February 28, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: hyphenation & abstracts

Posted in abstracts, hyphen, hyphens and prefixes at 6:15 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Postoperative, post operative, or post-operative 

A reader writes:

Now to my question: Which is correct:

·         Post-operative,

·         Postoperative, or perhaps

·         Post operative?

We’ve seen it all three ways.

 Yay! I love questions involving the hyphen. The poor hyphen needs all the help it can get—people are so busy not using it when they should and using it when they shouldn’t. So I am always happy to give it a shout-out. Yay hyphen!

There is more good news, too, because the use of the hyphen with prefixes is largely a matter of style. There are no hard and fast rules. So, there is no right or wrong. In British English, there is a tendency to hyphenate prefixes, while in American English, we tend to eschew the hyphen, and push the prefix up to the word it is modifying.

That’s the case with the reader’s word, ‘postoperative.’ Both the AMA and Chicago’s Manual of Style prefer this usage. However, using the hyphen with a prefix is never wrong. And hyphens are commonly used when they a precede a proper noun (e.g., anti-Nixon, post-New Year’s party). They also tend to be used when the prefix ends with a vowel and the word it is modifying starts with one (e.g., anti-establishment, pre-eminent).

I think that the most important consideration when using hyphens with prefixes is clarity. Could the lack of use of a hyphen lead to ambiguity?

 Is the man going to recover?

I am going to re-cover my sofa.

 Before you go, could you re-sign this.

I heard that she resigned last week.

 She complained about feeling repressed.

I re-pressed my outfit after getting it wrinkled.

 If it is unclear what the word means in a particular context, a hyphen can be really useful. So to this useful piece of punctuation, I say, yay hyphen!

Tip 2: Titles of scientific abstracts

A reader writes:

I wondered if there was information about the appropriateness of using a declarative statement of findings/results as the title of a manuscript or abstract.  For example one might title a work “Costs-effectiveness of ICDs in Pediatric Dilated Cardiomyopathy” or perhaps the title could be (if results support it) “ICDs are not cost effective in Pediatric Dilated Cardiomyopathy.” Is there a right and a wrong way when it comes to this?

Titles of scientific abstracts (or manuscripts, for that matter) should be precise, should reflect the actual content, should be convincing, and should be informative. You want to grab the reader so he or she will read your work, look at your poster, or listen to your presentation.

Putting findings in the title us a good way to catch your audience’s interest. Especially if the finding is really new and compelling. But you have to be very cautious about putting your finding into the title. Studies have shown that when a finding is included in the title, the abstract (or resulting manuscript) tends to overstate the finding in an attempt to justify its use in the title. This isn’t saying not to do it— a finding in the title of an abstract can be very provocative—just be careful not to overstate your findings.

A good trick of the trade when writing your title is to think of several key words people would search for when using a search engine. Make sure those words are in the title of your abstract. In that way, your abstract or article will come to the top of the results list in a search, and more people will see and read it.

Finally, my last bit of abstract advice (for today, at least) is this: After the meeting, don’t forget to write your manuscript! Findings among studies vary, but all agree that fewer than half of abstracts accepted at national meetings make it into peer-reviewed publications. Many of the studies I reviewed, estimate the proportion of abstracts turning into published articles is more like a third! And, for most, it’s not that papers aren’t being accepted, it’s that papers are not being written. Writing is too important to our research careers to let it get away; we can’t afford to squander perfectly good data without getting at least one publication out of it. And your paper is already outlined: You have your abstract! An abstract and published manuscript should always go hand-in-hand.

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