Things to Note in Technical Writing

Following includes a list of mistakes/omissions that we can easily avoid in scientific writing. The list includes confusing words, words that are similar but have different meanings, more appropriate words with precise meaning, common spelling mistakes, writing style, etc. There were acquired from various sources including:

  • “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk and E. B. White
  • “Woe is I: The grammarphobe’s guide to better English in plain English” by Patricia T. O’Conner
  • “Everything Grammar and Style Book: All you need to master the rules of great writing” by Susan Thurman

Plural vs. Singular

  • All
    • If goes with an uncountable noun, its singular – e.g., “All of the money was stolen”
    • If goes with a countable noun, its plural – e.g., “All of us were sleeping”
  • Data
    • The word data is plural, not singular – source: IEEE writing guidelines
    • Datum is singular
  • Most
    • If goes with an uncountable noun, its singular – e.g., “Most of the money was stolen”
    • If goes with a countable noun, its plural – e.g., “Most of us never slept… ”
  • Number of
    • “The number of” is singular
    • “A number of” is plural“
  • None
    • If goes with an uncountable noun, its singular – e.g., “None of the information is…”
    • If goes with a countable noun, its plural – e.g., “None of us were… ”
  • Some
    • If goes with an uncountable noun, its singular – e.g., “Some of the money is…”
    • If goes with a countable noun, its plural – e.g., “Some of us/people are… ”
  • Singular
    • a few, every, everybody, everyone, no one, nobody, only one of, more than one, many, each, either, neither, someone, none (when meaning no one)
    • When referring to amounts like weight, money, politics, volume e.g., “2 hour is too long for a class”
    • Compounds like “bread and butter”, “give and take”, “spaghetti and meatballs”
    • When connected by “as well as”, “except”, “in addition to”, “with”, e.g., “His car as well as his manager’s was stolen.”
  • Plural – one of, glasses, pants, trousers, scissors
  • Collective nouns
    • Singular, if referring collectively to the group – e.g., “The club members was electing the new president”
    • Plural, if referring to individuals of the group – e.g., “The club members were questioned by the police”

Similar but Different

  • Any vs. Some
    • Any – used in negative sentences or questions. Can use with countable & uncountable nouns.
      • anybody, anyone, anywhere, & anything – in negative sentences or questions
      • e.g., “Do you have any cheese?”, “He doesn’t have any friends in Chicago”
    • Some – use in positive sentences. Can use with countable & uncountable nouns.
      • Can use in questions when offering or requesting something that is there
      • somebody, someone, somewhere, & something – in positive sentences
      • e.g., “I have some friends”
      • Would you like some bread?” (offer) – “Could I have some water?” (request)
  • Been vs. Being
    • Being – On going
      • e.g., “We are being reading”
    • Been – Past activity continues up to now, recently completed
      • e.g., “These ruins have been neglected for decades”
  • Between vs. Among
    • Between – when referring to two things
    • Among – when referring to three or more things
  • Hence, Therefore, and Thus
    • Hence – for this reason
      • e.g., “Car in not in good condition; hence, I’ll not buy it.”
    • Therefore – as a result, as a consequence
      • e.g., “Lions’ have sharp teeth, therefore they can easily eat meat.”
    • Thus – in this way, accordingly
      • e.g., “It is getting late thus you must go.”
  • Tight vs. Tied
    • Tight – firmly fixed, no room, difficult to deal with, even
      • e.g., “tight competition…”
    • Tied – bind, fasten, to limit, to restrict
      • e.g., “He tied the string”
  • Underline vs. Underlying
    • Underline – mark with a line or lines underneath
    • Underlying – lying or situated beneath/under
  • Which vs. That
    • That – refers to a set among multiple sets
      • e.g., “Tiffany likes shoes that are expensive.” – Shoes can be both expensive & inexpensive
    • Which – refers to a subset
      • e.g., “Tiffany likes emeralds, which are expensive” – emeralds are type of expensive shoes
      • Examples are from Lorraine Lica

Unrelated but Sounds Alike

ad, add aide, aid bare, bear berth, birth board, bored
break, brake bread, bred by, buy, bye cede, seed censor, sensor
cent, sent, scent cereal, serial dear, deer die, dye discreet, discrete
fair, fare flue, flu, flew flour, flower for, fore, four forward, foreword
gait, gate grate, great hail, hale hall, haul heal, heel
hear, here hoarse, horse hole, whole in, inn lead, led
lean, lien loan, lone main, mane mall, maul meat, meet, mete
medal, meddle morning, mourning muscle, mussel or, ore, oar pain, pane
pair, pare, pear peace, piece peak, peek peal, peel peer, pier
plain, plane pole, poll poor, pour pray, prey presence, presents
profit, prophet raise, rays, raze read, reed real, reel role, roll
root, route sail, sale scene, seen seam, seem seas, sees
shear, sheer soar, sore sole, soul some, sum sow, so
stair, stare stake, steak steal, steel tail, tale taught, taut
their, there threw, through tight, tied to, too, two underline, underlying
vain, vane waist, waste wait, weight ware, wear, where way, weigh, whey

Before or After

  • Either
    • Should be used just before the 1st item that is being compared
    • e.g., “can be either a or b” not “either can be a or b”
  • Then
    • Should be used after the term that it being referred to
    • e.g., “he then eat”

Misspelled Words

  • A lot vs. Allot
    • A lot – very much
    • Allot – to give out
  • All most vs. Almost
    • All most –
    • Almost – very nearly, not quite
  • All ready vs. Already
    • All ready – everything is ready
    • Already – prior to a specific time
  • All together vs. Altogether
    • All together – all included
    • Altogether – entirely or as a whole
  • All ways vs. Always
    • All ways – all possible ways
    • Always – every time
  • Beforehand is a single word, not before hand
  • Cannot is a single word, not can not
  • Faraway is a single word, not far away
  • Furthermore is a single word, not further more
  • Internet vs. internet
    • Internet – Public Internet that web pages, e-mails, etc. are transmitted
    • internet – between networks
  • Into is a single word, not in to
  • It’s vs. Its
    • It’s – it is
    • Its – third person
  • Real time is a noun. When used as a compound adjective it is written as real-time
    • e.g., “real-time monitoring of sensor networks”
    • e.g., “Links have different cross-traffic properties” – your are referring to links
    • e.g., “cross traffic arrival” – your are referring to arrivals
  • Test bed are two words, not testbed
  • Their vs. There vs. They’re
    • Their – third person
    • There – in that place
    • They’re – they are
  • Your vs. You’re
    • Your – second person
    • You’re – you are
  • Whose vs. Who’s
    • Whose – who
    • Who’s – who is
  • Widespread is a single word, not wide spread

Best Way/Time to Use

  • In order to
    • The word in order is unneeded when it means “in order to”. Just “to” is enough
  • Note that
    • Is unneeded in most cases
  • On the other hand
    • “Alternatively” is a better word
  • Since
    • Use only when referring to time. “Because” is a better word
  • And
    • Use a comma before and if been referred to list of related things
    • e.g., “Me, Mary, and Jone…”
  • Or
    • Use a comma before or if been referred to list of related things
    • e.g., “event-driven, query-driven, or hybrid”
    • Subject & verb agreement
      • If both subjects in the sentence are plural verb should be plural
      • If both subjects in the sentence are singular verb should be singular
      • If one subject is singular & other is plural, one close to or should determine the verb, e.g., “Students or teacher is not aware of the fire”
  • e.g. or i.e.
    • Both e.g. or i.e. needs to be followed by a comma
    • Many-to-one, e.g., node-to-sink, routing in wireless sensor networks…
  • Therefore
    • It was shining; therefore, we assume its gold.
  • et al.
    • Has only one period at the end


  • Period (.)
    • Place at the end of a sentence.
    • No 2 dots in any case. It’s incorrect to say “I arrived at 3.30P.M..”
    • According to American English period should be within quotation marks
      • e.g., Kamal said, “He went to London.”
  • Question mark (?)
    • Should be at the end of the sentence, but no space between ? and the last word
    • While quoting, ? should be within quotation marks if what you are quoting is a question
      • e.g., Ann asked, “Whether Peter went to London?”
      • e.g., Did Ann say, “whether Peter went to London”?
  • Comma(,)
    • Put a , before words ‘and’ ‘or’ when you are talking about list of items (more than 2). This is called Serial Comma
      • e.g., “Kamal, Nimal, and me …”
      • e.g., “event-driven, query-driven, or hybrid”
      • e.g., “Fort Collins, CO; San Jose, CA; New Orleans, LA; and Cody, WY …”
    • According to American English , should be within quotation marks, specially while referring to other’s work
      • e.g., D. Bandara, “Things to note in scientific writing,” Available:
    • Use to apart clauses
      • e.g., “Therefore, we need to buy…”
      • e.g., “However, it was too late…”
      • e.g., “He will respond to you, if he gets your message”
    • When joining independent clauses using conjunctions such as and, or, but, for, nor, so, & yet
      • e.g., “We value your continued commitment, and we’ll do our best to be more helpful in future”
      • e.g., “I have heard his argument, but am still not convinced”
    • When writing dates
      • e.g., “Tuesday, July 5, 2009”
      • Instead, you may write 5 July 2009
    • While providing further details
      • e.g., “CASA, an emerging network of weather radars, benefits from peer-to-peer technology.”
    • Other uses
      • etc. – “files, CPU cyles, sensors, etc., are shared by modern peer-to-peer systems”
  • Colon (:)
    • Introduce information or indicate a list follows. Also used to separate a title from its subtitle
      • e.g., “For the trip, please bring: water, lunch, snacks, cap, and a jacket”
      • e.g., Situation reminds him a quotation from a movie: “if you build it, they will come”
      • e.g., “Vivaldi: A Decentralized Network Coordinate System”
    • When referring to time, 3:30 P.M.
  • Semicolon (;)
    • Only to combine 2 independent sentences or when multiple comma’s makes it confusing
    • Should not be used if conjunctions such as and, or, but, for, no, so, & yet are used to combine the 2 sentences, instead a comma should be used
      • e.g., “It is 6pm; we cannot catch the last bus”
      • e.g., “The car was broken; therefore, we walk” – here adverb “therefore” is used, also applies for however, accordingly, then, and beside.
      • e.g., “Fort Collins, CO; San Jose, CA; New Orleans, LA; and Cody, WY…”
  • Hyphen/dash (-)
    • Hyphen is a short horizontal line
    • Use with range of numbers, no space between numbers
      • e.g., “between 1992-1995” or “pp. 12-19”
    • Used with compound adjectives
      • e.g. “real-time monitoring of sensor networks”
    • Dash (long horizontal line) indicate abrupt break/interruption or announce a summary
    • e.g., “We now present the caching solution – determining where to place cache entries and how many cache entries to place.”
  • Parentheses ( )
    • Use when you want to give extra information, instead use “i.e.” if you want to emphasize something more clearly
      • e.g., “Links have different cross-traffic properties (based on their location) and …”
      • e.g., “Links have different cross-traffic properties i.e., self-similarity, and ….
  • Italics
    • Use to indicate variables, emphasize new definitions, words from foreign languages, or quoting
      • e.g., “When velocity v increases momentum p increases”
      • e.g., ”… referred as the cluster head.“
  • Units
    • When writing units numeric value should be followed by a non-breaking space (i.e., a space that will not be changed arbitrarily by the word processing program).
      • e.g., “10 Mbps link”
      • A non-breaking space can be inserted by pressing CTRL + SHIFT + SPACEBAR in Microsoft Word. When you press “Show/Hide ¶” in standard tool bar, you should see symbol “°” where you added the non-breaking space.

Lowercase or Uppercase

  • Internet vs. internet
    • Internet – Public Internet that web pages, e-mails, etc. are transmitted
    • internet – between networks
  • Section/Chapter
    • The word section/chapter should be written as Section/Chapter when referred with section/chapter number as:
    • In Section 2.3, In Chapter 2
    • The word section/chapter should be written as section/chapter when referred as:
      • Next section, next chapter
  • Abbreviations
    • Abbreviations should be uppercase & no periods between characters unless its universally accepted
      • e.g., Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) or CD (Certificate of Deposit)
      • B.Sc, M.S., Ph.D are special cases

Writing Style

  • Paragraphs
    • Make the paragraph the unit of composition
    • May be of any length as far as it tells a cohesive story. But, try to avoid single sentence paragraphs. Very long ones are discouraged as it makes the read discouraged or tired.
    • Begin each paragraph with a sentence that suggest what is discussed in the paragraph or help the transition from previous one
    • Do not start each paragraph with same format/wording as it gets monotonous
      No needless paragraphs
  • Voice
    • Use active voice whenever applicable, as it is direct and vigorous
      • But do not repeat “we/I .., we/I…, we/I…” as it gets monotonous
    • Use passive voice when required or appropriate, e.g., while explaining how the experiment was conducted
    • Use direct, definite, and positive statements – indirect or negative statements are difficult to understand
    • No needless words – ‘to” can be used in many places instead of “in order to”