June 13, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: female or woman & back-to-back parentheses

Posted in back-to-back parentheses, female/woman at 6:30 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Female or Woman

A reader writes:

Quick question if it seems WLUT-worthy.

What do you think about the noun ‘female’ in scientific writing?

I was taught early in my career that calling people ‘females’ (or males) made them sounds like animals, and that they should be referred to as women.

I write about adolescents and in this age range woman doesn’t always sound right; i tend to use girls, or adolescent women (or sometimes youth, young women etc – depends on what i’m writing).

Anyway, a coauthor is suggesting ‘female ‘ everywhere i’ve said girl and i’m wondering your thoughts on this.

I like your mixing it up the way you do (adolescent women, youth, girls, young women), and I would recommend doing that. Using ‘female’ throughout would be deathly dry and boring,  and since no one has accused medical  and scientific writing of being particularly thrilling, I would avoid making it any drier than it already is.

Evidently, a lot of people online consider ‘female’ to be derogatory. They go so far as to say that it should only be used in reference to non-human animals. They say that referring to someone as a female diminishes her humanity. Yikes, that’s going a little bit far. I don’t object to the word, and I especially don’t object to it in scientific writing because it is precise which is something we strive for. I object to using ‘female’ throughout a manuscript only because that would be so depressingly dreary. Live it up a little, and mix it up!

Tip 2: Back-to-back parentheses

This is a guest tip by the editors of the AMA Manual of Style in its weekly newsletter, AMA Style Insider, the first guest tip ever. I thought it might be useful to you when preparing manuscripts.

June 4, 2013

Questions From Users of the Manual

Q: I can’t find anywhere in the AMA Manual of Style guidance on having back-to-back sets of parentheses in running text. Here is an example:

 The mean duration of surgery for the computerized-navigation group was 52.6 minutes longer than that of the control group, resulting in a statistically significant difference (P < .05) (Table 1).

I would prefer to see something like this:

The mean duration of surgery for the computerized-navigation group was 52.6 minutes longer than that of the control group, resulting in a statistically significant difference (P < .05; Table 1).

But does the manual have a preference?

A: Short answer: The style manual does not include anything about a pref on use of back-to-back parens, so this is something to think about including in the Punctuation chapter for the 11th edition. (Also, as you’ll see from the few examples below, because we don’t have a policy on this, it has not been handled consistently in our publications.)

Longer answer: Although our first response to your specific example was that we liked the avoidance of back-to-back parens and would favor (as you do) the inclusion of both items in a single set of parens, or would find either version OK, on further thought we decided that this answer was too easy and that often both sets of parens should be retained. Reasons: (1) Although in the example provided it makes sense to combine and use the semicolon, in more complicated sentences it might not be the best choice. (2) Table and Figure citations might be easier to find if not combined with other info.

Below are a few examples from The JAMA Network Journals that might illustrate where combining the information in parens might not be as desirable as keeping the parenthetical items separate.

A significantly higher incidence of SSHL was noted in the HIV group compared with the control group, with an incidence rate ratio (IRR) of 2.17 (95% CI, 1.07-4.40), particularly for the male participants, who had an IRR of 2.23 (1.06-4.69) (Table 2).

Here, keeping the table citation separate makes it clear that the table citation relates to BOTH values given in the sentence, not just the second one. Note that in our journals the first citation of a table or figure is set in different type (here, heavy boldface) to make it stand out.

In this example, where info was combined, it would probably have been better to also have kept the table citation separate as it applied to both bits of info in the sentence:

Mean mandible defect lengths were similar for patients undergoing FFF and LSBF reconstruction (7.8 and 7.7 cm, respectively); STFFs were used to reconstruct significantly shorter defects (mean, 6.0 cm, P<.001, Table 1).

And in this example, which does not include a table or figure citation, similar logic would also probably have made retention of back-to-back parens a better choice since the hazard ratio and P value apply to both, not just the second “n”:

Significantly more patients (n=174) withdrew from the placebo group compared with the chelation group (n=115; hazard ratio, 0.66; P=.001).

Splitting or lumping parentheses should depend more on content than strictly on style.—Cheryl Iverson, MA




  1. Frankie said,

    I hope that somewhere in her paper your reader has defined the group(s) by giving the age range(s) studied. Mixing the different terms might be okay, but it might also confuse readers into thinking that the authors studied more groups than they actually did. I don’t think “adolescent women” is acceptable – you wouldn’t say adolescent adults after all!

  2. nickfielden said,

    Referring to overuse of ‘female’: How about ‘liven’ it up; or even better, ‘enliven’ it, so ‘up’ can be omitted? ‘Live’ it up must be incorrect, surely; unless it’s an Americanism I (a Brit) haven’t come across.

    • dlseltzer said,

      It is an American expression meaning do what you would like without worrying about anything.

      • nickfielden said,

        Thanks for the enlightenment. In fact, of course I do know the expression, but did not read it that way. An example, perhaps, of that oh so rare phenomenon – American irony!

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