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Suppose I do many experiments, to know some unknown value, or to know how some value changes, the amount, rate or amplitude.

When I describe my experiments in English, how do choose from verbs “quantify” “assay” “assess” “measure”, and “determine”? Can these be used interchangeably? If so, it better to loop over these words à la round robin, or to stick with my favourite? Does the nature of experiment procedures matter, e.g. whether the result is obtained by visually comparing the size of two shapes, or from a machine read count?

Quoted from dictionaries:

  • Determine, to ascertain the presence, quantity, or amount of; as, to determine the salt in sea water.(1913 Webster)
  • Quantify, to discover or express the quantity of.(Collins COBUILD)
  • Assess, to fix or determine the rate or amount of.(1913 Webster)
  • Assay, to subject to chemical analysis, as in the determination of the amount of impurity; to test, analyse, or evaluate.(Collins COBUILD)
  • Measure, to ascertain by use of a measuring instrument; to compute or ascertain the extent, quantity, dimensions, or capacity of, by a certain rule or standard; to take the dimensions of.(1923 Webster)

I know there are also “find out”, and “analyse”. I think those are more general or abstract, right?

  • What I do are largely in areas of pharmacology and molecular biology, but I also want to hear answers for other disiplines. – 把友情留在无盐 Mar 4 '17 at 23:49
  • What did your research in a couple of dictionaries tell you about these words? Please add that to your question, along with what you are still not sure about. The different verbs have nuances of meaning (and, in the case of assay at least, specific meanings) which you can look up just as well as anyone. – Andrew Leach Mar 4 '17 at 23:55
  • @AndrewLeach, thanks for your advice. I've appended regarding definitions from my favourite dictionaries. That helps. However, such definitions aren't written in a very comparative way. Would you please further elucidate the relationships, and especially differences, between them? – 把友情留在无盐 Mar 5 '17 at 0:50
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    You really need to look at these terms in the context of your field of science. Assay could mean one thing in chemistry, and quite a different thing in some other field of science. – Peter Shor Mar 5 '17 at 0:51
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    Use "quantify" when you want to find a count, amount or percentage of something. "determine" is more generic. "Measure" is relevant if the methods or instrumentation are important. "assess" may be used to validate an hypothesis. "assay" is generally used in specific tests context, e.g. chemical analysis. – Graffito Mar 5 '17 at 0:57
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Preliminary

  1. You certainly cannot use these terms interchangeably in scientific writing.

  2. You should not alternate the terms within a scientific article for “elegant variation” because the used of a different word suggests to the reader that something different is happening. In scientific writing clarity of meaning has the highest priority.

As someone has commented, you should consult the literature in your field and try to find out how native English speakers use the words in the context you require. What this post attempts to do is provide some general guidance to help non-native-English-speaking scientists understand why a particular word may have been chosen in that literature. Most of the examples I give are contrived, but some actual quotations can be added if the list thinks that this will be useful. (I shall not quote dictionaries as I do not think they will be particularly helpful for question about specialized scientific usage.)

Disclaimer

I am (or was) a University biochemist/molecular biologist with a first degree in Chemistry and a secondary school / high school education that included maths and physics. My remarks obviously reflect the fields I work in or read about, and usage in other fields may differ. In addition, the boundaries between some of these terms (especially between ‘measure’ and ‘determine’) are not always clear-cut. My answer only attempts to provide some general guidelines. Language and usage are such that there are bound to be exceptions to these guidelines, but enumerating them would, I think, decrease the usefulness of my answer. They are better kept as comments.

ANSWER

measure

‘Measure’ and ‘determine’ are probably the most frequently used verbs in the context described, and there are many situations where either will serve. ‘Measure’ is probably the less used of the two scientifically, although it is the one more common in everyday speech. Circumstances in which ‘measure’ may be preferred include:

  1. In cases where the measuring instrument is relatively simple or commonplace and therefore the operation of making the measurement is routine (blood pressure, air pressure, temperature, etc.) e.g.

“We measured the height of the seedlings after three days’ exposure to…”

  1. In referring to a physical constant with an absolute value (Planck’s constant, G, the mass of a hydrogen atom, etc.) — even though the instruments used to measure them are complex, e.g.

“We have measured the speed of light to an accuracy of one part in…”

N.B. Because of the common association of ‘measure’ with length, writing that you measured someone’s weight would sound rather strange — it would be better to use the verb ‘weigh’ or ‘determine’ instead. And you can’t say “measure the number of” — the verb is ‘count’.

determine

Circumstances in which ‘determine’ would be preferred to ‘measure’ tend to be those in which the experimental values recorded by the instruments have to be processed to obtain the value of the variable that is being described. One might ‘determine’ the activity an enzyme by ‘measuring’ the absorbance of a solution in a spectrophotometer. In this case the reader one would probably write something like:

“Aldolase activity was determined at 30 second intervals…”

However ‘determine’ should be avoided in everyday speech where ‘measure’ would be more comprehensible. A doctor who tells a patient that he is going to determine, rather than measure, her blood pressure, lacks the common touch, to say the least.

assay

In the field of biochemistry, ‘assay’ has a rather restricted meaning. It tends to be used when one is making a measurement of something (often a metabolite or enzyme) in an impure or complex mixture, e.g.

“We assayed the concentration of glucose in the blood of…”

I suspect that this derives from the more longstanding use of ‘assay’ in metallurgy, especially assaying the purity of precious metals.

quantify

‘Quantify’ is not a word that would be used in place of ‘measure’ or ‘determine’. It would be used in a general description of research to describe the transition from qualitative observation (e.g. “Look, there’s a band on the gel!”, “The litmus paper turned red!”) to adopting a procedure where one can put a number on something (e.g. 50 pmol of DNA, pH 4.7). So an example might be:

“We then proceeded to quantify the induction by cutting the band out of the gel and extracting the DNA…”

assess

The usage of ‘assess’ is generally rather different from the other verbs here. It tends to be employed either in summarizing, or in drawing a conclusion from, data, especially when they are incomplete or drawn from different sources, e.g.

“We have assessed the effectiveness of the drug on the basis of the various different trials and conclude that there are adequate grounds to introduce it…”

…and also

estimate

You may also find ‘estimate’ used in the scientific literature. In non-scientific English this implies citing a value without making formal measurements — i.e. using experience, visual reference points etc, e.g.

“I estimate that the whale must have been half a mile away…”

However it is sometimes used when precise values are quoted, but there is uncertainty regarding the validity of the means used to produce them:

“It is difficult to account for the difference between the values. X estimated the constant using such-and-such a method, whereas Y employed this-other-named method.”

Another situation is when one is emphasising how the results were obtained.

“We estimated the protein concentration using Bradford’s method, rather than by the Lowry method.”

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You also have "evaluate", "ascertain", etc. A good dictionary of synonyms, or a dictionary containing synonyms after entries -- like MWU, a relevant extract of which I am attaching as an image -- can be most helpful. Perhaps some of the uses below are not in line with what you are looking for, but I just want to show you how seeing all the definitions -- as well as their respective examples -- together can help you compare and decide:

MWU synonyms for "estimate"

  • Next time I will think twice before making the effort to scan anything. Some people are so ungrateful. – Gustavson Mar 5 '17 at 10:44

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