Writing for Scholarly Publication: Grammar, Style, and Usage

by David Fox
Librarian Emeritus, University of Saskatchewan

“… when it comes to correct English, there’s no one in charge; the lunatics are running the asylum” (Pinker 189).

Steven Pinker’s point is that there is no absolute authority for English usage. The language is an evolving organism, and there are multiple standards. What is practised in everyday speech and informal writing is often not acceptable in formal communication. Sentences like “Me and Melinda went to the mall” are frequently heard in everyday conversation. They are a form of English, and their meaning is clear. It’s just not the style of English practised in the official forums of government, journalism, or academia.

Pinker, a descriptive linguist, believes that the “rules” of usage are tacit conventions… among the members of a community (190) at a particular point in time. Formal, academic English is a subset of the language that conforms to certain prescriptive rules its users have adopted by consensus. However, as we shall see, many of these so-called rules are not immutable, and there is sometimes good reason to break them in the interest of harmonious writing.

In my final contribution to this series of articles on writing for scholarly publication, I attempt to tackle briefly some of the trickier questions of grammar and usage I’ve struggled to learn and understand over the years. My hope is that other writers may benefit from my exploration of these topics. Those interested in an extended discussion of the “singular they” may see my Brain-Work post from June 30, 2015.

which vs. that
Traditionally, which is used with a non-restrictive relative clause, usually set off by commas (or dashes or parentheses), and introduces a comment that is not essential to the understanding of the sentence.

Three Day Road, which was written by Joseph Boyden, is my favourite novel.

By contrast, that introduces a restrictive relative clause whose content is important to the meaning of the sentence.

The house that I bought last year had sustained some fire damage.

In many cases that can be omitted from a relative clause. An implied that is known as a zero relative pronoun or bare relative.

The house I bought last year had sustained some fire damage.

Personally, I prefer this construction because it is stylistically cleaner.

The which vs. that rule is frequently broken, and in fact, Pinker considers it a spurious rule to begin with (235-6). Setting off a non-restrictive relative clause with commas should be enough to signify to the reader that what is contained within is a non-essential elaboration, and either which or that is acceptable, in his opinion.

each other vs. one another
I used to think that each other referred to relationships between two persons, whereas one another was employed with groups larger than two. However, in modern usage, according to Pinker (251), these terms have become essentially interchangeable. Use whichever one sounds better in a particular situation.

less vs. fewer
The conventional distinction between these two words is that less is used for unquantifiable amounts (less sand, less air, etc.) while fewer is used for countable objects (e.g., fewer books, fewer apples). However, there are exceptions. Less is commonly used where units of measurement are involved.

They were all less than eighteen years old.

She was driving less than 70 kilometers per hour.

The box weighed less than 5 kilograms.

In each of these cases it would sound weird to say fewer than eighteen years old, fewer than 70 kilometers per hour, fewer than 5 kilograms. Less is also used in certain idiomatic expressions such as “one less x” and “no less than y”.

In everyday speech and informal communication, less is frequently used in place of fewer.

between vs. among
Most of us were taught that between must be used with just two items and among is used when there are more than two. “The real principle is that between is used for a relationship of an individual to any number of other individuals, as long as they are being considered two at a time, whereas among is used for a relationship of an individual to an amorphous mass or collectivity” (Pinker 251).

different from vs. different than
The answer here is fairly straightforward. Things differ from each other, not than each other. The preposition than is used with greater or less. The preposition from is used with different.

data is or data are?
This one is controversial. Technically, data is the plural form of the seldom-used Latin word datum, and so purists insist that it should be used with the plural form of a verb, e.g., the data are, the data show. Others argue that data is plural when referring to quantities that can be counted, but singular when referring to quantities that can’t.

This is a case where the language is in flux. For the time being, academic style probably leans towards using a plural verb with data. To be safe, consult the style manual for the publication you’re writing for. In the long run, I suspect that data will go the way of agenda, another Latin plural that nowadays is treated as a singular noun. Nobody says “The agenda were distributed to the committee members.”

because, since, or as?
These words are all conjunctions with overlapping meanings. Because, as the word implies, signifies reason or causality. It answers the question “Why?”

I bring up this point because so many readers have asked about it.

Since and as can be used to imply either causality or a time relationship.

I have not spoken to Barbara since she moved to Toronto. (time)

Since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell. (causality or time)

I cannot complete this report by Friday as I have too many other deadlines. (causality)

Because since and as can have more than one meaning, their use can sometimes create ambiguity. In the second example above, we are not sure whether Elvis meant that after his baby left him he changed his residence, or he changed his residence because his baby left him. Therefore, if the intention is to convey causality, because is the preferred conjunction.

subjunctive mood
The subjunctive mood is the verb form used to express a wish, a suggestion, a command, or a condition that is contrary to fact (Grammar-monster.com). For almost all verbs, the present subjunctive differs from the present indicative only in the third person singular form, which lacks the ending -s in the subjunctive (Wikipedia).

It is important that she stay out of trouble.

It is necessary that he see a doctor immediately.

The past subjunctive is identical to the indicative mood except for the verb to be which becomes were in all cases:

If I were a giraffe, I could see over top of the fence.

Proper use of the subjunctive mood is a hallmark of formal speech and writing. Elsewhere its use is falling out of fashion. It is possible to write correctly without using the subjunctive mood at all.

It is important that she stays out of trouble.

It is necessary that he sees a doctor immediately.

The above are perfectly good English sentences. There is just a subtle difference in nuance. However, there are certain sentences whose indicative and subjunctive forms have totally different meanings. Consider the following:

All of my friends insisted that I am respectful. (indicative)

All of my friends insisted that I be respectful. (subjunctive)

The first example conveys that my friends affirm that I am indeed respectful. The second suggests that my friends are concerned that I might not be respectful.

who vs whom
Who and whom are relative pronouns. Who is used as the subject of a verb; whom is used as the object of a verb or preposition. Grammatically, whom is the equivalent of him or her. The use of whom following a preposition seems natural and familiar.

To whom it may concern

With whom do you wish to speak?

For whom the bell tolls

However, the use of whom as the object of a verb tends to sound awkward and a little pompous to the modern ear.

Whom was the dog chasing?

I don’t know whom she invited to speak at the meeting.

As a result, whom is nowadays often replaced by who in daily speech and informal writing. ‘’Like the subjunctive mood,” says Pinker, “the pronoun whom is widely thought to be circling the drain” (242). For the time being, whom should continue to be used in formal prose.

me, myself, and I
The question of how to refer to oneself along with other people is frequently misunderstood. Myself is a reflexive pronoun. It is used to refer back to a previously occurring noun or pronoun. It should not be used by itself where a simple “I” or “me” would be sufficient.


Melinda and I went to the mall.

I kept the secret to myself.

I, myself don’t believe a thing she said.

Murray went to the mall with Melinda and me.


Melinda and myself went to the mall.

Murray went to the mall with Melinda and I.

Murray went to the mall with Melinda and myself.

English usage is evolving. Nobody today speaks or writes in the style of Shakespeare or the King James Bible. Written English is becoming more like spoken English. Some would say that the language is becoming more utilitarian and, as a result, losing some of its character, richness, and precision. There is no use resisting or lamenting these changes. It is what it is.

What is a conscientious writer to do in the face of changing usage and a lack of absolute guidelines? Partly it depends on the purpose. Are you writing a text message, a blog post, an information piece for your provincial newsletter, or a research article for a peer-reviewed publication? The expectations for adherence to formal standards become progressively more rigorous as you move up this hierarchy.

Academic writing is the most formal style of English, and follows the accepted conventions of grammar, punctuation, and word usage of the day. Reputable academic publications employ copy editors who base their decisions on currently authoritative dictionaries and style manuals, supplemented by in-house rules, in order to ensure quality and consistency of published work. In preparing manuscripts, it is wise for authors to adopt the standards for grammar, style, and usage prescribed by their prospective publisher. Even so, given the evolutionary nature of such standards, articles published today may seem quaint to readers a hundred years from now!

Works Cited
“English Subjunctive.” Wikipedia. 15 March 2016.

Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York: Viking, 2014. Print.

“What Is the Subjunctive Mood? (with Examples).” Grammar-monster.com. 17 March 2016.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

Peer Reviewing as a Foundation of Research Culture (Or, how not to be that peer reviewer)

by Heidi LM Jacobs
Leddy Library, University of Windsor

When you talk to published scholars, everyone has a horror story to share about a bad peer reviewer. Stories can range from the amusing to the incredulous. Over the years, I’ve had some excellent peer reviewers: these are readers who take the time to read my work carefully, see what I’m trying to do, and then find ways to make my article better. My work is always better because of those reviewers and I am grateful for them. But I’ve also had reviewers who lean more toward hurtful or harmful rather than helpful. Here are some of the comments I’ve personally received in the past few years that would fall into that “less than helpful” category:
• “Maybe you could talk to a faculty member on your campus who could teach you how to do research.”
• “Writing down your own thoughts about teaching is not research. You can’t just make statements about what you think. You need to use surveys and data to make claims.”
• Entire review: “Uninteresting. Unpublishable. Reject.”
• “I know very little about this area and don’t work in the area writer is talking about. However, if the writer explored [an entirely different topic] it would be a much more interesting article.”
I should note that all of the responses above are from peer reviews of articles that went on to be published and well-received elsewhere; one even made a “best instruction article of the year” list. As someone who has been sending papers out for over twenty years, I’m able to shrug those awful reviews off, send my work out again, and move on. Increasingly, however, what bothers me most about getting these reviews is imagining what it would be like to be a brand new scholar sending her or his work out to reviewers and receiving feedback like the above. It takes courage and trust to send our work out and when we receive harmful or hurtful feedback, the will and courage to send it out again diminishes considerably.

Our goal as reviewers should be—above all—to be helpful: helpful to the writer by giving him or her concrete strategies to make their work better and helpful to the profession by encouraging, nurturing, and mentoring our peers to publish top-notch work.

By being “helpful,” I want to underscore that I do not mean that reviewers can only say positive things and avoid anything that points out limitations of the work. Not pointing out, for example, that the literature review needs work or that a paper lacks focus might seem “nicer” but is not helpful either to the writer if she or he wants to continue to publish certain kinds of articles or to the profession in whose best interests it is for us to produce strong, rigorous, well-crafted scholarship. That said, we need to be cognizant of the ways in which we give feedback and the impact of that feedback.

In recent months, I’ve talked to colleagues about what makes a good peer review. Here are a few things we have come up with:
• Respond to the article that the writer submitted and respond to the piece in front of you. Do not try to get authors to rewrite their article into what you would have written, explore a different topic, or use a different methodology.
• Remember you are responding to a person who was as nervous, anxious, and vulnerable as you were when you sent out your first article. Don’t hide behind anonymity and blind reviews. Never say anything in a blind review that you wouldn’t say if your name were known or you were talking to this author in person.
• Peer reviewing is not only about evaluating, it is also about mentoring, nurturing and building a community of strong scholars.
• Think about the peer review process as a teachable moment. Give writers concrete, specific feedback they can use to make their articles better. If the article lacks focus, say something like, “Your article could be better focused around a central argument. On page four, you write _____. This strikes me as a solid summary of your piece, perhaps you could organize the article around this central idea.” No one ever wants to be told they need to do more work but giving someone concrete suggestions on how to make improvements makes revisions seem much more do-able.
• Understand that, increasingly, library research uses diverse methods and approaches. It is true that quantitative and qualitative research methods have traditionally been the dominant mode of scholarship in our field but there is a place in our scholarly literature for all kinds of methods. Don’t reject a piece simply because of its theoretical or methodological approach. Our profession will be stronger if we embrace the diversity of methods and approaches.
• Use criteria that are both appropriate to the journal and to the method the author employs. If the author submitted a quantitative paper, by all means, examine their statistical methods and their findings. If the author submitted a theoretical piece, consider their ideas fully and the logic of their argument.
• A peer reviewer is not a copy editor. If you notice the article is full of awkward sentences and typos, it is not your job to go through and fully edit and proofread the piece. Rather, you should note to the author and to the journal editor that there are a significant number of typos and/or awkward sentences and that these must be addressed.
• Have and maintain high standards but find ways to help authors reach those high standards.
• Finally: generosity is key. Always find something good to say about a piece. Be generous with your expertise and your understanding of what makes an article great. Help others achieve excellence.

As librarians become more active in scholarship, more and more of us will be taking on roles as peer reviewers. In this development, we have an opportunity to build a strong, supportive network of reviewers who can help us build a stronger body of published scholarship and a strong research culture.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

How to be an effective peer reviewer

by Kristin Hoffmann
Associate Librarian, University of Western Ontario

Peer reviewing is one of my favourite ways to participate in the librarian research community, because it combines two things that I find professionally rewarding and interesting: editing and mentoring.

In our academic writing and publishing system, peer review is a key part of the process, so it’s important that we do it well. However, there isn’t always a lot of guidance for those who are new reviewers. I’ve reviewed for some journals that have detailed reviewer guidelines, and for others that give reviewers a form to complete and not much else. I’ve reviewed book proposals that came with minimal direction, and I’ve reviewed conference proposals where the reviewer’s form was almost as long as the proposals themselves.

In all of those cases, reviewing was an individual activity. I’ve received almost no feedback on my reviewing, and I have had only occasional conversations with others about the process of reviewing.

In this post, I’ll give some suggestions for how to be an effective peer reviewer, in the hopes of helping novice reviewers and starting a conversation about reviewing:

  1. Think of peer reviewing as asynchronous, (usually) anonymous mentoring. A mentor is “an experienced and trusted advisor” (New Oxford American Dictionary), and a peer reviewer is an experienced and trusted advisor for someone else’s research. This is especially clear in open review processes, where the reviewer and author know each other’s identity, but it’s true of blind reviewing, too.
  1. Always find something positive to say about the piece you’re reviewing. Tell the author what worked well in their paper.
  1. Give specific, constructive suggestions. If you think the piece isn’t organized well, give the author ideas of how to re-structure it. If you think the analysis could be more robust, suggest additional aspects for the author to consider.
  1. When making substantive suggestions or pointing out flaws or concerns, do so in a way that shows you want the end result to be a better paper, and not that your goal is to assert your own superior research abilities. For example, “it would help if the Introduction included a stronger rationale for why this study is significant,” is better than, “this study is pointless and a monkey could have written the paper.”
  1. Remember that reviewers recommend, and editors decide. If you aren’t sure about your recommendation, tell the editor why you’re uncertain. They will look at your feedback along with that of the other reviewer(s) and make the best overall decision for the piece.
  1. Resist the urge to copy-edit. The editor needs you to comment on the submitted article as a whole, not the individual sentences. If the writing is hard to follow, or if the author consistently makes the same grammatical mistakes, then give a general comment about that. But remember that punctuation or sentence structure might change as a result of other, more substantial changes to the paper, so don’t put unnecessary work into copy-editing.

These are the main principles that I keep in mind as I’m writing reviews, but this isn’t an exhaustive list. I’d love to hear from Brain-Work readers: What other suggestions would you give to peer reviewers? What questions do you have about peer reviewing?

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

Writing for Scholarly Publication: Mastering Basic Punctuation

by David Fox
Librarian Emeritus, University of Saskatchewan

WARNING: This article contains Oxford commas!

I confess to being a punctuation nerd – or, to use Lynne Truss’s slightly more dignified term, a punctuation stickler (1). I consider a well-punctuated paper to be akin to a fine work of art. Now, I realize that Brain-Work followers are superior in every way, and so I apologize in advance if some may feel that they already know it all when it comes to punctuation. If you don’t need this column, gentle reader, then I suspect you know someone who does.

Why is punctuation important? Good punctuation, usually without our realizing it, helps to convey meaning, promote understanding, and allows a piece of text to be read quickly and efficiently. Bad punctuation does the opposite. Any reputable scholarly journal will want to adhere to accepted standards of punctuation. Authors may help speed up the processing of their manuscripts by paying careful attention to their punctuation.

One would think that most librarians who aspire to be writers have already mastered the art of basic punctuation. However, over four years as Editor-in-Chief at Partnership, I found that almost all manuscripts submitted to the journal needed a large number of punctuation corrections. Some of these corrections were due to minor lapses of attention, but in many cases it was obvious that the writer was making the same error consistently, demonstrating a lack of awareness of basic punctuation rules.

Some punctuation practices are well established. Others are optional and subject to the author’s or editor’s preference. This blog post will deal with the basics of commas and semi colons: two of the most commonly misused punctuation symbols.

The comma

(One of the clearest and most concise punctuation guides I’ve found on the Web is the University of Sussex Guide to Punctuation by Larry Trask. According to Trask, “There are four types of comma: the listing comma, the joining comma, the gapping comma and bracketing commas” (Summary of Commas).

A listing comma, as the name implies, separates words, phrases, or clauses in series.

Edwin has published many articles in journals, books, and conference proceedings.

The most common pitfalls involve surveys, the analysis of qualitative data, and the omission of human ethics permissions.

A joining comma combines two independent clauses and is followed by one of the connecting words: and, or, but, yet or while.

The journal accepts online submissions in MS Word format, and authors must register on the system in order to submit.

This may seem an obvious point, but it is a significant one.

A gapping comma can be used to avoid repetition of words that have already occurred in a sentence.

It was obvious that the writer was making the same error consistently, demonstrating a lack of awareness of basic punctuation rules.

instead of

It was obvious that the writer was making the same error consistently; it was obvious that the writer was demonstrating a lack of awareness of basic punctuation rules.

Bracketing commas usually come in pairs. They set off a weak interruption which could be removed from the sentence without changing its meaning substantially. A single bracketing comma can also appear at the beginning or end of a sentence.

If you don’t need this column, gentle reader, then I suspect you know someone who does.

Good punctuation, usually without our realizing it, helps to convey meaning.

Amanda exercised admirable self-control, for the most part.

The semi-colon
Semi-colons are easy. They have only two main uses:
1) To join two independent clauses without the use of a coordinating conjunction:

Errors in methodology will almost certainly undermine the results of a research study; serious flaws may render a manuscript unpublishable.

NOTE, however –
Three or more independent clauses should be joined using commas.

Originally the plantations were rather small, there were fewer slaves than colonists, and social discrimination was less harsh than in the eighteenth century (MLA 86).

(This is an example of the use of the listing comma.)

2) To separate items in a series when one or more of those items contain commas:

The library strategic plan contains measures to promote tenure and performance standards; reimbursement for research expenses, research days, and release time; development of research competencies, lecture series, and workshops; and measures to disseminate the research of librarians.

A common mistake with semi-colons is to use them where a colon should be used instead. A colon is meant to indicate that what comes next is an elaboration of what came before.

Correct: It takes two to speak the truth: one to speak and another to hear.

Incorrect: It takes two to speak the truth; one to speak and another to hear.

(A semi-colon joins two independent clauses. In the incorrect example above “one to speak and another to hear” is a sentence fragment, not an independent clause.)

Another mistake is to use a semi-colon where a comma would suffice.

Incorrect: The library strategic plan contains measures to promote tenure and performance standards; reimbursement for research expenses; development of research competencies; and measures to disseminate the research of librarians.

Correct: The library strategic plan contains measures to promote tenure and performance standards, reimbursement for research expenses, development of research competencies, and measures to disseminate the research of librarians.

(In the above example, semi-colons are not necessary as the items in series do not themselves contain commas.)

The serial or “Oxford” comma
Authorities differ concerning the use of a comma preceding “and” or “or” before the final item in a list. I have used serial commas throughout this article.

Edwin has published many articles in journals, books, and conference proceedings.

The most common pitfalls involve surveys, the analysis of qualitative data, and the omission of human ethics permissions.

However, typical British practice is to omit the final comma.

Hungarian is spoken in Hungary, in western Rumania, in northern Serbia and in parts of Austria and Slovakia. (Trask)

Personally, I would prefer a comma after “Serbia” in this sentence.

Those who argue against the serial comma claim that it is redundant and contrary to conventional practice. They reason that one shouldn’t need both a comma and a conjunction. Others maintain that consistent use of serial commas helps to avoid ambiguity.

Regardless of one’s opinion on this controversy, a number of leading writers’ manuals, including The MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, the Chicago Manual of Style, and the Oxford Style Manual all recommend use of the serial comma (Serial comma). With such widespread endorsement, it makes sense to adopt the practice of using serial commas – especially when writing for a journal that uses any of these major style guides.

In Conclusion
There are four standard ways to join two independent clauses:
1) Use a semi-colon

Information literacy is essential for developing critical thinking; it is also important for cultivating lifelong learning.

2) Use a comma and a conjunction

Information literacy is essential for developing critical thinking, and it is also important for cultivating lifelong learning.

3) Use a main clause and dependent clause joined by a conjunction

Information literacy is essential for developing critical thinking and is also important for cultivating lifelong learning.

(In this example, “Information literacy” is the subject of both clauses. A comma is not required before the conjunction “and”.)

4) Use two separate sentences

Information literacy is essential for developing critical thinking. It is also important for cultivating lifelong learning.

I would guess that nearly half of the punctuation corrections I have made as an editor involve misuse of options 1, 2, or 3 above. “What’s the big deal?” you might say. It matters because reputable journals care about these small details; the more attention an editor needs to give to the mechanics of a paper, the less time there may be to consider its actual content. This is not rocket science. It’s just as easy to do it right as to do it wrong. Unleash your inner stickler!

Works Cited

MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, 3rd ed. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2008. Print.

Serial comma. Wikipedia. 16 Oct. 2015. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.

Trask, Larry. Guide to Punctuation. University of Sussex, 1997. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.

Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves. New York: Gotham Books, 2003. Print.

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.