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Essentially what the title says: Are formulations like "To determine the unknowns one employs the following conditions" acceptable for scientific writing? My professor insists that sentences like this are not only inappropriate for scientific writing but bad style in general. Would you agree? And can you recommend a good reference when it comes to appropriate grammar regarding scientific writing?

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    I believe it's usual to use the passive voice in scientific writing - "The compound was placed in the test tube". – Kate Bunting Apr 13 '18 at 8:35
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    Better asked on Writing – Kris Apr 13 '18 at 9:55
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    I suppose one is rather old-style today. "To determine the unknowns you/ we employ the following conditions ..." – Kris Apr 13 '18 at 9:57
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    There are great differences of opinion regarding the grammar of scientific writing. But I don't see any reason to argue with your professor in this case – "one" is clunky here. If your professor allows "we", rephrase it as "we determine the unknowns by using the following conditions." If your professor insists on no personal pronouns, rephrase it as "the unknowns can be determined by using the following conditions." (I am assuming that you actually determine the unknowns using those conditions.) – Peter Shor Apr 13 '18 at 11:34
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    ... continued from last comment. If you are actually describing the standard procedure, and your paper is about a new and better way to determine the unknowns, then I think "one" works here. – Peter Shor Apr 13 '18 at 11:47
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I do agree with your professor. The wording of your example seems stilted and stodgy, to me. It's not really a problem of grammar, but rather adopting a more journalistic style. You're not trying to impress readers with how well you write, but rather to communicate with them. Make it casual, immediate, short and choppy, using examples. How can we determine unknowns? Here's how to use conditions that the unknowns must satisfy ...

Do a web search for texts on expository prose.

  • A small note of caution: yes the style quoted is somewhat stilted and stodgy, but some types of scientific writing expect it either like this or in the passive voice as mentioned in Kate's comment -- a "causal, short and choppy" style could be frowned upon. You may do better on the Academia site (but check the rules first: at a minimum you'd need to go into more detail about your field of study and the specific type of "scientific writing" involved). – TripeHound Apr 13 '18 at 9:17

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