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The Mouse-Go Rule for Academic Writing

Following this one rule will improve your academic document

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My two-year-old daughter recently fell in love with a finger puppet. A mouse finger puppet. As a result, we have all become very aware of this said mouse (or as she squeals: mouse!). Any time it gets lost amidst the other stuffed animals, crafts and crayons strewn about the house, she systematically goes up to each adult and asks earnestly: “Mouse go?”

What I love most about this question is that it contains the two essential ingredients of a viable sentence and nothing more: one subject (mouse) + one verb (go). No one explicitly taught her to put subject and verb together. She put two and two together on her own and then tacked on an interrogative tone and a cute facial expression to boot.

We’re natural-born communicators.

We all know more than we think we do when it comes to communicating. We learned subject-verb pairing at a young age, likely outside of a classroom. We are born as natural communicators. You may argue that writing is a special skill that must be formally trained. Totally. Agreed.

And yet the ultimate goal of writing is the same as the goal of sitting down and talking with someone—to communicate. But the communication goal is often subsumed by another goal of academics: establishing expertise. This often results in academics overloading their sentences with too many subordinate clauses, too much jargon and way too many hedging claims. Unfortunately, a poorly crafted sentence is more likely to undermine your expertise than to bolster it.

Personally, I have found that academics do a better job of explaining their work to me in one-on-one meetings than they do in writing. When they sit down to explain their project, they just kinda do it. They don’t worry about using words like translational or proof-of-concept or aforementioned or genomic strategies in an effort to sound professional and academic. They’re focused on making sure I understand them and their work. That’s their only goal in conversation: to get me to understand.

Academic writing (indeed all writing) should do the same. In the end, if your manuscript does not communicate your project to your readers clearly then you, as the writer, have not done your job.

Mouse-Go Rule: Keep your subject and verb close.

Academics — bless ‘em — are so full of specialized knowledge and abstract concepts, nested within abstract concepts, they often don’t even realize they are separating subject and verb by a string of nominalizations (i.e. zombie nouns) and prepositional phrases. It happens unknowingly.

Unfortunately, when you separate subject and verb, you burden the reader with the work that belonged to you as the writer in the first place. Now, your reader has to work hard to identify the main subject (noun) and action (verb) of the sentence.

When writers keep subject and verb close together in a sentence, they improve the readability. They don’t confuse their readers. They are clear. On the other hand, writers who drive their subjects and verbs far apart frustrate their readers. No reader wants to have to re-read a sentence multiple times just to make sense of what it’s trying to say.

An extreme case of subject-verb separation

Let’s pull a concrete example of what a distanced subject/verb combo looks like in a sentence. I’m going to borrow an example from the Duke Scientific Writing Resource (if you’re not a scientist and the scientific jargon is too distracting, you can check out this blog post or this legal page for some different types of examples).

The following example includes “an extreme case of subject-verb separation.” Indeed, twenty-six words worth of separation between subject and verb. The editor bolded the subject (possibility) and the verb (can be checked):

“The possibility that some termini have a base composition different from that of DNA simply because they are the nearest neighbors of termini specifically recognized by the enzymes can be checked by comparing the experimental results with those expected from the nearest neighbor data.”

By revising the sentence to bring check and possibility closer together, we improve the sentence almost immediately. Note also the subtle introduction of “we” (active voice):

“If we compare the experimental results with those expected from the nearest neighbor data, we can check the possibility that some termini have a base composition different from that of DNA simply because they are the nearest neighbors of termini specifically recognized by the enzymes”

Having made the above edit, you may be itching to do more (good!). The sentence can be improved further by transforming “those expected from” to “our expectations” — the agent (our = researchers) is now even more clear:

“If we compare our expectations with experimental results, we identify any termini that differ in base composition simply because they are the nearest neighbors of those specifically recognized by the enzymes.”

Much better.

There are several more examples on the Duke Scientific Writing Resource page as well as on this legal writing page and this legal writing page. You don’t have to search far to find someone who has written something about the importance of keeping subject and verb close together. That’s because the advice is robust and solid. If you follow it, you will improve your sentence.

So. If you’re about to write or rewrite that academic document, first: take a deep breath. Then, remember the mouse — and go.

If you’re an academic writer and need a pair of eyes on your document, you can reach me at coachanahita@gmail.com

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Anahita Vieira, PhD

Anahita Vieira, PhD

Neuroscientist. Senior Science Writer by day. Creative writer by night. Twin/NICU Mom 24/7. But first, coffee.

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