Writing tidbit # 1

This is the first of my posts about common and (in my view) unideal patterns in academic writing. This one is what I call the “and is” construction. It’s particularly common in scientific writing. Here are two examples, with the pattern highlighted:

In light of scientific developments in the field of medical research, the document aims to address a range of issues which involves ethical controversies and is criticised by pro-life ethicists.

Patrick Foong. “Human Embryonic Stem Cell (HESC) Research in Malaysia: Multi-Faith Perspectives.” Asian Bioethics Review 3.3 (2011): 191

The Gini coefficient has gained popularity in the social sciences as an accepted way to measure income inequality (Allison 1978) and is used in many studies of income inequality.

Laura Duncan. “Money and Membership: Effects of Neighbourhood Poverty, Income Inequality and Individual Income on Voluntary Association Membership in Canada.” Canadian Journal of Sociology 35.4 (2010): 580.

These sentences, though correct, both sound a bit “off” to me. What accounts for this feeling? Without doing a more in-depth analysis, I suspect two causes. One is the fact, demonstrated above, that the sentence’s subject is linked to two verbs, the first of which is active and the second passive. Thus, in the first example, “the document” is the subject associated with two verbs: “aims” (active voice) and “is criticised” (passive voice). In the second example, the subject “Gini coefficient” is associated with two verbs: “has gained” (active voice) and “is used” (passive voice).

The second factor, which is more subjective and difficult to assess, is the fact that while both parts of each sentence are “about” the same topic (the document, the Gini coefficient), each part of those two sentences are about fairly distinct aspects of that topic. In the first sentence, the first half of the sentence is about what the document does (what it “aims to address”), while the sentence half of the sentence is about how people have reacted to it. In short, though both parts of the sentence are about the document, they are still about two very different aspects of that document–a difference that is somewhat obscured by the way both halves of the sentences are connected (with a simple “and,” as if both sides were equivalent or symmetrical). Another way to put it is that the two parts appear to be different kinds of statement about the same topic.

Here is one more example, which also reflects the issues I mentioned above.

Intriguingly, these organisms have only a single noncentromeric histone H3 that resembles H3.3 and is
deposited during both replicative and nonreplicative phases of the cell cycle.

Harmit S. Malik and Steven Henikoff. “Major Evolutionary Transitions in Centromere Complexity.” Cell 138 (2009): 1071.

Again, we have a subject (“single noncentromeric histone H3”) working with two verbs in active (“resembles”) and passive (“is deposited”) voice. Like the other examples, this two-verb pattern also mixes description (“resembles”) with action (“is deposited”).

To get a better sense of why “and is” sentences often seem awkward, it may be helpful to look at an exception, where the “and is” structure works rather well. For example:

This software is institutionally available to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees and is thus
cost effective.

Victoria M. Hunt et al. “A Decision Support Tool for Adaptive Management of Native Prairie Ecosystems.” Interfaces 46.4 (2016): 339.

Here, the two halves of the sentence seem to be “about” the same or at least closely related aspects of the software in question. In fact, the second fact about the software (i.e. that is it cost effective) is directly related to the first fact about it (i.e. that it is institutionally available to employees). Compare that pattern to the sentences above. Note, too, that both verbs here are in the same voice (in this case active voice).

But I’m not really convinced that I’ve put my finger on why most “and is” sentences seem awkward and why some don’t. Consider this hypothetical case:

Malaria is a leading cause of mortality and is one of the most challenging infectious diseases to control.

This sentence does not fit the patterns I identified in the first three quoted sentences, yet it still sounds awkward in the same way. The voice is consistent here (there is no switch from active to passive voice, or vice versa); furthermore, I think it’s fair to say that both parts of the sentence are about more or less the same aspect of the same topic (both are descriptive and both deal with the seriousness of malaria). Yet I find that the “and is” structure is problematic in the same way as the three quoted examples above. I can’t quite figure this out.

I will keep thinking about this issue. But I suspect that the pattern I identified above is generally responsible for the oddity of “and is” sentences. In the meantime, don’t fret: it’s not a major problem! Still, I think it’s good to identify patterns that make our writing less effective, as well as patterns we end up relying on.

To conclude, I’ll go back to my hypothetical example to offer some easy fixes. In many cases, the easiest solution to the “and is” issue is to divide the sentence into two. But there are other options that might be preferable, such as

Malaria, a leading cause of mortality, is one of the most challenging infectious diseases to control.

A leading cause of mortality, malaria is one of the most challenging infectious diseases to control.

Malaria is a leading cause of mortality and among the most challenging infectious diseases to control.

These are just three of many more possible revisions….

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