A3.2 Common grammar problems
3 Common areas of difficulty in grammar and punctuation
A3.2.1 fewer versus less
fewer is used with countable nouns:
✵ fewer people/studies/elements
less is used with uncountable nouns:
✵ less time/research/energy
A3.2.2 a number of
The word number is singular and should, strictly speaking, be followed by a singular verb, e.g.
✵ A number of filter samples was collected.
However, often, when the noun closest to the verb is plural, it can seem more natural to use a plural verb, e.g.
✵ A number of filter samples were collected.
This ’principle of proximity’ (Biber et al., 1999: 190) is seen by many as acceptable, but it is best to avoid it in formal writing.
Do not use amount with plural nouns:
✵ A large amount of people.
✵ A large number of people.
The word data is technically plural (datum being the singular), but it is often used in an uncountable sense, e.g.
✵ The data shows that temperatures have increased over the last decade.
A3.2.4 Word classes
Be careful to distinguish between nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, e.g.
✵ Sulphur dioxide is presense in the environment.
✵ Sulphur dioxide is present in the environment.
✵ Computer programs are used to analysis samples.
✵ Computer programs are used to analyse samples.
✵ The unique characteristics of this substance, such as chemical stable, make it suitable for this application.
✵ The unique characteristics of this substance, such as chemical stability, make it suitable for this application.
✵ Nations worldwide have realised the important of reducing CO2.
✵ Nations worldwide have realised the importance of reducing CO2.
Be particularly careful with these common words:
✵ emphasise/synthesise/analyse/hypothesise (verbs)
✵ emphasis/synthesis/analysis/hypothesis (nouns)
Also, do not confuse effect (noun) and affect (verb):
✵ Carbon emissions have had a profound effect on the environment.
✵ Carbon emissions have profoundly affected the environment.
There is a verb effect, but it has a different meaning (to make happen, bring about), and is usually restricted to particular nouns like change.
✵ The government plans to effect change in the plastics industry.
A3.2.5 Sentence patterns
Many verbs occur in fixed sentence patterns:
✵ They succeeded in extraction graphene from graphite.
✵ They succeeded in extracting graphene from graphite.
✵ They prevented the farmers plant crops in the area.
✵ They prevented the farmers from planting crops in the area.
Be careful to use the right sentence patterns with the following commonly used synonyms — note the use of prepositions and passive structures:
✵ Glass consists of sand plus a number of other substances.
✵ Glass comprises sand plus a number of other substances.
✵ Glass is composed of sand plus a number of other substances.
✵ Glass is made up of sand plus a number of other substances.
Note that different word classes may have different patterns:
✵ The study lacks rigour. (no preposition with verb)
✵ There is a lack of rigour in the study.
The phrase to be lacking in can also be used:
✵ The study is lacking in rigour.
Mistakes commonly occur with the following prepositions:
✵ a change in temperature (a development)
✵ a change of government (a substitution)
✵ the demand for resources
✵ the reason for the change
✵ the need for change
✵ in need of reform
✵ the rationale behind the decision
✵ an increase/decrease/rise/fall (of 2%) in volume
A3.2.7 Irregular plurals
Make a note of irregular plurals common in scientific writing:
✵ analysis — analyses
✵ antenna — antennae
✵ criterion — criteria
✵ fungus — fungi
✵ phenomenon — phenomena
✵ stimulus — stimuli
✵ stratum — strata