PSY6002 Workshops in Psychology/PSY6031 Workshops in Economic Psychology
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
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
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.
Organization of the material
Structuring paragraphs and sentences
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,
(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.
Setting out the general problem area
Describing previous research on the subject
Explaining that certain questions remain unanswered
Outlining the method you are going to use to answer those questions
Stating what you will conclude from different possible outcomes of the
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,
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
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,
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
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)
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
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?
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
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.
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:
Incidentally, the second sentence also contains an unnecessary left-embedding,
and an arguably unnecessary use of sexist language.
The words you choose to frame a sentence must reflect the logic of what
you are saying;
The words in a sentence must be linked up in the same way as the concepts
they are about link up;
The parts of a sentence must be capable of being related in the way the
sentence relates them.
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.
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.
If you know you tend to make spelling errors, always use a word processor
with the spell checker switched on.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
The rat's tail = the tail belonging to one rat; apostrophe before s for
a singular possessive
The rats' tails = the tails belonging to several rats; apostrophe after
s for a plural possessive
The rats had tails = no possessive, so no apostrophe. SIMPLE PLURALS DO
NOT REQUIRE AN APOSTROPHE; not even if they are acronyms - so "the GDPs
of OECD countries" does not need an apostrophe.
The children's tales = tales told by several children; apostrophe before
s with a few irregular plurals. The other common examples are men's, women's,
people's, mice's, cherubim's.
It's a long tail = it is a long tail; apostrophe indicates the dropped
letter. This is an apostrophe of elision, not a possessive form at all.
Its tail = the tail belonging to it; no apostrophe in the possessive form
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
"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".
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
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.
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.
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".
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).
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.
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).
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