Using only one common language has had a hugely beneficial effect on communication within and across scientific disciplines, including medicine, with science professionals from all over the world easily being able to communicate with each other. However, this presents a challenge for science writers for whom English is not their native language. Not only must the non-native English writer be able to communicate clearly and effectively in another language, he or she also needs to be extra vigilant when it comes to things such as grammar and sentence structure. Spelling of English words can also be challenging for German writers. Unlike German, English is a rather unphonetic language and it can be difficult to spell words correctly based on how they are pronounced.
Here, I outline five common mistakes that occur when Germans write scientific articles in English.
1) A common mistake is the use of the word »to« before verbs that should take the continuous form. Normally the second verb in a sentence should be in the continuous »-ing« form if it comes straight after the first verb.
Wrong: We recommend to take the first measurement in the morning.
Right: We recommend taking the first measurement in the morning.
2) Be aware of the differences in spelling between American English and British English as well as Oxford Dictionary English which is a hybrid of American and British English.
Do not change between styles within the document you are writing.
3) Use of the word »he« to mean either he or she is not acceptable in English writing nowadays, including medical writing. Use »he or she« or »him or her« instead.
Wrong: When you find the person responsible, ask him to report to [...]
Right: When you find the person responsible, ask him or her to report to [...]
4) »Besides« is sometimes used by German speakers at the beginning of a sentence which is adding more information to the sentence beforehand. However, this is not correct in this context and better words to use include »additionally«, »in addition«, »moreover«, »furthermore«.
5) Another common mistake that German writers make in the beginning of a sentence is to use »As for« which is then followed by »it« in the next part of the sentence. There is no need for either of these elements to be in the sentence.
Wrong: As for the measurement, it was higher than expected.
Right: The measurement was higher than expected.
Four general tips for improving medical writing in English for non-native English speakers (and possibly native English speakers too) are as follows:
- Only use words you are familiar with. English is a rich language with many synonyms but they all usually possess a slightly different meaning. By using a word you are unfamiliar with because you think it sounds better than those that you know, you risk changing the meaning of the sentence you are writing. Even a slight change in meaning can be problematic in certain circumstances.
- Writing in the active voice tends to be a lot clearer and more effective than writing in the passive voice.
Wrong: The overall survival duration was extended by examtaxel in women with metastatic breast cancer.
Right: Examtaxel extended the overall survival duration in women with metastatic breast cancer.
- However, write in the passive voice if the recipient of the subject and verb is important, for example »The patient was injected with the investigational drug.«
- If writing or editing a manuscript for a journal, make sure you consult the journal’s style guide or instructions for authors before you begin writing.
- Use the more simple form of a word if it makes the sentence clearer. A good example is »pediatric patient« when »child« or »infant« is just as good, if not better as they are even more descriptive.
The challenge of communicating medical concepts clearly and effectively is something that both German and English medical writers face. However, writing in English as a non-native English speaker also presents its own unique set of problems, for which the only answer is practice, practice and more practice.