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Think About Your Actions

Using verbs effectively in research writing

Verbs give information about the action or state of the subject in a sentence. Choosing the right verbs for your sentences helps your reader to understand the ideas and arguments in your research paper. But many scientists don’t use verbs effectively in their manuscripts. In this blog post, I highlight some common mistakes and explain how to choose the verbs that will make your meaning clear.

Give your verbs the right voice

Verbs have one of two voices: active or passive. In the active voice the subject does the action, and in the passive voice the subject receives the action:

We tested the participants for diabetes (active voice)

The participants were tested for diabetes (passive voice).

Most journals and style guides encourage authors to use the active voice in research articles because it tends to be less wordy and easier to read than the passive voice. Take a look at the following example:

The ventral pallidum is innervated by the striatum (passive voice; 8 words)

The striatum innervates the ventral pallidum (active voice; 6 words).

 

Here, the active voice is more concise and easier to understand. The active voice is particularly useful in sentences where the actor is mentioned (the striatum in the above example). To find longer passive constructions that would read better in the active voice, use Word’s search tool to find by in your writing.

It doesn't matter who

The passive voice is useful if the focus is on the action rather than who or what is doing the action. A good example is the Methods section of your research manuscript:

Cells were cultured at 37°C in a humidified incubator (passive voice)

The scientist cultured the cells at 37°C in a humidified incubator (active voice).

Here, the reader is not interested in who cultured the cells – they simply want to know how it was done, so the passive voice is more effective. The passive voice is also useful if you want to focus on the recipient of the action rather than the actor. For example, in a case report:

The patient was sedated

has a more appropriate focus than

The anaesthesiologist sedated the patient

because the reader is interested in what happened to the patient, not what the anaesthesiologist did.

Empty verbs

Research writing is filled with verbs that add no information and clutter the text. Common culprits are performed, caused, provided, resulted, showed, and versions of to be. These can be replaced by more effective verbs – verbs that say what the action is – to make your sentences easier to read. For example:

Original: Analysis of tumour samples was performed as previously described

Revision: Tumour samples were analysed as previously described

Original: The drug caused the patient’s heart rate to increase

Revision: The drug increased the patient’s heart rate

Original: The ganglion impar provides innervation to the perineum

Revision: The ganglion impar innervates the perineum

Original: Both methods resulted in impairment of declarative memory in humans

Revised: Both methods impaired declarative memory in humans

Original: Platelet serotonin levels showed a correlation with age

Revised: Platelet serotonin levels correlated with age

Original: There are many factors that need to be considered

Revision: Many factors need to be considered.

Using nouns instead of verbs (e.g. correlation instead of correlate) forces the use of these empty verbs. Take a look at the following example:

A positive correlation between drug use and recovery time was observed

Drug use correlated positively with recovery time.

The second sentence is much easier to read because the verb (correlated) introduces action to the sentence and there is no need to clutter the text with those empty passive verbs (was observed) we discussed earlier.

Be specific

Avoid verbs like affect, influence, or change that do not specify how something has changed. Help your reader to understand your meaning by being specific. For example:

Original: Glucocorticoid administration affects spatial learning in humans (less informative)

Revision: Glucocorticoid administration impairs spatial leaning in humans (more informative).

Original: Cell motility changed after growth factors were added to the culture medium (less informative)

Revision: Cell motility increased after growth factors were added to the culture medium (more informative).

Also be careful with words like improve and help. Although it may be clear to you what they mean, the reader may not be so sure. For example:

The drugs improved wound infection after surgery.

Although the writer is implying that the drugs reduced or eliminated the infection, the reader may infer that the drugs caused the infection itself to develop.

The drugs reduced wound infection after surgery

is clearer.

One word or two: phrasal verbs

Phrasal verbs are made up of two or more words. They change the meaning of the original verb – for example, carry means to support and move something, while the phrasal verb carry out means to complete a job or activity.

Phrasal verbs are used a lot in research writing, but can clutter the text with unnecessary words. To give your writing more impact, try using single verb alternatives instead. For example:

Original: We found out that regular exercise reduced stress levels in healthy participants

Revised: We discovered that regular exercise reduced stress levels in healthy participants

(Even better: Regular exercise reduced stress levels in healthy participants).

Original: We tried out four different drugs and a placebo

Revision: We tested four different drugs and a placebo

Original: We cut down on the number of participants

Revision: We reduced the number of participants.

On the other hand, using a well-known phrasal verb may be easier for your reader to understand than a formal, obscure single verb:

Diabetics constitute almost 10% of the US population

Diabetics make up almost 10% of the US population.

Consider your reader: which words will help them to better understand what you are trying to say?

Make a statement

Think carefully about the verbs you use to report your findings – they convey how strong your findings are. Take a look at the following examples:

 

Our findings suggest that acute stress impairs spatial learning (tentative statement)

Our findings show that acute stress impairs spatial learning (neutral statement)

Our findings confirm that acute stress impairs spatial learning (strong statement).

 

Remember that the quality and strength of your findings should dictate which verb you use, not your own convictions. The conclusions you draw should always be supported by your data.

Be clear about your actions

If used effectively, verbs can help to convince your reader that your arguments are sound. The tips outlined in this article will help you to choose the best verbs for the job in your next research paper.

Claire Bacon is a former research scientist with professional qualifications in copy editing and medical editing. She edits manuscripts for non-native English-speaking scientists and works as a copy editor for a medical journal.

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