Noun Stacks: Why You Should Avoid them in Scientific Writing
Writing must always be clear and concise. The readers should be able to comprehend everything they read. This is particularly vital in science, where writers frequently use numerous complex terms.
Scientists and researchers should refrain from using jargon whenever possible. As jargon means technical or specialist language, it can, at times, make the text obscure and hard to understand. Excessive use of jargon can lead to a common error in scientific writing ‒ noun stacks.
What is a Noun Stack?
A noun stack (also known as a noun cluster or string) is when a group of nouns is used together. Generally, there is one true noun; the others might be used as adjectives. For instance,
Polymerase chain reaction
In this example, each word on its own would be a noun. Put together, reaction is the noun, while polymerase and chain are adjectives as they tell us what kind of reaction it is.
Why are Noun Stacks a Problem?
Let’s look at two more examples of noun stacks:
gene subset similarity scoring tool
stainless steel electrode impedance spectroscopy data
The earlier example, polymerase chain reaction, is simple. The ones given above are far more difficult to understand! This is the trouble with noun stacks: their meaning is often vague. For the reader, it becomes hard to differentiate between the real noun and the modifiers. For instance,
We used a sensitive protein function monitoring system
The real noun is system. But what does the system do? Is it a sensitive system that monitors protein function? Or could it be a system that monitors sensitive proteins? From this sentence, we cannot derive the accurate meaning.
Apart from a lack of clarity, noun stacks cram too many ideas into a small space. The readers often find themselves struggling to decipher the intended meaning.
Sometimes writers use a noun stack to keep the text concise. However, at times, the writers are better off with a longer sentence as that allows the reader time to understand the meaning clearly.
Why are Noun Stacks So Common in Science?
As you know, science has tons of complicated words! There are several specialist terms that only experts in a certain field can understand. When discoveries are made, these terms are often “squashed” together to name new methods, substances, or processes. This creates noun stacks.
Researchers are taught to conduct science, but not always to write about it! As one professor of English asserts, “Academics seldom use one word when they can use three.” This explains why many scientific journal articles are filled with jargon. As researchers frequently use jargon in their working lives, they often forget that others may not be familiar with them. It is also possible that they are simply following the style of the hundreds of journal articles they have read.
Besides, the pressure to publish is another major determining factor. With researchers rushing to create papers, there is hardly any time to invest in enhancing their writing. As per journal editors, at times, an article gets rejected by peer reviewers because it is poorly written.
How to Avoid Noun Stacks and Enhance Your Writing
Have you noticed noun stacks in your writing? No problem! There are numerous ways you can avoid or improve noun stacks.
Don’t forget that noun stacks can also be good! They can help researchers express complex ideas simply and speedily. The key is to refrain from using several nouns together. Two nouns are generally fine, but four are way too many ‒ if you have three, try removing one of them.
A simple way to avoid noun stacks is to use an abbreviation or acronym. Several common noun stacks have familiar acronyms, which are much easier for the reader to deal with. For instance, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). A general rule of thumb is to avoid using a lot of acronyms in one sentence or paragraph, as this could be counter-productive.
Besides, you can also use a hyphen. For instance, instead of “data bound control table,” go for “data-bound control table.”
Then, think about every word in your noun stack. Can it be replaced with something simpler, without altering the meaning? For instance, you can sometimes replace “differentiation” with “difference,” or “regulations” with “rules.”
Lastly, try breaking up your noun stack by reorganizing your sentence. Here is a noun stack we viewed earlier:
We used a sensitive protein function monitoring system
Alternatively, we could write:
We used a sensitive system to monitor protein function
We used a system to monitor the function of sensitive proteins
Here, we have ended up with “wordier” sentences, but the meaning is crystal clear in each case.
Concise or Clear?
Now we have reached the final challenge with noun stacks. We are often taught concise writing means good writing. How do we balance this with avoiding noun stacks?
Let’s try the methods discussed above to decrease the occurrences of noun stacks in your writing or make them smaller. Remember that you want your writing to be clear. Are you using redundant words? Can you remove words without changing the meaning of a sentence? This can be applied to all of your writing, not just noun stacks. For instance, substitute “a majority of” with “most.”
Finally, think about the people who will be reading your work. Are they likely to comprehend what you have written? Or will it be too complex? To figure that out, you can read a sentence aloud to a friend or co-worker and ask for their opinion.
Do you frequently use noun stacks in your writing? Which other aspects of your writing would you love to elevate? Do let us know your thoughts and recommendations in the comments below.
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