Argonne National Laboratory

Improving Your Overall Writing Style
“We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That's a clear prescription for disaster.” ―Carl Sagan

Grammar and Style

Grammar is the set of rules that define the composition of sentences for a given language. Style refers to the manner in which an author chooses to communicate. In writing, grammar is the DNA; it's rules are the backbone upon which all communication is built. Meanwhile, style is the array of structures that emerge from DNA. These structures are varied and unique, just as any individual's writing style is unique from another person's.

Style explains how two grammatically correct texts written by two different authors about the same topic can be completely unique - in essence, style is defined by the perception or "voice" of the author, and is informed by the author's perception of his or her purpose, goals, and audience. 

Both grammar and style are largely shaped by (1) the site of publication, and (2) the audience. From international journals to magazines, different publications have different objectives and audiences, as well as languages that vary in grammar. As a result, each will have a different set of rules for the submission and presentation of research studies, peer reviews, science stories, etc. And in addition to submitting work to various publications, scientists also engage with audiences directly. Depending on who the audience is, whether its a high school science class or a conference room full of researchers, scientists much change their communication style to suit the target audience's knowledge level and interests.

This section focuses on three aspects of grammar—passive voice, tenses, and pronouns—and the style in which they are applied in scientific writing compared to non-scientific writing.

Active and Passive Voice

Overeliance on passive voice is widespread in scientific writing. Increasingly, however, scientific writers are debating the use of passive voice over active voice and the contexts in which active voice is more appropriate. Learn more about this debate here.

Past, Present, and Future Tense

Past and present tense are the most common tenses employed in scientific writing, and can both appear in the same sentence or paragraph. Learn more about when past, present, and future tenses should be used and when it is appropriate to mix tenses here.

First vs. Third Person Pronouns

Scientists have widely accepted that only third-person pronouns have a place in scientific writing, but some scholars are advocating for the use of first person pronouns instead. Learn more about how to choose between first person and third person pronouns here.