Science in Society

I need help with language and style

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Use plain language

Please use plain English – accessible, non-academic language. Using technical terminology, unfamiliar acronyms and academic jargon excludes many readers. If you can’t simplify a specific piece of jargon, ask one of the communications practitioners to suggest some words and phrases. Avoid flowery and pompous language or over-used phrases and clichés.

  • Imagine you’re telling a friend about your research over dinner: Your tone should be conversational and engaging. You’re using everyday language and not assuming background knowledge of this field. You’re also not talking down to them.
  • In so far as is possible, write how you speak.   
  • Short and simple: Keep your sentences short, ideally 20 words, not over 40. Rather break a long one into two sentences.
  • Check your spelling: Use UK not US English
  • No: US English: organization, socialize, behavior, program
  • Yes: UK English: organisation, socialise, behaviour, programme
  • Double-check the spelling of all proper nouns (names):
    • Miriam Makeba  – not Meriam/Mirriam/Mokeba/Mokaba
    • KwaZulu-Natal  – not Kwa-ZuluNatal or Kwazulu-Natal
    • Which one? Johann, Johan, Mohammed, Mahomed, Mohamed, Peter, Pieter, Ilze, Ilse, Konosoang, Konosang, Refilwe, Refiloe, Pillay, Pillai
  • ​​​​​​​Avoid the passive voice:
    • No: The participants were asked by the researchers to describe the treatment they were normally given by staff at the clinic. The researchers were told that the participants were usually ignored by the staff. (33 words)
    • So-so: The researchers asked the participants to describe how the clinic staff usually treated them. The participants said they were ignored. (20 words)
    • Yes: The participants said clinic staff usually ignored them. (8 words)
  • Lists, numbering, bullet points and long paragraphs full of semi-colons:
    • Avoid these as they break the flow of your article. If you want to list items, consider putting them into a graph, infographic or separate text box with the help of communications team. Break your paragraphs to avoid semi-colons.
  • Cut unnecessary or pompous words and use the shortest word where you can
    • ‘interestingly’, ‘surprisingly’ and ‘unexpectedly’
      • Avoid if you can’t motivate why something was unexpected because it may be your personal views and scepticism filtering through.
      • Surprisingly, those who drank two glasses of red wine per day were more likely to donate to charity. (if the author is against alcohol on religious grounds)
      • Unexpectedly, the vegan participants scored higher in the numeracy tests. (if the author supports a diet high in animal fats)
      • Interestingly, the children refused to eat the vegetables. (no, it is not interesting; kids do that all the time)
    • ‘in fact’, ‘indeed’ and ‘both’
      • No:In fact, the analysis of the data collected in Stellenbosch was indeed conducted by both Peter and Susan at that point in time. (23 words)
      • Yes: Peter and Susan analysed the Stellenbosch data. (7 words)
    • utilise:
      • No: utilize (US spelling) and utilise (UK spelling)
      • Yes: use
    • “There were …”
      • No: There were ten people who attended the meeting in September.
      • Yes: Ten people attended the September meeting.
      • Yes:Ten people met in September.
    • “in order to” and “at this point in time”
      • No: At this point in time, I need a hedge cutter in order to trim the hedge.
      • Yes: I need a hedge cutter to trim the hedges
  • Use verbs:
    • No: had a discussion/meeting/argument with or performed test
    • Yes: discussed, met, argued, tested
  • Delete and check
    • Leave some of these out of your sentence and see if it makes a difference to the meaning.


most probably  

very important         

freed up            

this time around      

for free 





this time


Look at the fun exercise on writing simple concise sentences below.​​​​​​​

Directions: Rewrite the following sentences in the text-areas provided. When you are finished with each sentence (or, if you wish, wait until you’ve done them all), click on Grammar’s Version, which will reveal how we might have rewritten the sentenc…

  • Keep your sentences short
  • Prefer active verbs
  • Use ‘you’ and ‘we’
  • Use words that are appropriate for the reader
  • Don’t be afraid to give instructions
  • Avoid nominalisations
  • Use lists where appropriate
  1. Who is my target audience?
  2. What do I want to share?
  3. What should my word count be?
  4. How do I structure an article?
  5. How can I use stories in my communication?
  6. I need help with language and style
  7. What about footnotes/bibliographies/references?
  8. Tick box
  9. Talking about the HSRC: Are we diluting our brand?
  10. Focus on the researcher: Conveying the So What? and writing a short biography
  11. How do I structure a PowerPoint presentation?
  12. How do I take a useful photograph?
  13. How do I plan the structure of a short video?
  14. Useful links on science communication
  15. I am no digital native and need help with these: ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​creating hyperlinks, tracking edits in Word, making edits in Pdf, sending large documents and folders via WeTransfer
  16. Visualise your communication for impact
  17. HSRC events: Requirements for drafting and sending invitations

This toolkit is designed to help HSRC researchers to communicate information about their research effectively to maximise impact.​​​​​​​