University of Exeter


PSY6002 Workshops in Psychology/PSY6031 Workshops in Economic Psychology
Communicating Science

Psychological Writing

OK, so you've done some research. You've presented it as a paper at a small conference, and as a poster at a large one. Now there is nothing for it: it has got to be reported - in a paper to be submitted for publication, in a dissertation, or in a report for whoever is paying for the research. It's time for writing up, and for many researchers this is the most feared and most postponed part of research. But if you don't do it, no-one else will ever be able to use your research; and if you don't do it well, far fewer people will understand what you have done, or bother to find out, than the quality of your research might deserve.

This is not a class in creative writing. You don't have to be a literary star to write about psychological research - in fact, worrying about your literary style is probably a good way of making writing up more painful than it need be, and your writing when you do it worse than it need be. Writing up should be something you do promptly, quickly, easily and efficiently, as soon as some research is completed. These things all flow together: the more promptly you can act, the more efficient you will be, and so the quicker and easier the job will be. It will also be much less depressing, and may even be pleasurable: certainly there are few satisfactions to beat that of having finished and written up a research project well in advance of the deadline.

Much has been written about writing generally, scientific writing in particular, and psychological writing most specifically of all. There is much good advice (and some bad) in the American Psychological Association's Publication Manual (4th edition published 1994). Those who have real difficulty might like to use the APA's workbook Mastering APA Style. Everyone whose work includes some writing should read Ernest Gowers' The complete plain words (the 3rd edition dates from 1986), and should have readily available a handbook of English usage. In my view the best of these is Gowers' revision of H. W. Fowler's A dictionary of modern English usage, usually just called "Fowler"; I have whiled away many an hour when I should have been writing something browsing through his entries.

How to write is not a matter on which there can ever be complete agreement. These notes are not an attempt to supersede the published handbooks, or to resolve long contested questions (though my own opinions will creep through). They are an attempt to provide some pointers to better writing, by identifying what seem to me to be the commonest problems. They are based on long experience of reading and correcting bad writing - some of it the work of my own students, assistants and colleagues, much of it in papers submitted to journals for which I have been a reviewer or editor, but the largest amount of it my own. Sir Frederick Asher once wrote an essay called, "Aren't I lucky, I can write". The point of it was that, though he was indeed a very good writer, he still found it a painful process, and one that required time and discipline. You can speed up the writing process, but not by eliminating careful reading of early drafts. While some of that can and should be done on screen, you should always allow time for at least one complete print out of anything you've written, so you can correct it on paper, where errors are much easier to see.

There are few certain rules about writing well. One of the few is that any rule can be broken - if there is sufficient reason. But there is a world of difference between breaking a rule that you understand and know how to use, because you have decided it must be overridden for special reasons, and breaking a rule because you don't know it, don't understand it, or don't know how to use it. So in what follows, I shan't bother to keep pointing out that no rule applies all the time.

Three problem areas

The areas that seem to give problems most often are the following. The order is that of importance; it is also the order in which they come into play when you are writing something.
  1. Organization of the material
  2. Structuring paragraphs and sentences
  3. Getting the details right: small points of grammar, punctuation, and choice of words.

Organization of the material

If you are writing up conventional experimental material for an academic journal, this bit should be easy. You know you are going to have to organize the paper under the established headings of Introduction, Method (subdivided, for example into Subjects, Apparatus and Procedure), Results and Discussion. Sometimes there will be a series of experiments, each with its own Introduction, Method etc; in this case there should also be a General Introduction at the beginning and a General Discussion at the end - a thesis involving a small number of large experiments often takes this form, with each experiment getting one chapter, while if the thesis involves a large number of small experiments, each chapter might take the form of a multi-experiment paper. Sometimes Results and Discussion can be combined - this is useful in reporting a short experiment, or in areas like qualititative research where there is a constant interplay between analysis and interpretation of the data.

Most research students go through a phase of believing that this conventional structure of experimental papers is a wicked imposition by a crypto-fascist academic establishment irrationally wedded to a nineteenth-century scientistic concept of psychology, but in fact writers should be grateful for being given a clear and concrete task, and editors and readers invariably are grateful to writers who carry it out correctly. If you are writing up a different kind of material, or in a different kind of publication, you may not want (or be allowed) to use the same formal headings, but nearly always it will be best to use the same general conceptual structure. So I'll talk in terms of those headings.

Most people think they know what should go in each of the four main sections, but without practice few people do a good job of putting it there; so let's look at each of them in a little more detail.


The main role of the introduction is to set up the questions which your research is going to answer. It does this by: Notice that not listed among those themes is telling us your general views about life, the universe, and everything - or, more to the point, psychology (or, worse, philosophy). Introductions need to be kept to the point, and the point is the research they introduce.

The five themes that should be included follow a logical order, from the general to the specific. The common errors here are to omit one or more of the five themes, or to write too much on one or another of them.

Setting out the general problem area: This tends to get omitted, which is a mistake - papers do need to start by telling us what they are about. Occasionally, though, an author goes berserk at this point and gives us a great theoretical essay by way of Introduction - this is most common among undergraduates, and is of course a worse error.

Describing previous research on the subject is an area where it is easy to do too much or too little. A report of specific research is not the place for a full-blown literature review; in a thesis that will normally be a separate chapter, and in writing for journals it should be a different kind of paper sent to a different kind of journal. On the other hand, reviewers often grumble about papers "failing to make contact with the existing literature"; this sometimes does mean simply that you haven't cited the reviewer's own work, but you do need to be sure that you are not claiming to be the first person to use the wheel.

Explaining that certain questions remain unanswered. This (and the next) are the ones that are most often, and most damagingly, omitted. This is where you really introduce the research you have done - where you make the bridge from what is already known to what you tried to find out. In many ways this section is the key to the entire reporting process. If writer and reader are clear why a piece of research was done, the Method is likely to seem logical, the Results will be half expected, and the Discussion will write itself.

Outlining the method you are going to use to answer those questions. The full description of the method is of course in the Method section. However, the Introduction is the place to explain why you used a particular sort of Method. Here you should also give the reader a general idea of what the method was like: some readers won't read the detailed Method section anyway, while those who do will find it much easier if they know more or less what to expect. Be careful not to protest too much when explaining why you chose a given method. It's not uncommon to find people trying to prove that theirs is the only possible way of approaching a problem, or even worse, the only piece of research in the whole world worth doing. You don't have to prove that what you did is uniquely meritorious, only that it has some merit.

Stating what you would conclude from different possible outcomes: Some people like to do this by setting out formal, numbered hypotheses at the end of an Introduction. Such hypotheses should be of the form, "If Theory X is true, then Relationship Y should hold between Variables Z" - in other words, they should summarise the Introduction by taking us from general theoretical issues to the nuts and bolts of the actual observations you made. Personally I think this is overdoing it, and the same aim can be achieved better in a few succinct sentences. But in most cases you should be in a position where you could set out numbered hypotheses if someone asked you to. Of course some research is relatively exploratory, and in this case it may be inappropriate to state specific hypotheses, but you should be able to state in a sentence what you were trying to explore, and why.


This is usually the easiest section to write - though it is the one where writing as soon as you have completed the research pays the biggest dividends. It can take a very long time to track down essential details a year later. The main issue is how much detail to put in. Some undergraduates are still taught that the aim of the Method section is to give enough detail to enable another researcher to replicate your experiment exactly. If that was ever true, it certainly isn't now. The golden rule is to study Method sections in the outlet you are writing for, and provide the same amount of detail as recently published articles.

Minor issues in Method:

In most parts of psychology (animal work is an exception) there is a move against talking about Subjects; Participants, Respondents, or Observers are preferable terms, giving more credit to the active role the people who take part in our research actually play. The APA Manual (4th edition) says, "Replace the impersonal term subjects with a more descriptive term when possible" (p49), but it does note that subjects is appropriate when discussing statistics. The abbreviations S and E for Subject and Experimenter fell out of serious use about 30 years ago.

The subsections of Method vary quite a lot between and even within areas of psychology. Subheadings that are useful for some studies but not others include "Stimulus materials" (some perceptual studies, psycholingustics), "Sampling procedure" (this should nearly always be mentioned even if it does not rate a section of its own), "Questionnaires", "Statistical procedures", "Study sites" (fieldwork) - there are many others.


Often the worst written section. Even in a highly quantitative paper, it is good practice to start with a few less formal remarks: in a questionnaire study mention the response rate and whether the forms were returned quickly, filled in completely, with lots of extra comments and so on; in an observational study, say what the behaviour actually looked like; in a cognitive experiment, say whether the participants enjoyed the task, found it difficult etc.

Next, if the study involves any quantitative measurement, present the major descriptive statistics. These may take the form of a few means given in the text, or they may involve a whole sequence of Tables and Figures.

Only after descriptive statistics have been presented should you proceed to inferential statistics (i.e. the results of statistical tests). Often, the significance levels follow hard on the heels of the descriptives ("Mean obfuscation scores under noisy and quiet conditions were 3.2 and 2.8; these differ significantly (t38=2.21, p<0.05)"), but the logical sequence is still crucial.

The commonest error is to give too little prominence to the descriptive statistics, or, worse, to leave them out altogether. It cannot be said too often that we must know what happened before it is worth discussing whether it is statistically significant or not.

Other common errors arise in the handling of tables and figures. Every table or figure must be mentioned in the text ("Figure 1 shows the mean obfuscation score for each degree class group under each noise condition..."). In addition it must have a title or caption that enables a reader who hasn't looked at the text yet to know what the table or figure is about, and where it fits in to the structure of the paper. For example, "Figure 1. Experiment 1: mean score on the Literary Obfuscation scale for groups of respondents with different first degree class, for writing done under different levels of ambient noise". Notice how the figure caption takes less for granted than the mention of the figure in the text, where it is fair to assume that the reader is already immersed in what the paper is about. Note too that this caption is in addition to the labels that should appear on axes of figures, or the headings to the columns of tables.

Avoid spurious precision in reporting numbers. Test statistics (F, t, chi-squared values etc) are conventionally reported to two places of decimals; so are money amounts (if not just given to round pounds, dollars, etc). Don't quote means to six places of decimals just because your statistics package gave them to you that way; in most psychological research we'd be lucky to replicate our results to within two significant figures, and that is enough to quote (though it is usual to report non-decimal numbers exactly, so we would write a mean time as, say, 169 seconds rather than 170, even though if it was a hundred times smaller we would probably call it 1.7 seconds rather than 1.69).


Everyone accepts nowadays that data are not theory-free. But that does not downgrade the distinction between results and discussion. The Results section of a paper records what you actually observed - no doubt in terms dictated by the theories and philosophies within which you couched your research. In the Discussion section, you use those Results to answer the questions you raised in your Introduction. A good Discussion will very often re-run the Introduction to the paper, but in reverse: first you answer the specific questions you posed at the end of the Introduction (or say why it was not possible to answer them); then you work back to more general issues, saying how the answers you have found relate to the previous literature you cited and the theories you mentioned at the beginning of the Introduction.

Only when you have unexpected or anomalous results should it be necessary for the Discussion to introduce ideas, or cite papers, that have not already been mentioned in the Introduction. It is a common error for Discussions to go rambling on, embarking on quite new themes. If those themes matter, move them to the Introduction; if they do not, cut them out.

Other parts of the paper.

I've not mentioned here the Abstract (very difficult to do - always write it last, when you know what the rest of the paper says), Conclusion (not often needed, but useful after a long General Discussion, or in a paper where Results and Discussion have been combined), the Reference list (look at a recent issue of the journal and follow their conventions exactly), Footnotes (avoid them like the plague - if it matters, put it in text, if it doesn't, cut it out), and various other bits and pieces that will be needed in some contexts but not others. Tables and Figures are a whole session of this Workshop by themselves.

Structuring sentences and paragraphs

This is by far the most difficult area, and it is where the biggest differences between good and bad writers arise. It is also one where it is difficult to write rules, and impossible to write a short or complete list of them. The following is therefore my attempt to do the impossible.

    Know each paragraph's job.

    A paragraph is a separable chunk of text. It should therefore correspond to a separable chunk of thought. It should be possible to go through something you have written and say what job each paragraph is doing in the paper as a whole. That job should be different from that of the paragraph before or the paragraph after, and it should be small enough for a paragraph to do. One way of writing a paper is in fact to start with a set of sentences saying what each paragraph will do, and only write them after that has been done. That is probably needlessly stiff, and would produce stilted, jerky writing - but if your supervisor or journal editors keep complaining that something you have written is long and woolly, an excellent remedy is to go through it and identify each paragraph's job, and then see whether you can write something simpler and shorter that does that job effectively.

    Keep sentences short.

    There are languages (German, for example) where the essence of a good writing style is to write long sentences. English is not so cursed. In English, short, straightforward sentences generally sound better than long flowery ones; and in any language they are easier to understand. They are also much easier to write well - there is simply less that can go wrong in a short sentence than a long one. Of course a piece of writing that consisted entirely of three word sentences would be unpleasant to read, and good writing nearly always contains sentences of a variety of lengths; the mark of a good writer is that you don't notice how long his or her sentences are, because understanding is effortless. If you can write like that, good; but if you can't, keeping your sentences short is the easiest way to improve the clarity and quality of your writing.

    One important way of keeping sentences short is to get rid of circumlocutions, and of the kind of flaccid phrases that contribute nothing to meaning. So, "With respect to studies of memory" becomes "In studies of memory", "is expressive of" becomes "expresses", and "it becomes apparent that" can just disappear altogether. Getting rid of vague intensifiers (see below) also helps.

    Avoid left embedding.

    Even more important than keeping sentences short is making sure that they have a straightforward structure, so that the thought flows steadily from the beginning to the end without darting off on little diversions or subsiding into parentheses that leave the reader struggling to remember what the core message of the sentence was when you eventually return to it. Technically sentences with an excessively convoluted structure are referred to as "left-embedded", from the appearance of their phrase-markers.

    Putting sentences in the passive automatically produces some left embedding. Partly for this reason, the "Scientific passive" is going out of use, though a few journals do still require it. In general, though, it is now acceptable to describe Methods and Results by saying that "We did so and so" and "We found so and so". But don't overdo I or we - you will offend readers who are still wedded to the old convention; also, you will sound egotistical.

    Keep it logical.

    The commonest kind of error is the hardest to correct or even to describe. It is somewhere between a fault of grammar and a fault of style. It involves losing sight of the logic of a sentence. For example, consider the following: "By paying participants non-trivial amounts of cash, depending on their decisions, they face a real, rather han hypothetical, ethical choice." The problem here is that the implied subject of the "By paying..." clause (the writer/experimenter) is not the same as the explicit subject of the "they faced..." clause (the participants). The result is imprecision, confusion, and ugliness. Another real example: "Like other businesses, building's fortunes are cyclical..." Here "Like" needs to attach itself to a noun that is functioning like a noun (so, "fortunes"), not to a noun that is functioning like an adjective ("building's"). But of course fortunes are not businesses, so the sentence makes nonsense. A formally correct version would be, "Like those of other businesses, the fortunes of building are cyclical...", but that is horribly pedantic so we will need to rewrite the whole thing (perhaps, "Building is like other businesses: its fortunes are cyclical").

    Here's a more dramatic example, which involves a number of different kinds of error. "A parallel is drawn with Darwin's proposal that it is significant for man to be able to hear his own language (assuming that the words spoken evoke the same reactions in the speaker as in listeners) and Mead's consideration of thinking to be a social act." Obviously this is a bad sentence, but what specifically has gone wrong?

    1. The wrong preposition has been chosen for the logic of the sentence. "A parallel is drawn with..." should introduce a parallelism between something that has already been mentioned and something that is going to be mentioned: but this sentence is trying to introduce a parallel between two things that have not yet been mentioned, so it should have started "A parallel is drawn between...". This single-word error throws our understanding out completely.
    2. The word "significant" has been linked up to the wrong object. The writer wanted to say that Darwin thought it was significant that people can hear their own speech; the way the sentence has come out, it sounds as though the people find it significant. This again is due to the wrong choice of words: "significant that man can" instead of "significant for man to be able to" would have got it right.
    3. The phrase after "consideration" is not something that can be considered, and therefore cannot logically follow that word. Mead might have had a consideration "that thinking is a social act", or he could have had a consideration of "thinking as a social act", but he could not have had a consideration of "thinking to be a social act"



      To turn these examples round into rules, we can say that:

    1. The words you choose to frame a sentence must reflect the logic of what you are saying;
    2. The words in a sentence must be linked up in the same way as the concepts they are about link up;
    3. The parts of a sentence must be capable of being related in the way the sentence relates them.
    Incidentally, the second sentence also contains an unnecessary left-embedding, and an arguably unnecessary use of sexist language.

    Other ways in which sentences can be illogical may be more strictly faults of grammar. Examples include failing to get the number of the verb (singular or plural) to agree with the number of its subjects, or getting tenses of verbs inconsistent, or using relative pronouns that refer to the wrong noun or noun phrase, or failing to make parenthesis markers (brackets, dashes, or commas) match up. Few people will make these errors in a short sentence, but in a long one they become more likely. Consider, for example, the common number error of the sort, "The upper line in Figure 2, showing the data from the mean data from the 121 participants who experienced the noisy conditions, are significantly steeper than the lower line". No-one would write "The upper line are...", but with "121 participants" and "noisy conditions" in the subordinate clause, it is easy to make the slip. Or, "if for instance animals relied upon olfactory cues for cache relocation it can easily be seen that all caches are open to easy pilfering". Here the past tense in the "if..." part of the sentence requires the conditional tense later ("all caches would be open"), but the error creeps in because of the intervening "it can easily be seen that". The sentence also contains another logic error - what can easily be seen is the entire if... then... relationship, whereas the logic of the sentence implies that the ease of seeing follows from the if... part being true.

    Avoid pomposity, pedantry, purple prose and general pretentiousness.

    Scientific writing can seem very "penny plain", and there is a tendency to try and colour it up a bit. The result is frequently either pretentious, facetious, or both. The good safe rule is that, if you find yourself making a conscious effort to write colourfully, you should stop it at once. Dr Johnson put it another way: advising a young writer about style, he said something like, "I counsel you, sir, always to read through what you have written; and when you find something that you particularly admire, to strike it out". All sorts of faults fall under this head - fancy obscure words, needless foreign phrases, arch circumlocutions, what Fowler calls "battered ornaments", and so forth.

    A specific problem in this area is the need to avoid vague intensifiers. A good rule is to simply knock out all such words as "very", "exceedingly", "highly", "extremely", and their 101 brethren, from everything you write. You will be surprised how much better it sounds. The reason is that these words are artificial inflators: if you have to prop up your results by saying a difference is "very large", you have failed to show us (by numbers or diagrams) that it is large. If you have to prop up your discussion by saying that a result is "exceedingly important", it is because you have failed to provide evidence that it is important at all. The worst case of artificial inflation is littering your writing with exclamation marks. There is almost no situation where these should be used.

Getting the details right

This is the most tiresome area of all - the country of fiddly little details and rules of spelling, punctuation and grammar, which it is easy to feel you should not have to bother with. But this is to show bad manners to your readers. Furthermore, failure to get them right in work that has to be published will at best mean that you give your editors and printers a lot of unnecessary work; at worst it will mean that you produce something that will make some readers think you are ignorant. And those readers may be people of influence - examiners with power to fail your dissertation, editors with power to reject your paper, committees with power to refuse your grant application. To make matters worse, it is an area where there are stubborn disagreements as to what actually is right and wrong, for the very good reason that language changes, and what is wrong in one generation is right in the next (and vice versa). It is in this area that handbooks like Fowler are most useful.


is no longer the problem it was; follow three simple rules and all, or very nearly all, will be well.
  1. If you know you tend to make spelling errors, always use a word processor with the spell checker switched on.
  2. Even if you consider yourself a reliable speller, always check a paper with the spell checker before finally printing out - however well you spell you can still make typing errors.
  3. Spell checkers will not catch all errors, of course. So if you know that you tend to make homophone errors (such as typing "weather" when you mean "whether"), do a global search for your common wrong forms before finally printing out.
There is a specific problem about the difference between international and US spelling, and people get quite stupidly xenophobic about it. For writing that is not yet destined for any particular source, if you are an American, spell according to US conventions; if you are not, spell according to international conventions. Once you know where a paper is going, then the place of publication determines which conventions rule: if it is to be published in the US, use US conventions; if it is to be published in another English-speaking country, use international conventions; if it is to be published in a non-English-speaking country, you can usually do whichever you like. In all cases, be consistent throughout one piece of writing. It's usually easier to be consistent when using the conventions you grew up with.


The published handbooks tend to cover this comprehensively. Beware of fashions: some people are taught to use far more commas than others, for example. And, as with spelling, there are differences between conventions in the US and in other English-speaking countries. Some punctuation points are covered in the list of grammar points below.

Grammar (etc)

We are probably not far off having word processors that incorporate simple grammar checkers which will catch a lot of errors. Until we get there, however, we shall have to go on doing our best by hand. It really does help to know some technical grammatical terms, both to make it easier to look up correct usage, and also because you can't really think about writing unless you know some words to describe what you are doing. So I've used technical terms quite freely in what follows. If you don't know them, work them out, or look them up in Fowler or a similar handbook.

The following is a list of some of the points that arise most commonly. Most of them are matters of grammar, though I have included a few recurrent errors of style and punctuation. In most cases you could find more information in Fowler - this list is mainly to point out that there is a problem, not to explain it in full. For all of these, it is only if you don't realise that they are a problem that you have a problem. At the moment it is a short list - the things that I can remember having to correct recently; I will be adding to it as more problems turn up. For the moment, take is as a small set of examples of the things that you must learn if you do not know them. These are errors commonly made by native English speakers; there is another large set of characteristic errors made by people writing English as a second language, the usual errors naturally being different depending on what your native language is.


Best avoided unless they are very standard, or the phrase you are abbreviating is so long that reading it repeatedly will be a worse hindrance to the reader's thought than struggling to remember what the HF3 condition was. If you do use abbreviations, you must define them the first time they appear in your text, even if they are standard within your field. Remember that your text may be read by people who are not as familiar with the field as you are - or it may be read many years later, when the standard abbreviations have changed.


People commonly put these in the wrong position, probably trying vaguely to avoid splitting an infinitive which isn't even in the sentence. "We have carefully examined the evidence" is perfectly all right, and "We have examined carefully the evidence" is all wrong.


Commonly confused, and there is not much logic about their different meanings. If John has an effect (noun) on Mary, he affects (verb) her. He can't effect (verb) her. There is a verb "to effect", but it has to be transitive: it means to bring something about. So if I affect your writing habits, I effect a change in them. I can't think of any sensible way of remembering this, you just have to learn it. Just to make life more difficult for psychologists, we do of course have a quite different technical use of "affect", to mean emotion.

All right

So spelt - until very recently not "alright", ever. However, I have seen "alright" in recent published work, so maybe it is gaining acceptability. It will reliably offend most editors, however.

Apostrophes: elision

This refers to the apostrophes used to indicate a missing letter (isn't, won't, etc). These are acceptable in informal writing, such as a letter to someone you know, or notes like these; you would not usually use them in a polite letter to someone in authority, or in an academic paper.

Apostrophes: possessive

No-one under 50 seems able to get these right. Yet the rules are simple and can be learned: Note the its/it's distinction - this causes more trouble than all the others put together.


Is quite sufficient on its own to mean "a co-worker". The sadly common usage "fellow colleague" is a wretched tautology.


The difficulty is whether you need "of" with "comprise". The answer is that you do when the verb is used passively, but not when it is used actively. So "the test comprised 17 items", and "the test was comprised of 17 items" are both right, but "the test comprised of 17 items" is wrong. (So is "the test was comprised 17 items", but I've never seen anyone write anything like that.)


"Data" is a plural noun, and so requires a plural verb. So you should write "The data are shown", "The data were collected", "The data give the impression" and so on. The singular of "data" is "datum", but it is pedantry to use it; refer to "an item of data" or "a data point".


means "impartial". If you mean "bored", the word is "uninterested".

Due to

Until recently "due to" was not acceptable unless there was a noun around which "due" could be seen as qualifying, since due is an adjective. So "I was delayed due to the rail strike" is wrong, but "The delay was due to the rail strike" is ok. But only the over-50s will be worried about this nowadays.


see Affect


An error that is common specifically in psychological writing is to confuse "elicit" (to draw out) with "emit" (to send out). A stimulus may elicit a response, but only a person or animal can emit one; and if people or animals elicit responses, they must elicit them from other individuals. It may help to remember that in Pavlovian conditioning, responses are elicited (by the conditional or unconditional stimulus), but in operant conditioning they are emitted (and then may be reinforced).


This word does not mean "enormousness" but "great wickedness". It seems a shame to point this out, when the results of people not knowing it are frequently funny, but conscience compels.

Firstly..., secondly...

Rather a fussy construction, and probably best avoided; if you can't avoid it, consider replacing it by a formal list. Some style books say that it should be "first..., secondly..., thirdly..." etc, while American editors will usually replace it by "first..., second..., third...", which sounds better to my ears, too. If you find yourself writing "seventeenthly..." it is time for a major rewrite.


This construction always makes writing sound fussy and formal, so it is better avoided; but if you must use it, remember that both words can only be applied when there are only two things, since they are comparative not superlative forms - if there are three or more, use first/last instead.


Commonly muddled. In modern English, Fact A can imply Fact B; a person (or a pseudoperson such as a computer program) can infer A from B. There is historical warrant for some usages in which Fact A infers Fact B, but only in certain special cases, and in any case it would be wilful to try to revive them now.

Laboratory slang

Psychology as a discipline, and each little branch of psychology within it, has its own informal jargon. Most of it has no place in a written report. So while in speech we usually "run participants", or "run anovas", we shouldn't do either in writing.


Commonly muddled. To militate against something is to work against it, in particular to serve as an argument against it; to mitigate is to improve or alleviate. So if you find yourself writing that some problem "mitigates against" performing some action, you've got it wrong; it should militate against it (think of military, militant, etc). A "plea in militation" would be equally wrong, but fortunately I've never encountered one.


Some editors get very excited about the positioning of "only" within sentences. Logic is on their side but usage is not and never has been. Fowler derides them as "these friends from whom the English language may well pray to be saved... who wish to restrain liberty as such, regardless of whether it is harmfully or harmlessly exercised". The placement of "only" only matters if real ambiguity could result from where you have put it.

Participles: spelling rules

In international spelling, consonants at the end of a word are always doubled in forming participles (and nouns of agency); in US spelling, they are not if the letter is l or r. So in international spelling level makes levelling, levelled and leveller; in US spelling, it makes leveling, leveled and leveler. But there are exceptions (reveal makes revealing, revealed wherever you are, for example).


It is perfectly all right to use them at the end of sentences. The view that it is not was an error introduced by grammarians who thought English works like Latin, which it does not.


The word is spelt principal when it is an adjective, e.g. in principal components analysis, but principle when it is a noun, e.g. in first principles. Exception: the Principal of a college etc is spelt in the adjectival manner, presumably because originally it stood for Principal Lecturer


Program is the US spelling, programme is the international spelling. But program is always used for computer programs and other entities seen as analogues of computer programs. While we're on the subject, "software program" is a tautology - programs are assumed to be software unless otherwise specified.


This word means to prove the falsity of an argument or statement. Contrary to the belief of both journalists and students, it does not mean to state that that the argument is untrue. The word you want for that is "reject", or if a bit more effort has been made, "rebut".

Sexist language

Avoid using "man" to mean "humans" or "he" to mean "he or she" - but try to avoid ugly forms like "he or she" too often. Usually you can get round it by going into the plural.


One of the silliest proscriptions in the APA publication manual is the insistence that "since" should not be used to mean "because", since it might mistakenly be read to mean "after". "While" in the sense of "whereas" is condemned with similar pigheadedness, for the same reason. This is nonsense, but if submitting to an APA journal or one influenced by APA style, you may have to fall into line. You can always put it right in proof, which the editor will not see (or will not look at).

Split infinitives

Despite what you were told at school, "To boldly go" is OK, and is better than twisting a sentence round to avoid it. On the other hand, "To boldly and without fear of criticism from mere pedants who know no better go" is a disaster. If you do decide to avoid splitting an infinitive, be careful what you then do with the adverb, as there are several places in the average sentence where it really would be wrong to put it.

Supportive of

The commonest of a wide class of dreary and unnecessary expressions. If you are tempted to write "A is supportive of B", strangle the impulse instantly: "A supports B" is better in every way. Similarly, for "A is symptomatic of B", write "A is a symptom of B", for "A is indicative that B" write "A indicates that B", for "A is representative of B" write "A represents B", and so forth.

Tenses of verbs

These often cause trouble in both Method and Results sections. When describing a general method, use the present tense; when describing your actual experiment, use the past. So, "In the ultimatum bargaining game, participants have to share a fixed sum of money", but, "Player A was given a sum of ten pounds". In reporting descriptive statistics, and usually when reporting inferential statistics, use the past tense, because you are talking about something that happened when you carried out your study; but you can use the present when reporting inferential statistics about descriptive statistics you have just stated, because you are talking about the numbers that appear in the text. So you must have "The mean Literacy score for the Native Speaker group was 7.2", or "The interaction between Gender and Age was not significant", but you can have "The mean scores for the English-, French- and German-sentence groups were 6.2, 4.3, and 3.2; the difference between these is significant at the 0.05 level according to a Kruskal-Wallis test". You should also use the present tense when describing tables and figures that are in front of the reader: "Figure 1 shows that trends with age were in opposite directions for men and women".

That or which

The sentence which I am just writing is acceptable in British English but not in American English, which would require the first "which" (but not the second) to be replaced by "that". The rule is to replace "which" by "that" if and only if it introduces a clause that defines a noun or noun phrase elsewhere in the sentence.


Used as pronouns, these are vague and lend themselves to misinterpretation. The cure is often to turn them from pronouns into adjectives (e.g. "these words" rather than "these" in the previous sentence).


see Since

Stephen Lea
University of Exeter
Department of Psychology
Washington Singer Laboratories
Exeter EX4 4QG
United Kingdom
Tel +44 1392 264626
Fax +44 1392 264623

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