Practice academic writing skills 2: Ambiguity

One of the most important elements of good writing is clarity. Unfortunately, English has a lot of potential for ambiguity, which makes it easy to write ambiguous sentences. Great for humor, of course, but not a lot of help when it comes to writing works of science! One example is the use of prepositions.


  • I saw the man with a telescope.
  • I saw the man through a telescope.
  • Do you have any books on antique furniture?
  • Do you have any books about antique furniture?

In each case, both prepositions are correct, but the second choice is unambiguous.

A great source of trouble are invisible phrase structures, like defining clauses (introduced by which, that, who – or nothing!), extended prepositional phrases full of relatively unconnected information and long-distance dependencies using structures like if…then and either…or.


  • They’re having a barbecue in the garden behind the house they are renting next Saturday at 8. (They’re only renting the house at eight o’clock?)
  • They’re having a barbecue next Saturday at 8 in the garden behind the house they are renting.

What went wrong in the first sentence? The reader expects information that belongs together to be close together.


Here are some more similar phrases. Enjoy, determine what makes them ambiguous, and then suggest how to rephrase them.

1. Yoko Ono will talk about her husband John Lennon who was killed in an interview with Barbara Walters.
2. Two cars were reported stolen by the Griveton police yesterday.
3. The license fee for altered dogs with a certificate will be $3 and for pets owned by senior citizens who have not been altered the fee will be $1.50.
4. Tonight’s program discusses stress, exercise, nutrition and sex with Celtic forward Scott Wedman, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, and Dick Cavett.
5. We will sell gasoline to anyone in a glass container.
6. For sale: Mixing bowl set designed to please a cook with round bottom for efficient beating.
7. “I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pyjamas I’ll never know.” Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers

Ambiguous phrases 1.-7. from Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, p. 94

(This is a post on the Moodle Scientific Writing Forum I’m developing for the PROGRESS group at Uni Potsdam. Feel free to use if you like, let me know if the explanations click or fizzle.)

Practice academic writing skills 1: Parallelism

Parallelism adds elegance to your writing:

Clumsy: They work with great care and effectively.
Elegant: They work carefully and effectively.

Clumsy: Making contacts is as important as to give a good presentation.
Elegant: Making contacts is as important as giving a good presentation.

Clumsy: We analyzed the extensive data, which was highly complex.
Elegant: We analyzed the extensive, highly complex data.

Clumsy: We hope to visit the site, so the measurements will be completed by the end of the month.
Elegant: We hope to visit the site and complete the measurements by the end of the month. (Note: drop the second “to”)

Parallelism is required by some grammar structures – see the examples in red. The dependent phrases in blue must take the same parallel form following the grammar words in red. They are equally dependent on the headword in green. So it’s: headwordgrammar worddependent phrasegrammar worddependent phrase.

  • not only A, but also B
    Error: I not only do research on A, but also on B. (verb with object, object only)
    Correct: I do research not only on A, but also on B. (two dependent objects)
  • Error: I do not only research, but also teach. (noun, verb)
    Correct: I not only do research, but also teach. (two dependent verbs)
  • neither A, nor B
    Error: Johnson’s research neither considered recent developments nor objections previously raised by his colleagues. (active verb phrase, phrase without an active verb)
    Correct: Johnson’s research considered neither recent developments nor objections previously raised by his colleagues. (two noun phrases dependent on “considered”)
  • both A and B
    Error: The project helps geoscience faculty stay up-to-date both with research and teaching methods. (with is misplaced)
    Correct: The project helps geoscience faculty stay up-to-date with both research and teaching methods. (two dependent objects)
  • A, B and (or) C
  • I look forward to A and B
  • In terms of A and B
  • more A and less B

There are more practice sentences here (link).


  1. Leonardo da Vinci was an artist, a scientist, and he made inventions.
  2. The ancient Greek scientist Archimedes discovered the principle of boyancy, devised formulas for calculating the areas of various geometric figures, and he is remembered as the inventor of the Archimedean screw.
  3. According to the principle of boyancy, a boat floats and baloons will rise because they weigh less than the water or air they displace.
  4. I look forward to both seeing and to talking to you soon.
  5. The members of the expedition were advised to work hard and against relying on luck.
  6. During the embargo, oil was extremely expensive and not at all easy to get.
  7. The givernment is considering banning imports of genetically modified food products and to lower tariffs on organcally grown foods.
  8. Intellectually and in terms of morality, the educational system is failing children in need.
  9. People may wear different clothes, but they still use them to express what they have got, the way that they believe or the amount of money they have.
  10. I arrived in Barcelona without knowing anyone and I could not understand any Spanish.

Phrases 1.-10. from Paula Maier, Teaching Academic Writing,  p.45, unpublished manuscript for KommUNIkation, LMU München, a teacher training project 2005-7 organized by Elena Gallo.

(This is a post on the Moodle Scientific Writing Forum I’m developing for the PROGRESS group at Uni Potsdam. Feel free to use if you like, let me know if the explanations click or fizzle.)

Rhetorical styles

The PhD students looked at ways of incorporating rhetorical styles into their poster presentations. They were best at using the rule of three for repetition, but clearly need lots of practice in creating shorter, more powerful parallel phrases.

I demonstratrated the power of cutting out needless repetition through this correction (which is still not ideal):

  • To apply learning methods on our data sets we are looking for methods to group continuous data into discrete data. Such discretization methods are optimal if as little information as possible is lost and the discretized data still reflect the dependency structure.
  • Grouping continuous data into discrete data ideally requires methods that retain as much information as possible while still reflecting the dependency structure.

These were the phrases they came up with, which they practiced saying/ reading aloud:

rule of three

  • When I look for paleo-earthquakes in a certain area, I want to learn: Did big events happen, how big were they and how often did they occur?
  • Because there is such a deadlock in international climate negotiations, it is important to look at the levels below, namely the regional, the national and the local levels. (Use hands to scope from large to small, to express that region is larger than nation.)
  • Bayesian networks are a great tool since they help to discover dependency structures, to understand complex processes, and to communicate them to experts and non-experts.
  • Health depends on the fulfillment of physiological needs, the provision of adequate infrastructure, and the protection from disease exposure. (This nominal style needs rephrasing using verbs for spoken English: People can be considered healthy when their physiological needs are met, they are provided with an adequate infrastructure, and they are protected from exposure to disease.)
  • Finding alternatives to standard interpolation-based approaches allows us to stick with the original data, to retain the variance of the processes, and to adjust easily to different data qualities.
  • Interception cannot be measured; So we collect throughfall, we measure rainfall, and we subtract throughfall from rainfall.

parallel structure

  • Health is not simply the absence of disease, but in fact results from the presence of beneficial conditions. (This is contrast rather than parallel structure; a good example of how difficult it is to boil complex ideas down to simple phrases.)
  • There are two ways of looking at climate politics: One is the program, or policy; the other is its administration, or organization.

Next time I teach giving presentations, I’ll add logical shift: a change or movement in a piece resulting from an insight gained by the speaker. I’m just starting out, and so don’t have models and phrases from the students’ writing to work with yet. Work in progress.

Stuart Brown explains play

I used the first 10 minutes of this video, with its wonderful photos of the male polar bear and the female husky at play, as an intro to my last/ 3rd day of teaching the PhD students, as they trailed in, to attune them to the idea that play allows us to do things we would otherwise not be able to.

They’d all been stretched on day 1, the natural scientists by having to address a broader audience rather than their peers, and the social scientists by having to define terms and make science posters. Their feedback the next morning showed what a challenge that had been. But then, on day 2, they knuckled down and got into the zone, working individually, but also in productive groups, on their texts and posters. So on the last day they were ready, and we were able to play.

I’ve become more cautious about using games in my lessons, but the spirit of play is central, a seriously important element, right at the heart of storytelling: “We all have an internal narrative that is our own inner story. The unit of intelligibilty of most of our brains is the story.” (9:30)

An elevator speech format

Today the PhD students and I did this exercise, among others, to prepare elevator speeches that will work with a wider audience.

Step 1: Watch the presentation by Steven Johnson on his book, Where Good Ideas Come From. Then answer:

  • How long have I been exploring this?
  • Why is it relevant?
  • What’s my approach/ perspective?
  • What are my specific questions?
  • What are my findings in general?
  • What is one example?
  • How do I explain this?
  • What story do I have for you?

Step 2: Make a speech of your own using phrases similar to his:

  • For the past…. months/years I’ve been investigating….
  • It’s the kind of/ a problem/question/issue I think….
  • I’ve looked at this problem from a/an… perspective/ the perspective of….
  • So what I’m exploring is: What are/is the …?
  • And what I’ve found, in all of these systems/ the research, there are recurring patterns;…
  • One pattern I call/ is…
  • And this is partially because/ may be due to…
  • This is particularly relevant because….
  • So you see…
  • There’s a great story about…

Elevator speeches

The above links are pdfs of my presentation and handouts from the workshop I gave at the Uni Potsdam Graduiertenkolleg Geowissenschaften yesterday and today.

This is an extremely interesting challenge for me, as these scientists are more advanced presenters than the undergraduate students I’ve normally taught, and not as versed in the world of marketing as my business clients. As a group, they give a series of short 2-minute presentations as an invitation to later visit their science posters in the exhibit area.  Key issues are how to make their points memorable, and their listeners hungry for more. This opens up a huge area for micro-storytelling (adding the personal dimension), but also for memorable catchphrases that stay safely this side of rhetoric. Work in progress, I’m looking forward to the rest of the workshop.

Susanne Frölich-Steffen (her website), a scientist now working as a communcation skills trainer in the academic world (primarily in Munich and Bavaria) gave me wonderful tips. I’m hoping we can work together in the future.

Further reading:

  • Michael Alley: The craft of scientific presentations. Critical steps to succeed and critical errors to avoid. Springer NY 2003 ISBN-0-387-95555-0
    Book homepage
  • Nancy Duarte: Slide:ology. The art and science of creating great presentations. O’Reilly 2008 ISBN-13:978-0-596-52234-6
    Nancy Duarte’s blog

Fly tricks: Early science films

Source: New Scientist


“(Percy Smith) made a gimcrack device made up of a see-saw and two old tin cans. The tin cans slowly filled up with water, and when it would reach the bottom, clunk! it fired the shutter of the camera. And using this extraordinary home-made piece of aparatus, Percy Smith made the very beautiful film, Birth of a Flower.”

“The acrobatic fly was a bit of a close-up film-make, rather than shot through a microscope. And what Percy did was to tie the fly down with a tiny piece of silk thread, and then just pass small objects to the fly. It looked as though the fly was juggling, and that is what the public saw. But in actual fact, Percy came to the conclusion that the fly was just doing what came naturally to it, i.e. trying to walk.”

(I was reading up on Charles Urban when I stumbled upon this film.)