The Index of Banned Words (The Continually Updated Edition)

By Carl Zimmer | November 30, 2009 3:35 pm

Over the summer, I posted a list of words I banned from my science writing class at Shoals Marine Lab. Readers offered some equally abysmal suggestions. And this fall, teaching a seminar at Yale, I came across some others. I suspect that this list is just going to keep growing. So I’m giving it a home here, where I can add in new entries as they arise in assignments in my classes. You can easily direct people to it through this url: (caps required).

By assembling this list, I don’t mean to say that no one should ever use these words. I am not teaching people how to write scientific papers. What I mean is that anyone who wants to learn how to write about science–and to be read by people who aren’t being paid to read–should work hard to learn how to explain science in plain yet elegant English–not by relying on scientific jargon, code-words, deadening euphemisms, or meaningless cliches.

[Update: Here’s a post where I go into more depth about why words matter–along with sentences, paragraphs, etc.]

Access (verb)

And/or (Logic gates do not belong in prose)



Breakthrough (unless you are covering Principia Mathematica)

Captive observation

Clinical setting

Community ecology (this ban does not extend to the subject of community ecology)



Cracked the code (especially when it comes to sequencing DNA. DNA is not the same thing as the genetic code)

Demographic leveling


et al


Food source (when just “food” will do)


“Further research is needed” (or anything like that)

Holy Grail


Impacted (unless you’re talking about teeth or bowels)

In (when used in phrases like “experiments in mouse“)

In vitro

In vivo

Informed (people can be informed. As for “The discussion was informed…”? Ack.)

Insult (referring to an injury)



Interface (especially as a verb)

Intermediate host

Interested in (as in, “Dr. Frankenstein is interested in tissue regeneration.” Transforms passion and excitement into a boring parlor game)

It has been shown (noxious in many ways)

Literally (even if it’s used accurately, the word is generally useless)

Marine environment

Material properties



Miracle (or Miracle cure)

Missing link (don’t get me started…)



Molecular systematists


Multiple (as in many? Then just use many)

Musty (when referring to museum collections, unless those collections are in fact in an attic with holes in the roof through which rain steadily falls)

Non-marine environment

Novel (the adjective is banned. The noun, as in War and Peace, is fine.)



Paradigm shift

Parameter (also, parameterize)




Predator-Prey Relationship



Recently (when you actually mean “ten years ago”)

Recruit, recruitment (unless you’re writing about the Army)

Regime (unless you’re referring to Mobutu in Zaire)

Robust (as in, robust data. But robust wine? Yes, please.)

Scientists have learned in recent years that… (A dodge to escape explaining what actually happened)



Substrate [try things like dirt, mud, rock, etc.]


System (as in, “He chose mouse as a system to study”)

This (if there is no antecedent in sight)


Trivial (in the way scientists like to use it: “This problem is trivial.” Non-trivial is even worse.)




We (as in “We now know the fatality ratio of the current H1N1 influenza epidemic.” We includes your readers, most of whom don’t know–yet.)

[Image of crier: Wikipedia]


Comments (116)

Links to this Post

  1. Miracles and paradigm shifts: Banned words : Covering Health | December 4, 2009
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  3. Project Exploration Blog » From Sci Foo to You | August 9, 2010
  4. The Index of Banned Words | The Loom | Discover Magazine | August 22, 2010
  5. The Index of Banned Words (The Continually Updated Edition) | The Loom | Discover Magazine « StLeoScience | August 30, 2010
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  20. On systems biology and bullshit « Scientific B-sides | February 27, 2012
  21. Social Media and the Love of Science – Eco Matters - State of the Planet | February 29, 2012
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  23. “Process” isn’t jargon « ThermalToy | March 25, 2012
  24. “System” isn’t jargon, either « ThermalToy | March 25, 2012
  25. The problem with banning words « Sentence first | April 26, 2012
  26. Communicating Science | On a Quasi-Related Note | April 29, 2012
  1. Will you be explaining what’s wrong with these words, or is it supposed to be obvious?

  2. Alan Barnard

    I noticed that in:

    MIT does not go in for the Harvard: Leonard Hall et al or Leonard Hall and others, but the altogether more matey: Hall and co. or Hall and his mates.

    Of course, I have no objection to et al – but I am sometimes surprised at the number of papers that I have co-authored.

  3. What about “holy grail”? For years, Charles Petit has been leading the charge against this overused metaphor.

    [Carl: Was it ever underused? I doubt it. Thanks for the reminder.]

  4. This list says as much about the writer as about the words. So interaction, process, mechanism, and context are targeted. But what about genetic (as in ‘x is genetic’), inherited, gene (as in ‘researchers have discovered the x gene’), determined, innate, hard-wired, and a host of similarly misused and misunderstood words?

    Just wondering…

    [Carl: There are so many words out there to be added to the list. Don’t read too much into what’s there so far.]

  5. jwlee

    Kind of sad – on one hand, yes, difficult and/or obscure words will make writing harder to read. On the other hand, where could you pick up vocabulary if not through reading?

  6. Anders Ehrnberg

    Which PM? or any?
    Anders Eg

  7. Can I get a moment of silence for morphology and paradigm shift?

    If I had a 40, I’d pour it on the curb.

  8. Strong agreement about “anomalous.” If it was unexpected then say so. If it doesn’t fit other data in a set then say so. Specify what you mean. Anomaly is only slightly better. If I see the word “anomaly” repeatedly it better be a space-time anomaly and it better involve Riker and Data talking about how they are modifying the deflector shields to emit a phased tachyon burst to either probe it, close it, or stop the Cardassians from using it in some bad way.

    (Incidentally, apparently the default spell checker for Firefox does not include the word “Cardassian”)

  9. I believe Voice of America and several other media outlets aiming for non-native speakers all define some version of simple English with a vocabulary of around 1500-1800 words, few or no idiosyncratic expressions and a restricted grammar. As much as possible things are explained using this basic set of words (and it is surprisingly expressive), and when absolutely necessary extra words are brought in but defined in detail. It sounds completely natural and is very easy to understand.

    If you aim for that same basic subset of English you can short-cut the need for an ever-expanding list of frowned-upon vocabulary. Just state that writers should use this subset of the language when possible to be clearly understood by all.

  10. But the missing link IS the holy grail. Elucidating cellular morphology and predator-prey relationships will most likely result in a paradigm shift that will hardly be trivial. We believe the impact of this breakthrough will fundamentally (there’s another one for you) change our views on the origin of mankind, although of course further research will be needed before we can utilize this knowledge.

  11. Brian Too

    Jeez Carl, you’re banning “et al”?? I can’t decide whether this is jaded or idiosyncratic.

    Why not just pull a Mr. Burns and ban the letter “e” from all science writing?

  12. Juan Pi

    I have to disagree with “We” in one case: I really dislike it when using it as a professor teaching to his class. But sometimes I use “we” to mean “humans”, to emphasize science achievements as belonging to all of us. Kind of balances the “you freaky scientists” view, in my opinion.

  13. Roadtripper

    This is just about as useful as some of the ‘style tips’ in Strunk & White, and equally amusing to read, as well.

  14. fasteddie

    List is double plus good!

  15. johnk

    I think there are two types of trouble words:

    1. sloppy thinking words. These are over-used metaphors, etc.

    2. science jargon. These are science words that scientists use as shorthand. They are not sloppy thinking, but the problem is that scientists frequently don’t recognize which of their words are specific to their field and which are common.

    Science jargon can be tricky. Sometimes the scientific use of the word can be very precise and have a lot of communicative value. But the words may sound familiar and, if not defined, be used in a sloppy, imprecise way that is incorrect or misleading.

    It’s valuable to introduce scientific terms if the words conceptualize complex ideas. Frequently these terms may sound familiar, being based on common words. Especially in these cases it’s important to make the definitions clear. These words or phrases can slide into jargon if the specific meaning is lost.

  16. leshmit8

    Please add “designed” to the list–as in “the animal was designed to live in the water!”

  17. Revyloution

    Reading Janne’s post at 9 and Joshua Zelinsky comment on spell check at 8, I had a flash of brilliance.

    Too bad I’m not a programmer.

    If anyone wants to run with this idea, give me a footnote somewhere. Use the same type of programming that spell check uses. Instead of giving the correct spelling of the word ‘methodology’, have the program give the appropriate synonym from the Voice of America dictionary. You could easily convert a document into ‘plain English’.

  18. What’s wrong with impact as a verb? After all, it was a verb first. Merriam-Webster has it listed as both transitive and intransitive, with a earliest known use of 1601 (etymology: “Latin impactus, past participle of impingere to push against”). Moreover, their Dictionary of English Usage notes that the admonition against it only dates back to 1982, and has no foundation to speak of.

  19. AdamK

    Blake — I think “impinge” is a better descendent of “impingere,” if you’re looking for one. “Impact” seems okay to me if used literally (e.g. a meteor impacting a planet) but not in the sense of “having an effect upon,” and certainly not in place of “affect.” (Don’t mention the sense of an “impacted” wisdom tooth.) I think the problem is sloppiness and overuse, not some kind of literal wrongness.

  20. John Swindle

    Janne’s comment above includes several examples of hyphenated terms – all of them correct, as far as I can tell. The current trend appears to be to ignore the need for hyphenation, and to pile words atop each other, leaving the reader to sort things out.

    Though they are not words, per se, the non-use and, more rarely, incorrect use of hyphens might fit well in your list. Used correctly, they make clear what the writer has in mind. When a writer ignores the need for them, an unnecessary burden is placed upon the reader. I find this more offensive than the correct use of some listed word which has become trite through overuse.

  21. Don’t mention the sense of an “impacted” wisdom tooth.

    Why not? Because it’s a widely-known instance of people who are not middle-management jargonistas using the word?

    I think the problem is sloppiness and overuse, not some kind of literal wrongness.

    If the word in question were, say, paradigm, I’d buy the claim of “sloppiness and overuse”. But impact has a well-defined meaning, it hasn’t driven synonyms out of circulation, and its figurative sense has been well-established in professional prose for longer than I’ve been alive.

    Of two words which the lexicographers treat as effectively synonymous, why is one “a better descendent” of their common ancestor? If one is used sloppily and to excess today, wouldn’t a wholesale replacement just make the newly favoured child become equally overused?

  22. Um, “we”, by the way? If we were more than one person doing the research it seems awfully harsh to have to pretend your coworkers don’t exist just to satisfy some rather muddled idea of simplicity.

    I mean, what do you suggest? “I – by which I mean me and a dozen coworkers but I can’t really say that – have found this exciting science stuff. When I (and all the others in the project) started this work, I (and those other people) could never have imagined these results. As I excitedly discussed this with myself (since I have to ignore the personal plural) I found myself in some disagreement over the meaning. One of I believed genetic factors where most important, while another ones of myself thought environment was critical. In the end I resolved the disagreement with myself and I am now able to announce this exciting result.”

  23. Re Janne on “we.” Please note the example I gave. If you were writing an article about research you and someone else did together, I obviously would have no objection to your use of “we.” But all too often, people use it to refer to some hazy, ill-defined community that shares some common goal and knowledge, and that includes both the writer and the reader.

    Re Blake: Often when people use “impact” as a verb, the word communicates a hazy feeling of influence. There is almost always a better word that can take its place.

  24. Carl, the example really is not good either. If you say “I now know the fatality ratio of the current H1N1 influenza epidemic”, then there, in the air, will hang the implied “…and I will not tell you unless you give me ..One Billion Dollars! Muahahaha!” (pinky in mouth strictly non-optional).

    And you can’t say “You now know the …” since you haven’t told the audience yet. Unless you have, in which case “We now know the …” is perfectly fine as it refers to the speaker and listener together.

    The only real alternative I can come up with is removing the pronoun altogether: “It is now known what the fatality rate …”, or “The fatality rate … is now known.” Which strikes me as a far graver – and more common – stylistic impediment to understanding than “we” could ever hope to achieve.

  25. Well, why even bother with “we know”? Why not just state the facts as if the “we know” is implied?

    My writing is often redundant and I can edit things to death.

    Speaking of that, I wish I could edit blog comments here like I can on Bad Astronomy. Is that an option you can enable Carl? I can usually find and fix mistakes within 15 minutes as Phil allows.

  26. Baruch Shahi

    The paper I’m writing currently is about parameterized Euclidean curves in 3-space. I’d really hate to have to replace every instance of all the related “parameter” words


    [Carl: This post is not about how to write mathematics papers.]

  27. Don

    Wow. Low SAT students must make great writers. Their vocabularies lack most of these words.

  28. Konrad

    Carl – does your objection to “we now know” extend to “we now know that the earth is round”? Or does it only include sentences referring to pieces of knowledge not actually contained in the sentence (“we know know the ratio” without specifying what the ratio is), or not likely to be known to the reader in advance? Does it involve a value judgement on whether or not the reader is likely to already know the fact in question? And what alternative do you suggest for the H1N1 example?

    One alternative that comes to mind is “scientists now know…”, but this implies that the knowledge is available only to scientists. The point of using “we” is to emphasize that the information is available to any interested reader.

  29. nacbrie

    @ Captain Skellet

    But surely we must utilise optimum methodologies to study the molecular systematic basis of virulence and transmissibility of H1N1 or, as it is more correctly known, THE SWINE FLU PANDEMIC OF DEATH (SFPOD). It is vital to contextualise the processes of anomalous intermediate host interactions with immunocompromised individuals, the mechanism of access, and suitable treatment regimes using novel proxies previously considered trivial. To appropriately parameterise such a study, we must also take into account demographic levelling.

    Breakthroughs have been made using a community ecology approach. Construction of phylogenetic trees using morphological features, habitat data (e.g. marine vs. non-marine environments) and examining of predator-prey relationships using captive observation has understandably been of limited use because of the ‘missing link’ effect; however, seminal research carried out by Smith, et al, using this approach has lead to promising therapies which address the insult by mitigating the effect of systemic infection, the so-called ‘miracle cure’. It should be noted that the sustainability of such an approach has been questioned. Although such therapies have brought about a paradigm shift in our approach to treating the disease, further research is needed into the material properties of drug deliverers.

  30. Marlene Zuk

    So I mentioned this before when you published the list, and didn’t get an answer: please, what’s wrong with “intermediate host”? I work on parasites, and need to know!

  31. Marlene–Sorry for the oversight. Only use “intermediate host” if you feel that “host” is just not sufficient–but only use it once you’ve explained what an intermediate host is. Casually dropping it into a piece of popular writing will just add to the confusion.

  32. Bob Carlson

    Well I do get weary of seeing optimum where optimal should be used, but…

  33. Dear Carl,
    Can you please make an exception for “impact” for the study of collisions in the asteroid belt and planetary cratering?

  34. DD

    Social Contract and Social Compact, I can never figure out exactly what is supposed to be shrinking.

  35. John Olthoff

    Mechanism? Really? No use of the word mechanism?? Isn’t that what a large aspect of biology is trying to figure out!?

    [CZ: Perhaps. But you can find more interesting ways to talk about science than referring to mechanisms. Remember, this is for writing about science, not doing or reporting science.]

  36. Cathy Sander

    I’m a little confused: which “Principia Mathematica” were you referring to?
    The 1687 one by Newton, or the 1910-1913 volumes by Russell and Whitehead?

  37. namnezia

    It is not obvious to me why a word like “mechanism” or “process” are jargon. It seems condescending to imply that the average reader needs to be protected from difficult words. Sure you can say “the way X works” or some other silly phrase instead of mechanism, but c’mon how does a reader improve his or her vocabulary if not by being exposed to a richer vocabulary?

    [CZ: I’m all for exposing people to a rich vocabulary–but a vocabulary drawn from great literature, not from a lexicon of jargon. By falling back on a pat and not very meaningful term like “mechanism” means that a writer won’t search for an original, evocative expression.]

  38. namnezia

    Re your response in #38. I have to respectfully disagree. Why should vocabulary be drawn primarily from literature and not from the scientific tradition? Many eloquent and evocative terms have come from scientific jargon – think of the term “Evolution” or “Radioactivity” (OK, in the case of evolution its usage was altered by science). I remember way back in college during a biology class the professor explaining something or another about developmental biology, and then asking, “Can anybody think of what the possible mechanism behind this is?” And upon hearing this word in this context for the first time, it evoked in my mind some sort of vast clockwork image of molecules and genes working together as part of some crazy machine. After that, I was hooked into becoming a scientist, and into figuring out “mechanisms”.

    I don’t see what’s wrong in introducing this terminology, which you deride as jargon, to the general public. If done properly, it could be just as evocative and elegant as something coming from literature.

    Of course, who am I to argue, since I really like your writing…

  39. Chris M.

    I do biomechanics. I use “mechanism” to describe mechanical elements of a system, and will probably continue to do so.

  40. Jimbo

    If I hear or see “moreover” again I will scream! It is lazy and pretentious. Or is that magniloquent or effusive. (wink, wink)

    I hear the bleating of sheep when “moreover” is used! Or is that the Pink Floyd CD my neighbor is playing.

    Throw in “dynamic” too while you’re compiling..

  41. Marcus

    Instead of banning words, why not ban malapropism, and ban jargon that could be mistaken for common usage? Choosing words for a non-specialist audience does not necessarily entail choosing words for illiterates.

  42. How about about “magic”?
    As in news pieces referring to advances in science (or even established techniques) as “magic”?

    “The codes for extinct animals were thought to have died along with them, until recently, when machines like one at the Smithsonian’s DNA lab started working magic.”-60 Minutes, Could Extinct Species Make a Comeback?

    “It’s not magic, it’s science!”, I shout, exasperatedly.

  43. 220mya

    A term that should be banned in science writing: “Some scientists think…

  44. magetoo


    Science jargon can be tricky. Sometimes the scientific use of the word can be very precise and have a lot of communicative value. But the words may sound familiar and, if not defined, be used in a sloppy, imprecise way that is incorrect or misleading.

    I think this is an important point, and it reminds me of one of my pet hates: “Let me unpack that.” (As in: using jargon, then backing up, announcing that you’ll “unpack” what you’ve just said, and only then explaining it.)

    Not so common in writing, at least what I’ve seen, but annoying enough to hear it being used in talks and conversations.

    “Packing” is a neat metaphor for describing the conciseness of jargon, but if you know you’re going to have to explain things in simple terms, just do it right away instead of making a big deal out of it.

  45. aidel

    Absolutely brilliant, not to mention elegant. Clearly there is some genetic overlap with a certain genius named Ben. Did you mention nature/nurture? (My memory is spotty but I have an excellent forgettory.)

  46. Katherine

    Seconding “seminal”!

  47. What would make this list truly useful would be to add a selection of other words or phrases that could be used instead.

  48. Jackie–That would be giving a cheat sheet to my students.

  49. Jac

    Thanks. Now I know why I enjoy your writing; you avoid whatever is currently chewing gum.

  50. Beth

    Excellent list! Around is my personal addition.

    around- as in “studies will be conducted around ____ “; or we will have discussions around ___.

  51. My problem is with words or phrases that cover up vague thinking with hand-waving, although I am no fan of redundancy, either. Why complain about “paradigm shift”? Because even to Kuhn it meant umpteen different things. Describe the change clearly instead. That said, most words on this list or any list also have a legitimate, tightly controlled usage.

    Thanks for the food for thought. (Sorry!)

  52. My top two most overused words are ‘unique’, when it is not true, and ‘world-class’ (or ‘worldclass’ ), which doesn’t mean anything.

    Thanks for your list.

  53. How about

    Generally (the word is literally meaningless)

  54. I’m surprised that you haven’t yet listed ‘design’ and its derivatives, used in reference to the structure or function of biological organisms or their bits ‘n’ pieces.

  55. Paul

    I’d like to nominate “extirpate” and “fomite.”

  56. kevin

    An alternative for in vivo and in vitro? I cant think of any that completely capture the menaings of these phrases. Scientific papers are written to be read by scientists, largely those that work in the same field. There is nothing wrong with Jargon, every discipline has it’s language. Generally saves alot of time, valuable word space, and avoids the need to explain every concept in pain-staking detail. Imust agree that some of the cliche’s such as ‘holy grail’ should be avoided, but this is just a matterof taste

  57. Glad you nailed ‘elucidate’ already. Thanks!

    Please add ‘deleterious’ instead of harmful.
    And the cancer docs’ favorites: ‘poor outcomes’ or ‘adverse outcomes’ instead of deaths.

    Kevin#63 — those two bits of Latin work out to ‘in a mouse’ or ‘in a dish’. That wasn’t so hard, was it? Science language is indeed efficient and precise — but only if you speak it, which most folks don’t. Precision is inversely related to audience size.

    [CZ: Bates’s law!]

  58. Ann

    Two nominations: inform and robust

    People should be informed, but meetings, regulations and “processes” should be presented with information. As in: “The discussion was informed by a recent article in the NYT.” “This study is intended to inform the development of new regulations for fishing.”

    Wine and people can be robust, but not data. It does not have flavor or shape. What does a robust set of data look like, anyway? Perhaps it was rotund?

  59. Kapitano

    Two really obvious ones:

    * Methodology (when used to mean Method)
    * Potentiality (always used to mean things which might happen. Especially noxious in the plural form ‘Potentialities’.)

  60. I am afraid I think too many of the words on the list are commonly used, non-technical words with straightforward and useful meanings that will be understood by most adults and school students.

    I would strike the following words off the list: “system”, “process”, “mechanism”, “multiple” and “literally”. Like most words they words can be clumsily misused, but that is the fault of the particular writer and not of the words/concepts themselves which can be useful in the right context.

    Some evidence for my view is here. and here:

    I haven’t yet heard a clear, reasoned argument against the use of these words. In essence I agree with namnezia’s comment above. You are entitled to your opinion, but I don’t accept that “mechanism” for example is a “pat and not very meaningful term”. or that I should “find a more interesting way to talk”. Can you make a more compelling case against these words? The list is thought-provoking, but if it is just about personal taste – I am not persuaded.

  61. Pawel

    It should be a dictionary not a list.

  62. Danielle

    Can “synergy,” “synergistic” and all of it’s ugly relatives be added to the list? The combined effect of them, added to other jargon in a sentence, is more than I can stand.

  63. Zach Marion

    I question why predation is on the list, given that I study the evolution of chemical defenses against predation. At least in ecology, predation is a rather fundamental concept.

    [CZ: Please read the introduction carefully. I never said that these words could never be used. Nor did I say that the concept of predation should be banned. What I am saying is that a word like predation in a popular book or article is a wasted opportunity.]

  64. Judith

    Could I ask that “musty” be added to the list when used to describe museum collections? just did it again:
    We appreciate their help in advertising the potential bounty held within our collection rooms, but “musty” suggests we are doing such a bad job of curation that we might as well give up.

    [CZ: Very true. Attics are musty. Clean, metal cabinets in climate-controlled vaults are not.]

  65. John

    May I ask that visualize (as distinct from ‘see’) be added to the list. This substitution is used in medical writing and presenting.

    I can visualize the ureter from the other side of the world… in the O/R in need to see it!

    The combined effect of many of the substitutions on this list is that that diminish our language so that when a word on the list has a appropriate use it has become devalued by its misuse by someone trying to sound impressive beyond their ability or knowledge.

  66. I once called graphene the “Susan Lucci of Nobel-worthy physics” in a blog post on Future-ish ( Folks loved it. Does that count as “plain yet elegant English”? :-)

  67. Idiot mathmo

    ‘God’, and most particularly ‘God particle’. May He strike down anyone writing about the LHC who dares to blaspheme thus.

  68. Katie

    Maybe it’s too obvious, but “prove” is a big one. Besides the main reasons, “prove” tends to discount all of the previous research and leaves little room for future studies on the topic. Science is ongoing and collaborative.

  69. Earl Nightingale suggests that those people with the largest volcabulary always rise to the top of their field. However, knowing the meaning of lots of big words does not prevent me from writing in plain English.
    Personally, I enjoy the challenge of taking a complex idea and explaining it so it can be understood by a broad range of people – without speaking down to them. This list is a fun guide to use while writing to inform, and it may help me avoid being annoying.

  70. agaldor

    I would add biocompatible to the list. There are so many different reaction to a material implanted into an organism that biocompatibility is meaningless. A material can be bio-inert (elicit no response), bio-active (induce a favorable response), osteoconductive (bone can bond to the surface and grow along it), etc.

    From a material science and materials engineering stand point your list would make it almost impossible for a material scientist to have a discussion about what they do since a lot of you banned words are material concepts not jargon. These concepts should be introduced and explained to non-material scientists when writing for that target audience. Example: The interface (one of your banned words) between the matrix and reinforcement is an important concept when discussing composites with non-material scientists.

  71. Kyle

    What is the reasoning behind these words being “banned?” Such lists typify an arrogance that I have found to be all too common in science. Having worked in numerous occupations and industries over the years, I have found that science is one area where it is still considered O.K. to call someone an idiot to their face. Criticism is fine but it is pointless without explanation. In the absence of explanation, I just have to assume that the above list is just another opinion worth ignoring. Other than personal irritation, why should I not use these words to inform a public that really needs to understand some very complex topics?

  72. joel hanes

    Why “literally” is on the list, while “virtually” is not, I shall never understand.

  73. Can the list also include advice to use adverbs, um, sparingly? I have to remind myself of that…um, repeatedly…when I write. Avoiding really, actually, particularly, apparently, et al. Oops. I just used “et al.” But you get the idea. Apparently…oops…Bill Gates hates it when people say “actually,” and I think he’s got a good reason. Can we add these in along with “virtually” and “literally” as exclusions? Cleans up prose a bit.

    Oh, and “animal model.” To the non-scientist or unfamiliar audience, that phrase does not mean what scientists think it means.

    [CZ: As Ed Yong, adverbs are Satan’s work]

  74. Lisa Dellwo

    Here’s a vote for “issue” when it means “problem.”

  75. Justin

    I’m an ecologist, and I might be in the minority, but if I hear “Tangled Bank” one more time, I’m gonna barf. That goes for you too Carl (sorry).

    [CZ: ?]

  76. Jeanette

    Where do you come down on “address?” For example, “We address gaps in our knowledge of XYZ.”

  77. Jere

    You mentioned “insult” as regards an injury. Can we also include the opposite? “Injury” as regards receiving an insult?

    One of the above critics questioned the purpose of “banning” words, when such words are deemed necessary to sufficiently discuss a highly complex topic.

    I might offer in contrast the idea that many subjects only become highly complex because those people who write about the topics use overly complex terms instead of using simpler terms. I sometimes wonder if their purpose is to limit their audience to walking thesauri(?)

    I don’t see the subject as being the literal banning of words. Instead, I see a person exercising control over the part of the world they are actually charged with controlling – their own classroom. I consent.

  78. ZL 'Kai' Burington

    I hope you mean “morphology” as a general noun rather than a proper noun, because it would make me very unhappy to have my science banned.

  79. In den Moser-Kliniken werden ausschließlich EU-zertifizierte Implantate verwendet, die in der regel ein Leben weit hinein ihrer Position fortdauer können.

  80. I couldn’t possibly disagree with this more strongly. Not only is it deeply offensive in the condescending way we need to talk down to the great unwashed, it’s also stupid at a very deep level.

    To illustrate my point I ask you to engage in a simple thought experiment. Simply replace the word “Science” in “Science Writing” with the word “Sport”. Then create a list of banned words for all Sports Writers to follow. Play (meaning to create a tactic rather than just engaging in the game), Field (if you mean grass, just say grass), Diamond (it’s just grass remember), stick/club/bat/racquet/paddle/mallet (you hit a ball with it; call it a ball hitter why have all these different names? Don’t get me started on “cricket bat, baseball bat” etc, they already know which sport we’re talking about, “ball hitter”) Hitter/batsman (pick one! which is it?) Tennis/hockey/ping pong/squash/lacrosse/croquet/soccer/foot/bowling balls (why confuse everyone with this, they’re all just “balls”)

  81. Actually, let me belabour my point, and couch it in simple terms. In other words, allow me to treat you as an illiterate as you would treat your readers. I wonder if you are enjoying it? I wonder if my message is better received? Sorry, complex language does little to improve communication. I’ll try again:

    Eh Buddy, how do you like it eh? Are you listening? Do you understand?

    So you don’t like this fancy schmancy latin like “In Vitro”. No surprise there ’cause all your readers are schmuks. They’ve never heard of that “In Vitro Fertilisation” malarkey. They’re not interested in that science stuff ’cause who knows what those scientists are up to eh? They’re all on the take anyway from those green guys who have all the money. Can’t trust ’em I say.

    I don’t trust scientists. Now cops, you can trust them. I like that crime writing. Much better than that science writing with all their fancy latin. Theys just say that stuff to confuse us you know.

    Me, I’m gunna stick to reading “Crime” writing and give that “Science” writing a miss.

    I can’t stand attempting the vernacular any more. I’m not good at it and it sounds forced so I’m also going to give it “a miss”.

    Your basic misapprehension is that people some how “accidentally” read science writing and that it has to be couched in terms that someone with no interest in the subject will find immediately accessible without any effort. You’re completely wrong. People who aren’t interested *won’t be reading it*. By dumbing it down you are helping people who won’t read it in the first place (multiply even the largest number you can think of by zero and it’s still zero) and annoying or alienating the people who *are* interested.

    If the sports thought experiment didn’t speak to you, lets imagine that you’re teaching “crime” writing rather than “science” writing and applying the same rules. Can you imagine the appalling result of removing from writings intended for a lay audience such jargon as:

    Habeas Corpus
    Pro Bono

    Searing courtroom drama would be a little more difficult.

    “Hey you twelve guys, my guy says he never done it and that guy in the wig got nuthin that says he did”

    Not exactly “Rumpole of the Bailey” is it…

  82. Jason: Your counterexample with crime writing demonstrates more clearly than anything I could write myself that you have not taken the time to understand my point.

    I have two children, ages ten and eight. Both of them know what a judge is.

    On the other hand, they would not understand this:

    The Kawashimas assert that, if Clause (i) applies to tax crimes, then qualifying convictions for tax evasion under Clause (ii) would also qualify as aggravated felonies under Clause (i), because tax evasion is a crime involving fraud or deceit. To buttress this argument, the Kawashimas point to a body of law providing that a conviction for tax evasion under §7201 collaterally estops the convicted taxpayer from contesting a civil penalty under 26 U. S. C. §6663(b) for “underpayment . . . attributable to fraud.”

    This is from a recent Supreme Court decision on a criminal case [pdf]. The Court wrote it using terms like “estops” that are necessary and expected in a legal document. But I would not expect my children to know what “estops” mean. I don’t know what “estops” means. Does that mean I am stupid? Do you know what “estops” means? If you don’t, should I assume that you, too, are stupid?

    Of course not.

    Scientific writing is a lot like legal writing. Consider a charming paper published in 2010 on how cats lick water. It describes an action we have all witnessed. But it is filled with difficult passages such as, “Viscous and capillary forces are negligible in determining column dynamics, since the Reynolds and Bond numbers are large.”

    Find an intelligent person who is interested in science but who has not taken a physics class since high school. Show that person this passage and ask them why large Reynold and Bond numbers mean that viscous and capillary forces are negligible in determining column dynamics. Ask that person what a Bond number is. I suspect that person will not be able to tell you. This does not mean that that person is not interested in science.

    When scientists and scientists-in-training try to write about science, they are attracted, like moths to a flame, to precise scientific terminology that makes sense to their colleagues but does not make sense to non-scientists. To push scientists to use the English language in inventive ways, to find useful metaphors, I have to shield them from that flame. I have to provide them with an explicit list of words that serve to confuse their prose. If you try hard, you can find some cases in which people do use the terms I list here in common parlance. Yes, people are familiar with in vitro fertilization. But I regularly get stories sprinkled with “in vitro” referring to experiments, not fertilizations. I get stories in which writers discuss in vitro experiments versus in vivo ones. There a perfectly clear ways to express this in ways that many people will understand, without sacrificing precision. Therefore, I tell students to avoid using “in vitro” in their stories.

    A good legal writer, likewise, will figure out how not to use words like “estops,” and instead use clear, compelling prose to describe a criminal case. And if lawyers take a class to learn how to write for the public, instead of for judges, I think they’ve be well served by a list of banned words that included “estops.”

  83. You rock, Zimmer! Another cliche, but true.

  84. Heidi

    I am a person who is interested in science but didn’t take a physics class in high school. But this has never prevented me from reading about science. When I come across terms or concepts I am unfamiliar with, I do what any intelligent person would do. I look them up. Thus the scientific paper I am reading serves to enhance my understanding of science as a whole. By writing in simpler terms you deprive me of that opportunity.

  85. Carl, Ok, I definitely see where you’re going with this (and I did take the time to look at what you’re trying to do)

    I think you’ve misunderstood what *I* was saying.

    I chose Crime writing (*not* legal writing, which is to crime writing as Papers are to Science Writing) because it illustrates how complex issues of ethics, logic, evidence and process can be made interesting to a lay public *without* excluding every latin term. Perhaps even because those latin terms are not excluded. You point out that your children know what a Judge is. That’s not an accident, it’s because the term (which has a different meaning in normal English) *hasn’t* been excluded from fictionalised and news accounts of crime and punishment. By it’s very use, the public has, without any effort, internalised it’s meaning. That’s how language is transmitted from person to person; by use.

    I think there is a basic difference in the goals of Science writing as you see them and as I see them (and as your students see them).

    Your students probably want to communicate the excitement they feel for their subject.

    You’re probably trying to get them to write in a way that will get through a sub editor and see the light of day.

    I think that the overall goal of Science writing is or should be, to make Science as much a part of our culture as Crime writing is. To reach the point where words like Reynolds number are understood and people don’t say stupid things like “Aerodynamically, the bumble bee shouldn’t be able to fly”. (ok, a statement about excluding stupid statements from the language is itself a stupid statement, but maybe we can hope for people to stop repeating them?)

    So our perceived goals are very different. I’m a consumer of Science writing. I don’t know or care how many articles fell to the sub editor’s red pen. I only see the ones that don’t and I make my judgements from them. They’re almost uniformly appalling. Not from excess jargon. That’s *not* a problem that needs you to solve it with a list. The main groups of appalling are that way because they’re:

    Wrong (totally got the wrong end of the stick, completely wrong, not even internally consistent. See anything written about the higgs)

    Out of Date (Often as much as 400 years out of date. See almost anything written about gravity.)

    Simplified to the point of unintelligibility (virtually everything ever written about science)

    Forced excitement (Google of: Science Fun, returned 2.9×10^9 hits while Sport Fun returned 1/10th of that. Which gets more column inches?)

    The very best of this genre achieve all four. Check it out! This is from my national broadcaster. A segment from it’s flagship science programme. It carefully ticks all four, for a gem of appalling Science writing. I defy anyone who didn’t already understand the subject to come away with anything from that segment.

    That’s the kind of Science writing I hate so much. Yes, that’s an extreme example, combining pointless special effects, with humiliation of innocent bystanders to achieve a content free zone but it’s indicative of the quality of what’s out there.

    So there should be an example of great science writing then… Something to compare it with. That’s a little harder to find. To be truly great it must exclude all those normal failings of course, but also offer something extra special. Something phrased simply but without patronising the audience. Something about a really difficult subject, yet it holds the audience in rapt attention. Something that changes the way the listener looks at the world. I can’t find anything from this millennium. The most recent I know about is from 1979 and if you watch all of them it really will change the way you look at the world.

    Science writing in this culture is in disarray. The most important issues of our time that change the way we live our lives, treat our sick, fight our wars, feed our children, care for our homes and communicate with our loved ones are relegated to minor stories occasionally run in some magazines and never mentioned on the news, while the latest football results have a 32 page lift out in every paper and take up half of every news broadcast. There are more sports programmes intended for the informed and interested viewer broadcast every day than Science programmes for an informed and interested viewer created in human history. The University where my mother taught had a massive number of people applying for Forensic Science. Ten or twenty times more than they had places, but the Physics department was closing courses because there were no students. I’m sure that if Dexter mentions Bond Numbers when analysing blood spatter, it would enter the language on that day.

    It’s for you and your students to step up to the plate (hey, sports jargon and I understand it…) and make Science writing what it can be, what it should be and thereby make a real difference. Go on, change the world, I *dare you*.

  86. PS: And if I ever get my hands on one of the people who put slow motion Fuel/Air explosions on while some voiceover mangles the big bang…. AAARRRRGGGGHHHHH. Words fail me, a strangled cry is all I can come up with.

  87. PPS: I read that cat paper a couple of years ago and don’t remember having any problems with the language. I also thought it charming.

  88. PPPS: there’s nothing wrong with saying “Viscous and capillary forces are negligible in determining column dynamics, since the Reynolds and Bond numbers are large.”

    You rightly contend that many people don’t know what Reynolds or Bond numbers are (which is what I feel Science writing should fix but lets put that aside for a moment).

    Let’s rephrase that statement in a way that no-one will understand the words and see what it tells us as a reader.

    “Yatro and Xesonic forces are negligible in determining column dynamics since the Thompson and Benderman numbers are large.”

    Ok, so if I don’t know what Yatro and Xesonic forces are (which I don’t), I’m just being told they don’t matter in this case! So I don’t *need* to know what they are in order to follow the paper. The reason they don’t matter is to do with some stuff I also don’t understand. The Thompson and Benderman numbers are large. If for some reason I desire to know what makes the things I don’t know about irrelevant, google is only one tab away on my browser. Everything written today comes with a built in glossary.

    However if by some chance I was thinking “what about the Yatro! they’ve forgotten that”, my question is answered. It adds something for the informed reader and subtracts nothing for the uninformed. That’s a win.


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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