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D. SCIENTIFIC PROSE STYLE

 

The language of science is governed by the aim of the functional style of scientific prose, which is to prove a hypothesis, to create new concepts, to disclose the internal laws of existence, development, relations between different phenomena, etc. The language means used, therefore, tend to be objective, precise, unemotional, devoid of


any individuality; there is a striving for the most generalized form of expression.

"The proper medium of scientific expression," writes E. Sapir, "is therefore a generalized language that may be defined as a symbolic algebra of which all known languages are translations. One can adequately translate scientific literature because the original scientific expression is itself a translation." 1

The first and most noticeable feature of this style is the logical sequence of utterances with clear indication of their interrelations and interdependence. It will not be an exaggeration to say that in no other functional style do we find such a developed and varied system of connectives as in scientific prose.

A second and no less important feature, and perhaps the most conspicuous, is the se of terms specific to each given branch of science. It will be wise to state in passing that due t the rapid dissemination of scientific and technical ideas, particularly in what are called the exact sciences, we may observe the process of "de-terminization", that is, some scientific and technical terms begin to circulate outside the narrow field they belong to and eventually begin to develop new meanings. But the overwhelming majority of terms do not -undergo this process of de-terminization and remain the property of scientific prose. There they are born, may develop new terminological meanings, and there they die. No other field of human activity is so prolific in coining new words as science is. The necessity to penetrate deeper into the essence of things and phenomena gives rise to new concepts, which require new words to name them. As has already been pointed out, a term will make more direct reference to something than a descriptive explanation, a nonterm. Hence the rapid creation of new terms in any developing science.

Further, the general vocabulary employed in scientific prose bears its direct referential meaning, that is, words used in scientific prose will always tend to be used in their primary logical meaning. Hardly a single word will be found here which, in contrast to the belles-lettres style, is used in more than one meaning. Nor will there be any words with contextual meaning. Even the possibility of ambiguity is avoided. Furthermore, terms are coined so as to be self-explanatory to the greatest possible degree. But in spite of this a new term in scientific prose is generally followed (or preceded) by an explanation.

Likewise, neutral and common literary words used in scientific prose will be explained, even if their meaning is only slightly modified, either in the context (by a parenthesis or an attributive phrase) or in a foot-note.



In modern scientific prose an interesting phenomenon can be observed the exchange of terms between various branches of science. This is evidently due to the interpenetration of scientific ideas. Self-sufficiency in any branch of science is now a thing of the past. Collaboration of specialists in related sciences has proved successful in

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1 Sapir, E. Language. N.Y., 1921, p. 239.

 

many fields. The exchange of terminology may therefore be regarded as a natural outcome of this collaboration. Mathematics has priority in this respect. Mathematical terms have left their own domain and travel freely in other sciences, including linguistics.

A third characteristic feature of scientific style is what we may call sentene-patterns. They are of three types: pstulatory, argmentative and frlative. A hypothesis, a scientific conjecture or a forecast must be based on facts already known, on facts systematized and defined. Therefore, every piece of scientific prose will begin with postulatory pronouncements which are taken as self-evident and needing no proof. A reference to these facts is only preliminary to the exposition of the writer's ideas and is therefore summed up in precisely formulated statements accompanied, if considered necessary, by references to sources.

The writer's own ideas are also shaped in formulae, which are the enunciation of a doctrine or theory, of a principle, an argument, the result of an investigation, etc. The definition sentence-pattern in a scientific utterance, that is, the sentence which sums up the argument, is generally a kind of clincher sentence. Thus, in his "Linguistics and Style" Nils Eric Enkvist concludes one of his arguments in the following words:

"The study of features not statable in terms of contextual probabilities of linguistic items, style markers, stylistic sets and shifts of style is not the task of stylistics but of other levels of linguistic or literary analysis." 1

A fourth observable feature of the style of modern scientific prose, and one that strikes the eye of the reader, is the use of qtatis and references. These sometimes occupy as much as half a page.2 The references also have a definite compositional' pattern, namely, the name of the writer referred to, the title of the work quoted, the publishing house, the place and year it was published, and the page of the excerpt quoted or referred to. A fifth feature of scientific style, which makes it distinguishable from other styles, is the frequent use of ft-ntes, not of the reference kind, but digressive, in character. This is in full accord with the main requirement of the style, which is logical coherence of ideas expressed. Anything that seems to violate this requirement or seems not to be immediately relevant to the matter in hand, but at the same time may serve indirectly to back up the idea, will be placed in a foot-note.

The impersonality of scientific writings can also be considered a typical feature of this style. This quality is mainly revealed in the frequent use of passive constructions.3 Scientific experiments are generally

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1 Enkvist, Nils Eric. Linguistics and Style. Oxford, 1967.

2 In some specimens of scientific prose the references are placed at the back of the book and shaped as an appendix. In that case reference numbers will be found in the body of the book.

3 See also Chatman, Seymour. Stylistics, Quantitative and Qualitative. "Style, v. I, 1967, No. 1, p. 38.


described in the passive voice, for example, "Then acid was taken", instead of "I (we) then took acid."

A correspondent of the Times Literary Supplement says that to write

"I weighed 10 grams of aspirin and dissolved them in as little water as I could" would be 'deplorable' in a research paper. The desirable plain scientific statement, he maintains, would be "Ten grams of aspirin were dissolved in a minimum volume of water."

Another correspondent objects to this mode of expression and says:

"The terrible thing about that second sentence is that its infection has spread in all its falsity beyond researchinto politics, religion, public statements, film scripts, journalism. It creates the bureaucratic impression that things "were done" and that nobody "did them." 1

Leaving aside this unreasonable protest against the established and widely recognized models of scientific syntax, we must agree that an over-use of the passive, particularly in other styles, will create the "sententious voice of boredom" as the writer puts it. And his statement, "A pen was not filled with ink this morning, but I filled my pen," will certainly be more appropriate in ordinary language. But this is not a valid argument against using such constructions in scientific prose.

In connection with the general impersonal tone of expression, it should be noted that impersonal passive constructions are frequently used with the verbs suppose, assume, presume, conclude, infer, point out, etc., as in: 'It should be pointed out', 'It must not be assumed', 'It must be emphasized', 'It can be inferred', etc.

There is a noticeable difference in the syntactical design of utterances in the exact sciences (mathematics, chemistry, physics, etc.) and in the humanities. The passive constructions frequently used in the scientific prose of the exact sciences are not indispensable in the humanities. This, perhaps, is due to the fact that the data and methods of investigation applied in the humanities are less objective. The necessity to quote passages under observation and to amplify arguments seriously affects' syntactical patterns. In the humanities some seemingly well-known pronouncement may be and often is subjected to re-evaluation, whereas in the exact sciences much can be accepted without question and therefore needs no comment.

Here are two samples of scientific prose, one from a linguistic paper and the other from a textbook on chemistry.

"The critical literature on Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is enormous, and much of it is extremely penetrating. It may therefore come as a surprise to maintain that there are several points in the poem which are in need of further classification, and that to do so may give us not only better knowledge of the poem, but hypothesis about method which can be tested elsewhere.

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1 New York Times. London Literary Letter.

 

The criticisms fall into three main groups; those that take up some quite minor blemishes, or possible blemishes, in the Ode; a very large group that discusses at great length the equation between Truth and Beauty; and a small group which gives extended, line-by-line discussion. It is one of this latter group which alone takes up the difficulty involved in lines 28 and 29, in the possible uncertainty in the reference of "That leaves a heart high sorrowful."1

Here is the second sample:

"351. Sulphur Trioxide S03. It is very easy to decompose sulphurous acid into the anhydride and water. Gentle heating will effect it, and indeed, if the solution be strong, the decomposition is spontaneous. Sulphurous acid always smells of sulphur dioxide. The decomposition of sulphuric acid into water and sulphur trioxide cannot be effected by any such simple means. The trioxide is made directly by inducing S02 to combine with more oxygen. There is always a slight tendency for S02 to pass into S03 in the presence of oxygen, but the process is too slow to be of much interest. The gases can, however, be made to react much more rapidly by the use of a suitable catalytic agent, the best known being platinum, and as the effect of the platinum depends upon its surface area it is necessary to arrange for this to be as great as possible. If a piece of asbestos fibre is steeped in a solution of platinum chloride in hydrochloric acid and then heated, the asbestos becomes coated with a thin grey coating of spongy platinum. In this way "platinised asbestos" is produced. If now a mixture of sulphur dioxide and oxygen is passed over heated platinised asbestos, the dioxide is converted into the trioxide, thus:

2S02 + 0 = 2S03

The apparatus is quite simple and is shown in fig. 35. The vapour of sulphur trioxide which comes off is condensed by means of a freezing mixture into colourless ice-like needles. If this can be stored, without access to moisture, it undergoes some sort of molecular change and turns to a white silky crystalline solid."2

The remarkable difference between the two samples lies in the fact that the second one requires a far greater amount of preliminary knowledge than the first one. Although both samples are impersonal in form, they nevertheless differ in the amount of objectivity, the first being less objective in stating data. Further, in the first excerpt views and opinions are expressed. In the second none are given. In both samples the syntax is governed by logical reasoning, and there are no emotional elements whatsoever.

However, emotiveness is not entirely or categorically excluded from scientific prose. There may be hypotheses, pronouncements and con-

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1 Hill, Archibald G. Some Points in the Analysis of Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" in Essays in Literary Analysis. Austin, Texas, 1966.

2 H. A. Wootton and W. R. Hooker. A Text Book on Chemistry.


clusions which, being backed up by strong belief, therefore call for the use of some emotionally coloured words. Our emotional reaction to facts and ideas may bear valuable information, as it itself springs from the inner qualities of these facts and ideas. We depend in no small degree upon our emotional reactions for knowledge of the outer world.

An interesting investigation was made by N. M. Razinkina into the emotive character of scientific prose of the 19th century. In some articles published in Nature, a journal which made its first appearance in 1869, there were many emotional words used, evidently compensating for lack of evidence and argumented facts. It was normal in the discussion on many fundamental problems to use such words as marvellous, wonderful, monstrous, magnificent, brilliant and the like to attempt proof of a hypothesis or a pronouncement. In modern scientific prose such emotional words are very seldom used. At least they are not constituents of modern scientific style. Nor can we find emotional structures or stylistic devices which aim at rousing aesthetic feelings.

In " " 21, 1968 there was an interesting series of articles on the language of science entitled "On Science and its Language". The discussion emanated from many complaints reaching the paper that the language of much scientific writing is unintelligible to ordinary people uninitiated in the principles of the given science. All the participants in the discussion agreed that science must have its own language (that is its own vocabulary) and that the exposition of new ideas in science must rest on a very solid foundation of previously acquired knowledge. But what they actually meant was not only the knowledge of the terminology of the given science, but also an immediate recognition of technicalities in the text, which predetermines understanding. These pre-requisites are confined exclusively to the lexical aspect of the language. So it is not the language itself that is special, but certain words or their symbols. This, perhaps, explains the fact that those who know the technical nomenclature of a given science can read and understand scientific texts in a foreign language even with a poor knowledge of its grammatical structure.

The characteristic features enumerated above do not cover all the peculiarities of scientific prose, but they are the most essential ones.

 


Date: 2015-12-18; view: 2244


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