Why It's OK to Sometimes Split Infinitives in Papers

I have on occasion split the infinitive and one should never do that. Yet it’s hard to remember what is so bad about splitting infinitives, except that it offends those people who had their grammar belted into them and never dared to ask questions. You should certainly not ignore the rules of style in favor of expediency, but there are situations where only a split infinitive gives the right emphasis. "Write down key words or short sentences as they come to mind. "Arrange the keys in

Jan 25, 1988
Wolf Seufert
I have on occasion split the infinitive and one should never do that. Yet it’s hard to remember what is so bad about splitting infinitives, except that it offends those people who had their grammar belted into them and never dared to ask questions. You should certainly not ignore the rules of style in favor of expediency, but there are situations where only a split infinitive gives the right emphasis.

"Write down key words or short sentences as they come to mind.

"Arrange the keys in logical order.

"Write a single concise sentence defining each key. If you can‘t, you may be working on more than one key. Break the thought into two or more keys and try again.

"Link the sentences together logically with one additional sentence. If it takes more than one additional sentence to link two key sentences, you’ve failed. Go back to the beginning and repeat all the previous steps.

" Fill in with sentences that make a readable, elegant article. Do not stuff or pad it.

Emphasis in scientific writing is all important, whether it be a research paper, thesis or grant application. Your results do not speak for themselves and the circuitous way by which you have managed to reach your research objective is not really of much interest to the audience. What matters is that the reader understands your contribution in the context of current knowledge. Thus, the section in which you discuse the results must be your principal concern; all that comes before and after only provides a frame.

You will, of course, prepare your paper with the same care you invested in your scientific work. Careful preparation of your manuscript brings numerous advantages. It saves you time, keeps you from forgetting important points, gives you the right order of ideas, spins out the logical thread you need, and might even show up holes in your argumentation. Remember that your paper is taken to reflect the order of your thought processes. If the logical thread is missing or not apparent, the reader immediately will fault you for not having thought the problem through or not pursuing its solution vigorously. Too bad if you had actually thought of all the consequences and alternative interpretations but care not able to demonstrate that you had done so. The trick is to refrain from skywriting (into the wild blue yonder) and to proceed in in orderly fashion to do justice to your laboratory work.

Mozart proved on several occasions that he had his compositions all written up in his head before he put them down on paper. Chances are you will not be able to do that—so don’t trust yourself until you have proof of your talent. Besides, Mozart could let his imagination run unleashed while you are tied down by facts. Like Mozart, you will become nimble and efficient in orchestrating your themes, but you will always have to abide by the rules of composition.

Start by getting your thoughts for the discussion section in order. This section shows your contribution to the field; all other parts of your paper depend on it for their content and length. You know why you are ready at this particular moment to present your work, and so writing the discussion section first should come relatively easily. It determines which are the essential resuIts, which the essential methods; it tells you how best to formulate the objectives sought and it helps you to crystallize the conclusions.

The following procedure applies to research papers and equally well to individual paragraphs or chapters, complete articles or entire books.

"1. The Keys. Write down, in key words or short sentences, every. thing that should go into the piece. Never mind order or priorities. Just list them as they come to mind, without prefrences.

"2. The Sequence. Arrange the keys in an order that appears to be logical. Use only three digits of the decimal classification. Eliminate right away all points so far down the ranks as to require more digits.

" 3. The Definition. Express what you want to say on each key in a single concise sentence. If you don’t succeed, you have too much substance in the key and must break it into two or more keys, which you will have to fit into the sequence again.

"4. The Link. The statements you get in step 3 are woven together in their order by one (and only one) further statement to provides logical link. Again, if you don’t succeed, there must be a hole in the fabric and you should go back to the first two steps to mend it.

"5. The Filling. This is where you show off your style. Filling—not stuffing or padding. If you are writing a poster, you are finished when you have completed step 4.

Now you have got your discussion written up. You are certain not to have forgotten anything important, and you know your reasoning is logical and coherent. There are no repetitions and you have avoided loops. You also know approximately how long your paper will be when completed, since the discussion shouldn’t take up more than one-third of it.

Next comes the conclusions section, which you've actually already written. Simply list in order the sentences you wrote in step 3. For the results section you follow the entire procedure again, but limit yourself to those results you find relevant enough to discuss. ‘the materials and methods section is written easily enough if you are guided by the principle that you should provide enough information to let someone knowledgeable in the field repeat the experiments. Watch out where you give details. Your readers are shrewd (you don’t want the others) and they will detect whether or not an experimental technique is new to you from where you put the emphasis. If you insist on the elaborate measures you took to prevent or eliminate leaks, one will conclude you are not up to par in handling line fittings. Besides, you will not get any sympathy for the troubles you have experienced in the laboratory. Don’t gloss over them but don’t be masochistic either. I once questioned a fellow after a seminar why, for goodness’ sake, he had written in a paper that he had performed his light scattering experiments during a new moon. He didn’t have sufficient funds, he answered, to get dark curtains for the laboratory.

In the introduction, you state your objectives in doing the research. This section is important, as it shows you are familiar with what is going on in the field. Many researchers slant their original objectives a bit to make their work appear to be the construction of a superior mind, so well-planned that everything fell into place without honing or trimming. That’s fine, but admitting that we have come across a phenomenon by chance and followed it up methodically puts a bit of adventure back into the profession without in any way diminishing our intellectual stature. Make your introduction so alluring that your readers want to stay with it. Avoid sketching historical developments unless your work resolves a historic issue.

I find the summary and title the most difficult parts to write, simply because every word counts. Here all advice fails. Use the key words you developed under step 1 for the discussion. You write it once, rewrite it the next day, and then let it simmer. Don’t be discouraged if you still don’t like your title after the nth editing job. The title should be the paper’s crowning glory. Avoid repeating the same statement in the title, summary, introduction and conclusions. Instead, repeat the sense, but not the text. List the keys, cross out anything of secondary importance, put them into a sequence and you’ll get the one sentence that says it all. Please don’t play too much with words. There is book entitled Technically Write; that kind of wordplay hurts.

Once you’ve written a draft, edit and re-edit. Don’t be easy on yourself. A good editor (and you want to publish in good journals) will home in on a point you had recognized yourself but let pass. Keep the text simple. Some people confuse simpIe with trivial, particularly those with inferiority complexes (“If I can understand it, it must be trivial”). Don’t worry about them. The only thing that counts is getting your idea across. Your reasoning should be so logical that your readers think they arrived at the conclusion by themselves. If the conclusion is important, how can the chain of arguments leading up to it be trivial?

Finally, keep at hand a copy of that gem of a paper by Watson and Crick (“Molecular Structure of Nu- cleic Acids,” Nature, vol. 171, 1953, pp. 737-38). You can write just as well and as concisely as they did. And when you look back on your publications at the end of your career, you can be proud of every word you’ve written.

Seufert is a professor with the department of physiology and biophysics, faculty of medicine, University of Sherbrooke, Sherbrooke, Que. JIH 5N4, Canada


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(The Scientist, Vol:2, #2, p.18, January 25, 1988)
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