastrous displays of punctuation in grant proposals that include a lot of citations. When the citations are displayed as superscripted numerals,  sometimes the period or full stop is placed before the numeral and sometimes after. Sometimes there are spaces involved and sometimes not. What is particularly disconcerting is that I have seen these inconsistencies all in the same proposal—even in the same paragraph! We have talked about this before (, but that was a couple of years ago, and writing about it again gives me an opportunity to give you a little news vis-á-vis American Medical Association (AMA) style which many of us use when preparing scientific manuscripts.

First, what is the difference between a reference and a citation? No, this isn’t an old joke—we tend to use the words synonymously, and we use footnote and endnote the same way. I don’t think I have to rehash footnote and endnote; everyone knows that a footnote goes at the bottom of a page and an endnote at the end of a document. But what about reference and citation? Well, citation refers to the place in the manuscript, where an article or other work is cited. Both of the following include citations:

Jeffrey Adams (1977) hypothesized that the popular belief that the moon is made of green cheese stems from a profound fear of moldy cheese.

Fourteen satellites were circling the outermost planet at the time of the explosion.26, 29

Reference refers to the detail about the article or other work cited that would allow someone to find it. A complete reference of the type commonly found in grant proposals would include the names of the authors, the title of the article, the journal in which it was published, the volume number, the page numbers, the year it was published, and, these days, the NIH Manuscript Submission reference number or the PubMed Central (PMC) reference number.

Both of the following are references:

Seltzer DL, Arnold RM, Siminoff LA. Are non-heart-beating cadaver donors acceptable to the public? J Clin Ethics., 2000; 11(4)347-356.

Arnold RM, Seltzer D, Han PM. Opioid contracts in chronic pain management:  objectives, elements, and uncertainties, Am J Med 2006:119(4):292-6.  PCMID: PMC1960426

So the reference is the detail on the citation. But where does bibliography come in? Well, the bibliography consists of the references that were reviewed for the proposal and were related to the topic including those that were not actually cited in the text.

Oh my. That was a bit of a long way to go to get to a relatively short tip.

[NOTE: Please note that this tip is referring to citations involving numerals only and not in-text parenthetical citations that follow different conventions. I’ll write an explanation for punctuating those citations in the future.]

Okay, here goes. When using  numerals as citations (superscripted or otherwise), the punctuation generally goes before the citation. I say generally because of the AMA style note that I mentioned above. The AMA Style Manual states:

“Use arabic superscript numerals outside periods and commas, inside colons and semicolons. When more than 2 references are cited at a given place in the manuscript, use hyphens to join the first and last numbers of a closed series; use commas without space to separate other parts of a multiple citation.”

Iverson C, Christiansen S, Flanagin A, et al. AMA Manual of Style: A Guide for Authors and Editors. 10th ed. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2007.

So while the numeral is outside periods or commas, if you are using a colon or semicolon, the reference numeral is inside the punctuation:

The last step of the experiment was omitted, resulting in a negative finding.79,83

The author reported that the results were biased12; our work found the same thing.

The only other thing I want to say about this is that there should no spaces between the punctuation and the citation, and as the AMA Style Manual states, “use commas without space to separate other parts of a multiple citation.”

Now, the AMA Style Manual is certainly not the only style manual around, and others do not necessarily concur with putting superscript numerals within colons and semicolons. I think the much more important issue is consistency. Figure out your style or the style of the journal you hope to be published in, and stick to it—at least in the same document.

Tip 2: Would is a wimpy word – reprised

In another recent proposal, I saw this:

Essentially, the control intervention would use the same components as the test intervention except that there would be no human interaction with the participants.

What I object to here is the use of the word, ‘would.’ It seems like such a weak word to include in a proposal. I remembered that this topic was written about before, so I looked it up. And lo and behold, the article said exactly (almost word for word) what I was thinking about using ‘would’ in a proposal (funny how that works). So I am reprinting, here, what I wrote back in August. ‘Would’ is, indeed, a wimpy word.

So what’s wrong with would? It’s a perfectly good word. Well no, it isn’t—not when we are writing grant proposals.

When we write a proposal, we are hoping to persuade the reviewers, the program officers, and the advisory councils of the merit of our work and how and why the work is worthy of being funded. It is no time for conditional, dare I say, wimpy language. It comes off as whiny, almost begging:

“If you would, please sir, only give me the money, then I would do the experiment.”

That is not how we are going to get funded. We have to sure of ourselves, commanding in tone and displaying confidence that we are going to get funded.

 “We will conduct the experiment in three steps.”

 ‘Will’ is a much more powerful word than ‘would,’ and we should use ‘will’ in our grant proposals.

Same thing goes for ‘can’ and ‘could.’

So there.


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