Guide to technical writing

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This is Derek Abbott's guide to technical writing, primarily for use by his PhD students. But anyone is welcome to use this resource. Each PhD student is requested to go through this page as a checklist when writing a journal article or a thesis chapter.


Guidelines for technical writing are on this page. There are no rules for managing this page. Anyone can edit this page and add questions and discussion. It is self-moderating and you can delete and edit anything you like. To resolve conflicts use the discussion page. If you come across your own hints and tips that you think are useful to others, feel free to add them.

Choice of writing package

  • We use LaTeX because engineering is a highly mathematical topic, and this is the most professional way to present a mathematical paper. Also managing a very large document, such as a thesis, is actually easier in LaTeX. The overall quality of presentation beats Microsoft Word without question.
  • Because LaTeX is a typesetting language, and not a word processor, it is the most efficient way for a journal to convert your paper into a final published form without making any mistakes in translating your mathematical expressions. If you send a highly mathematical paper in Word to a journal, the chances are that your maths will end up with many formatting errors that you then have to fix at the galley-proof stage.
  • We use Microsoft Word for administrative matters, writing letters to editors, grant applications, CVs etc. But for technical journal articles and a thesis, LaTeX is the preferred medium. In some cases where we are collaborating on a journal article with non-engineers (eg. biologists) we will compromise and use Microsoft Word for ease of editing between many authors of different disciplines.
  • For the thesis LaTeX style file download it from here. You are strongly recommended to use this style file. Seven postgrad alumni medal winning theses have used this style file and so it will give you a winning presentation style.

Spelling convention

  • We use either American, British, or Australian spelling depending on the requirement of the publisher. In the case of a thesis, because this is Australia, we use Australian spelling. Also because we are electrical & electronic engineers we stick to the spellings "analog" (instead of "analogue") and "program" (instead of "programme"), even if your spell checker might sometimes tell you not to, simply because of the widespread use of these spellings in our field.
  • In the case where two alternative spellings are allowed, eg. biassing or biasing, always chose the shortest one.
  • There are cases where language is evolving and it is uncertain which spelling is out of date and which is acceptable as a modern replacement. For example, back in the 1990s it was unclear whether to write "infra-red" or "infrared." "Infra-red" was the old way to write it, but many people were starting to write "infrared." In order to decide, put both versions one-by-one into Google and see which one wins in terms of greatest number of hits. In this example, the spelling "infrared" has the most Google hits and is now clearly the dominant spelling.


  • In Derek's group we follow all the standard rules of punctuation, except that for commas we obey the Oxford rule (also called the Harvard Rule in the US). The Oxford rule resolves ambiguity and it inserts a comma before "and" in the following situation:
Normal comma rule: Apples, oranges and bananas.
Oxford comma rule: Apples, oranges, and bananas.
  • In a sentence where there are two commas, you can easily check yourself if the commas are in the right place. The trick is to read the sentence and skip the words between the commas. If the sentence still makes sense then the commas are correct.
  • When inserting punctuation treat each mathematical equation as if it is a word. For example if an equation ends a sentence, the full stop must be on the end of the equation! Remember, equations obey the rules of punctuation as if they are like words. One equation, no matter how long, is like one word.
  • Always put punctuation to the left of a closing inverted comma, not the right.
  • Full stops, commas, colons, semi-colons, question marks, exclamation marks, all have no space on the left, but always have one space on the right. An exception is there is no space after a comma, if it is followed by an inverted comma.
  • The dot at the bottom of a question mark or at the bottom of an exclamation mark serves the function of a full stop. So these must be at the end of sentences and there is no need to add another full stop.

e.g., eg. or eg

Where to put the dots? Well, it's one of those things that just depends on the style manual of the publication you are writing for. There's no real right or wrong here. In the UK, when I worked for the General Electric Company, in the 1970s we received a directive from the management that there is to be only one dot (seems they didn't have anything better to do). So since then, I have always written "eg." with one dot on the end in my own personal writing, unless dictated otherwise by the style manual of a publisher. I kind of like it because it means that when et cetera is abbreviated to "etc." it is then consistent with exempli gratia that is abbreviated to "eg." The same argumentation holds for id est that abbreviates to ie.

et al or et al.

Should et al. be written with a full stop on the end or not? The answer is always to insert the full stop because it is an abbreviation for et alii, et alia, et aliae and et alios. All these mean "and others" and their use depends on the grammatical tense. However, abbreviating to simply "et al." gets out of the problem of choosing the correct one. This is academically lazy, but fortunately universally accepted.


The tone of your writing is important in order for it to be acceptable to a technical journal. Aim for your writing to:

  • be formal
  • be dispassionate
  • avoid the passive voice, except when needed

Formal versus informal word usage

In scientific writing for journals and your thesis, you need to avoid informal words and use a formal equivalent. If you are writing a popular magazine article, then these requirements can be ignored. Here is a list of words to watch out for:

  • Remove all contractions, as they are informal. For example, don't → do not, doesn't → does not, can't → cannot
  • Avoid the use of the first person, "I" in technical writing, or "my." "We" and "our" is okay. The first person is considered a little too informal by many reviewers and examiners. The objective is not to annoy the reader.
  • Avoid the possessive form for technical words: "the voltage's magnitude" → "the magnitude of the voltage"
  • Amazing → significant
  • Beautiful → elegant
  • Big → large
  • Bigger → larger
  • Cheap → low cost
  • Do → carry out; perform; conduct
  • Done → carried out; performed; conducted
  • Enormous → very large
  • Fantastic → significant
  • Get → obtain
  • Great → significant
  • Happen → occur
  • Help → assist
  • Huge → very large
  • Humungous → extremely large
  • Like → such as
  • Marvelous → significant
  • Seems → appears
  • Some → a number of
  • Splendid → significant
  • Tiny → small
  • Try → attempt
  • Wonderful → significant

Note: Whilst we should avoid the above informal words there are some rare exceptions. From example the word "big" is informal, but it has now become a special scientific phrase when we talk about big data. In a specific case such as this "big data" has become an acceptable phrase in the literature.

Dispassionate tone

Of course you must be completely passionate to be successful at your PhD. You need to be passionate about your research and passionate to share your exciting results by publishing. When we do technical writing the tone must be dispassionate, but you as a person can still be passionate! So what do we really mean by a dispassionate tone? We simply mean that you must remove emotional words from a scientific description. The science is about logic not emotion. So the emotional words have no place in your thesis or papers. You can use a little emotion in an acknowledgement section, because that is not the scientific part of the paper. When replying to reviews of your paper always remove any emotive words, even if you feel like strangling the reviewer. And when you become a reviewer, your report should also be dispassionate.

Another exception is grant applications. A grant application has two parts: (a) a technical project description that is objective, and (b) a part that wants discussion about national benefit and significance, which is partly subjective. You must not use emotional words in the technical part. But in the subjective part you can get away with a few words that convey excitement, but don't overdo it.

Here's two examples of emotion in a technical paper and how to write them correctly:

  • Positive emotion: "This is an exciting development." Dispassionate version: "This is a significant development because..."
  • Negative emotion: "The measurement procedure is frustrating." Dispassionate version: "The measurement procedure has difficulties due to..."

Passive voice

If you overuse the passive voice your writing can sound cumbersome. When you minimize it the writing sounds more dynamic. To see a number of examples to understand the passive voice, see here.

  • Example when to avoid the passive voice
Passive voice: "The current is amplified by a transistor."
Active voice: "A transistor amplifies the current."

As you can see, the second option is much smoother and shorter.

  • Example when the passive voice is useful
Passive voice: "The current is increased through the motor."
Active voice: "I increase the current through the motor."

Here the passive voice is useful because in a technical paper it is unimportant who actually increased the current. The passive voice keeps it general.



In Derek's group we try to stick to the convention of keeping everything in the present tense, except when talking about previous work. For previous work you must use the past tense. This helps to keep the tone exciting and dynamic; long passages of past tense can sound boring. It also makes it easier for the reader to differentiate between the present work and any previous work.

An exception is when we are collaborating and publishing in a medical or biological journal. Here, these journals strictly want you to use the past tense for your experiment, but the present tense for your discussion and analysis. Physical and engineering journals accept present tense for your experiment, discussion, and analysis.

Split infinitives

A split infinitive is when you insert a word between "to" and its verb. For example:

Normal phrase: The spectrum analyser was used to study the device closely.
Split infinitive: The spectrum analyser was used to closely study the device.

Here, "study" is the verb and it has been split from the "to" in the second example. Split infinitives used to be thought of as bad grammar, but now in modern times many people accept them. However, some PhD examiners may be annoyed by them. Therefore the general advice is to minimize their use in formal and technical writing, where possible. However, feel free to use them occasionally when it makes the sentence clearer or flow better.

Words that are commonly misused

Here are some words in technical papers that commonly confuse people. Watch out for these cases.

Which or that?

When you are speaking "which" and "that" are interchangeable. This is not true for writing. The rules for using "which" and "that" in writing are as follows:

  • Never insert a comma before the word "that." If you need a comma then remove "that" and replace it with "which."
  • When the part of a sentence after "which" is explaining something about the sentence before the "which" then there is a comma before the "which." All other uses of "which" don't have a comma before them.

Resonance frequency or resonant frequency?

"Frequency" is a noun, "resonance" is a noun, and "resonant" is an adjective. An adjective describes a noun. If we say "resonant frequency" then we are describing the frequency with an adjective. But "resonant" is the description of the circuit, not the frequency. So the correct expression is "resonance frequency" which is a compound noun. So the whole expression is the name of the type of frequency.

Another example, to show what we have said makes sense is to consider the two nouns "fire" and "fly" (as in an insect). Putting the two together is then the name of a type of fly called the "fire fly." Notice we are not trying to describe the fly as being on fire, so we are not using any adjectives here. We are using two nouns and this is a compound noun that names the type of fly. This explains why "resonant frequency" is wrong, and "resonance frequency" is right.

Now I often forget myself, so a good trick to remember is to note that "resonance frequency" can be interchanged to "frequency of resonance," which means the same thing. But if you were to incorrectly say "resonant frequency," the interchange to "frequency of resonant" of course sounds completely wrong.

Incidence angle or incident angle?

By analogy with the above argument for "resonance frequency," the correct term is "incidence angle." It is the electromagnetic radiation that is "incident" upon a surface not the angle itself. So the compound noun "incidence angle" is the name of the angle.

Again, "incidence angle" can interchanged to "angle of incidence." But if you were to say "incident angle", the interchange to "angle of incident" sounds completely wrong. So this is the quick way to remember this.

Antennas or antennae?

In electrical engineering, the plural of 'antenna' is 'antennas,' and not 'antennae.' Antennae are the little things on the heads of insects.

A quick way to remember this, if you forget, is to think of the famous journal IEEE Transactions on Antennas and Propagation. Now, if in your mind you switch this to IEEE Transactions on Antennae and Propagation, it sounds awful.

Neural or neuronal?

Strictly speaking, 'neural' relates to the nervous system, whereas 'neuronal' refers specifically to neurons. The nervous system does indeed contain neurons, but when specifically talking about neurons and you need an adjective always try to use 'neuronal' wherever possible. However, when the force of tradition has made a phrase mainstream, such as 'neural networks,' when referring to artificial networks of neurons, it is better to stick to what is commonly used.

Effect or affect?

Think of 'effect' (noun) as a phenomenon and 'affect' (verb) as an influence. Then you won't get confused. A trick for determining if you have used the correct word, is to replace it with the word with 'influence' in your mind. If the sentence still makes sense then 'affect' is needed. If the sentence sounds wrong then insert 'effect.'

Example when 'affect' is correct: The voltage affects current... → The voltage influences current... (sounds correct)
Example when 'effect' is correct: The Kerr effect... → The Kerr influence... (sounds wrong)

Envision or envisage?

They both mean the same thing, and mean to visualize or imagine. 'Envisage' is more common in British writing and 'envision' is more common in American writing. Use whichever suits your audience.

Cochlea or cochlear?

'Cochlea' is a noun that describes a part of the ear. 'Cochlear' is an adjective as in 'cochlear implant,' for example. What makes them a little confusing is that they are both pronounced the same!

Readout or read out?

'Readout' is a noun; but 'read out' describes an action. They are pronounced differently when spoken. Here are examples of their use:

Read out: The data is read out of the computer. [Note: pronunciation is 'red out'].
Readout: The readout circuitry is designed to create a serial data stream. [Note: pronunciation is 'reed out'].

First or firstly?

Should we say first, second, third...etc. when enumerating points in a thesis or should we say firstly, secondly, thirdly...etc? There is a very long history of arguments about this for at least two centuries! So best to avoid this word war and keep the peace. Technically, both are ok. However, more people these days prefer: first, second, third...etc. The fact is no one complains if you leave out the "ly", but some people complain if you put it in. Therefore, to maximize the chance of not upsetting your thesis examiner leave the "ly" out!

Comprise or compose?

Comprise is a verb meaning "to contain" and compose is a verb being "to combine." So for example:

The circuit comprises a resistor and capacitor (correct)
A resistor and capacitor comprise the circuit (wrong)
A resistor and capacitor compose the circuit (correct)
The circuit composes a resistor and capacitor (wrong)

You can easily check the above makes sense by noting the the circuit is the whole thing, whereas the resistor and capacitor are the components. The circuit is what contains the components and components are combined to make the circuit.

Comprise or comprised of?

The trick here is to substitute the "comprise" with "contain" and see which sounds better:

The circuit comprises a resistor and capacitor → The circuit contains a resistor and capacitor... (sounds correct)
The circuit is comprised of a resistor and capacitor → The circuit is contained of a resistor and capacitor... (sounds wrong)

Therefore always avoid "comprised of" as it is technically wrong. Language does evolve and many people do say "comprised of" and you can argue to for its use. However, if you use "comprises" no one will complain, but if you use "comprised of" some people will complain. Thus, to minimise the chances of annoying a thesis examiner, it is better to avoid "comprised of."

Cannot or can not?

Strictly, both are equivalent. However, "cannot" is far more commonly used. So you use "cannot" to avoid annoying an examiner or reviewer. There is an exception: you split it into two words if the "not" is part of a different phrase such as "only". Examples are:

The circuit cannot turn on.
The circuit can not only provide high gain, but can also provide impedance matching.

Various academic words

There are a number of academic words that you need to be aware how to correctly use:

  • Prove. Avoid using the words "proof" and "prove" unless you are writing closed-form mathematics. In the physical world you cannot ultimately prove anything; we only increase confidence in models for given circumstances. Models are always subject to revision, especially when new measuring instruments open up a greater range of new circumstances. Therefore, for any physical discussion and experiments, always use "show" or "demonstrate" instead of "prove." On the other hand the mathematical world is not real, it is artificial. In maths you can make proofs as the mathematical space is well defined. In the physical world we do not know the extent of physical parameter spaces, as our instruments are not omnipotent. So we can never make closed form proofs in the sense that we can with mathematics. The physical world is always open-ended in that sense.
  • Law. This is used in the sense of "Newton's Laws" for example. There actually is no such thing as a law in science. Use of this word is a mistake of tradition. All "laws" named by humans are subject to revision. Therefore avoid using this term where you can. Only use it if it is already commonly used, such as in "Ohm's Law." In mathematics, however, there really are laws such as the "distributive law" and "law of exponents." Because mathematics is imaginary and not physical, we can have laws that are guaranteed to always hold.
  • Ansatz. This is a mathematical or physical starting guess, that you later verify by your results.
  • Paradox. This is something that is true but appears to contain a contradiction. Most paradoxes can be resolved and it can be shown that the contradiction was not real in the first place. However, there are a few paradoxes that seem to have no solution. If you are talking about a paradox that has been solved, then to make this clear it is better to call it an apparent paradox. An exception is when referring to an apparent paradox by name; for example, "Simpson's paradox" is the name of an apparent paradox. It is just its name, and no one is suggesting that it is a real paradox. To say "Simpson's apparent paradox" is too long, and so we shorten the name for brevity.
  • Heuristic. This word has specific meaning in education and psychology. But here we will only focus on what we mean in engineering and computer science. A heuristic is a search or optimization technique based on a set of strategies, rather than a brute force exhaustive algorithm, resulting in rough solutions that are good starting points. A metaheuristic is the same thing, but not tailored to a specific problem; a metaheuristic can be used more generally.

Words to avoid

Certain words are best avoided in scientific writing because they are imprecise or have little value in a science context.

  • Good and bad. Always avoid using these words because they are value judgements have have no real place in the physical sciences. Instead of talking about an electronic device being "good" or "bad" it is better to be more precise and talk in terms of the property that is desirable or not desirable for required operation. If you call something "good" it leaves too many questions in the mind of the reader: "good compared to what and good in what regard?" The same goes for "bad." So it is better to describe the quantities directly rather than using these meaningless value statements. There may be some rare exceptions to watch out for, for example, in the area of cybersecurity papers it is acceptable to call an attacker a "bad actor." But in this context it is a special phrase.
  • Believe or belief. These words are banned in scientific writing. Remember whilst we as scientists have our own private beliefs, these are independent of our science in the lab and the models we describe. We never 'believe' in our models, we merely try our best to falsify them so what we have remaining are models that have a high likelihood of being accurate in most circumstances. We recognize that every model breaks down, when applied to extreme circumstances outside of our current achievable measurement range. So our models are always approximate descriptions, not truths. A good scientist/engineer always has some awareness of when a model breaks. So where are the truths? Well, we can identify truths in a relative manner: it is true that the height of the Eiffel tower relative to the height of an apple tree is taller. We can measure that. But matters of absolute truth belong in the realm of our private faith and not in our models we describe. In Bayesian statistics, the literature does often talk about a "prior" being based on the "belief" of the observer. I personally avoid using "belief" in this context. A scientist is supposed to avoid belief and cognitive bias. It is better to talk about the Bayesian prior as being an initial guess or estimate.
  • Popular. Never use the word "popular" in scientific writing. In science we deal with objectivity; whereas popularity contests are subjective. If you are, for example, talking about an ubiquitous electronic device; rather than describing it as "popular" consider using phrases such as "commonly used" or "predominantly used."

Derek's golden rules

  • Derek's golden rule #1: Avoid the words "could," "would," or "should" in technical writing. "Could" and "would" are very weak sounding words, and "should" is too emotionally commanding. Suggested alternatives are:
Should → ought to, is possibly
Would → will potentially, will possibly
Could → may, can potentially, may possibly
  • Derek's golden rule #2: Never begin a sentence with an abbreviation, mathematical symbol, or acronym. All sentences must begin with a real English word.
  • Derek's golden rule #3: Nested brackets are forbidden. Although we allow nested brackets in mathematics, they are not allowed in the English prose.
  • Derek's golden rule #4: Try to avoid using brackets wherever possible. Only use them when you have no other choice.
  • Derek's golden rule #5: Try to avoid multiple-letter mathematical variables. Rather than inventing a multiple-letter variable, use a single letter with a descriptive subscript. This is always preferred. In cases where multiple-letter variables have become tradition in the literature, such as SNR, then it is okay to use use them. But don't be guilty of making up new ones, because they are evil.
  • Derek's golden rule #6: When referring to sections, chapters, equations etc., always be specific and refer to them by their number even if it is the next one. Don't be vague and say "In a later chapter we discuss..." but say "In Chapter 5 we discuss..."
  • Derek's golden rule #7: Do not write about past events with relative time. Talk in terms of absolute time. For example, do not say "Last year, Smith et al. introduced a new extension to their algorithm." Instead of saying "Last year" write the actual year. Talking in relative time is not good practice in a thesis or a journal article. If someone reads your work in 20 years time, you still want your writing to make sense then.

LaTeX tips

  • When a full stop ends a sentence, LaTeX automatically inserts a larger than normal space after it. So when you have a full stop with a space that is not ending a sentence, eg. in an abbreviation, always put a tilde (~) after that full stop. The tilde will then suppress the large space and it also suppresses a line break at that point. This is important, because you don't want a full stop at the end of a line if it is not the end of sentence.
  • Don't get the three kinds of dashes mixed up in LaTeX: (1) - short dash or hyphen, (2) -- medium dash, and (3) --- long dash. Use the short dash for hyphenating words. Use the medium one for a number range. Don't use the short dash for a number range, as that is reserved for a hyphen. Use the long dash for a pause in a sentence (the pause is longer than a semicolon but shorter than a full stop). Another rule is that there is no space either side of these dashes. But there is a space either side of a minus sign.
  • Only single-letter non-bold variables are in the italic maths font. Operators, numbers, constants, labels etc. are all in normal font. In a LaTeX equation if you need to force something to appear in the normal font use {\rm ...}.
  • Physical units are always in upright font, so can be written outside the $...$ environment.
  • There is always a space either side of mathematical operations such as +, -, <, > etc. The maths environment takes care of this for you. So always write $a>0$ and not $a$>0, or the spacing will come out wrong. There are some exceptions to this spacing rule, for example, with minus signs in exponents; however, LaTeX will take care of the correct spacing for you. This is another good reason to always use LaTeX for technical writing.
  • If you are inserting Matlab code or computer pseudo-code into a paper or thesis, use the {\tt ...} font.


  • Use bold for vectors
  • Single-letter non-bold variables are in the italic maths font. Everything else in the mathematics is in the regular upright Roman font. The backslash in front of functions such as \sin and \cos will take care of this for you, when using LaTeX. But, in other cases, to force the upright Roman font you need to use {\rm...}.
  • Avoid using an asterisk to mean multiplication or convolution, in the main text. An asterisk is only allowed to mean multiplication in computer code. To mean multiplication, most of the time just put two variables next to each other. Sometimes you can insert \cdot if you want to be explicit. If you are multiplying raw numbers use \times. For convolution use \otimes. If you really need to use an asterisk for convolution, do not use * but use \ast. The \ast version uses the operator font and is properly centered.
  • Remember each equation is considered part of a sentence and obeys the rules of English punctuation. In terms of punctuation, one equation counts as one word, no matter how long it is.


  • Always insert physical units after a number.
  • Always insert a space between a number and the units. Do this with a tilde (~) in LaTeX.
  • Exceptions are that there is no space between a number and the % sign and the °C or ° signs. There are some rare journals whose style is to have a space here and you should then obey that. But for your thesis and most journals there is no space.
  • Units are always in upright font, so write them outside the math environment.


  • Full stops, commas, colons, semi-colons, question marks, exclamation marks, all have no space on the left, but always have one space on the right.
  • There is always a space between a number and the units. Normally you must create the space with a tilde, in LaTeX, to suppress a linebreak.
  • Note the special case that a number has no space after it, if followed by a percentage sign or a degree symbol.

Figure captions

You may have been previously taught to keep figure captions short and succinct. This is usually the case for essays, magazine articles, newspapers etc. However, for scientific journals and your thesis this is absolutely wrong.

Your figure caption should begin with a short descriptive sentence to identify the figure. Then the caption should have a full description of the figure to explain the figure to the reader. A good way to write the full description is to imagine you have never seen the figure before. Then ask yourself what you need to know to the grasp what is going on in the figure. If the figure is a graph or a representation of a result, you need to state if it is experiment, theory, or simulation. You also need to state any key parameters and conditions.

Your thesis LaTeX file is set up to automatically compile a list of figures at the beginning of the thesis. This creates a problem, as you obviously don't want a huge caption description to appear in this list. So the fix for this is to use this command for all your figure captions in your thesis: \caption[Short caption text]{Full caption text}. Only the short description in the square brackets will then appear in the List of Figures. The complete caption will appear under each figure.


  • When writing a journal article, always follow the format required by the specific journal.
  • When writing your thesis always use Harvard style referencing. This means you cite using author name and year, rather than by a reference number. For a huge document such as a thesis, the Harvard style is preferred by examiners because they can often recognize a reference from the name and year. This saves them from constantly having to check the references at the end. Also Harvard style is much easier to manage in a large document, because the references are all at the end alphabetically. In LaTeX, use \cite as normal, and it is the style file that will create the Harvard style. However, when you refer to the reference itself as a noun you must use \citeasnoun.
  • For the formatting and style of a reference, you follow the rules of the journal. If you are writing a thesis, because we are electrical & electronic engineers, format it the IEEE way. Simply refer to any published IEEE paper and follow the way they do it.
  • Only reference primary sources. Primary sources are published scientific articles. Encyclopedias are secondary sources and should be avoided; rather find the primary source where the encyclopedia got its information from. In academia, citing Wikipedia is an especially a grave sin that can get you metaphorically burned at the stake. The only context where mentioning Wikipedia is acceptable is if a paper paper on big data or natural language processing, for example, is using swathes of Wikipedia text as a dataset. If the Wikipedia is the actual object of your research then that is ok.

Singular and plural forms

Forming the plural in English can be tricky. Normally the plural is formed by putting 's' and sometimes 'es' on the end of the singular word. Special cases to watch out for are as follows.

Irregular plurals

There are a number of tricky plurals that are not formed by simply adding 's' or 'es' on the end of the singular word. Some typical cases you may need in your thesis are as follows.

  • Abscissa vs. abscissae
  • Analysis vs. analyses
  • Antenna vs. antennas (not antennae for engineering!)
  • Appendix vs. appendices
  • Automaton vs. automata
  • Axis vs. axes
  • Basis vs. bases
  • Child vs. children
  • Criterion vs. criteria
  • Corpus vs. corpora
  • Datum vs. data
  • Die vs. dice
  • Emphasis vs. emphases
  • Equilibrium vs. equilibria
  • Extremum vs. extrema
  • Focus vs. foci
  • Foot vs. feet
  • Formula vs. formulae or formulas
  • Half vs. halves
  • Hypothesis vs. hypotheses
  • Knife vs. knives
  • Index vs. indices
  • Locus vs. loci
  • Man vs. men
  • Matrix vs. matrices
  • Maximum vs. maxima
  • Medium vs. media
  • Memorandum vs. memoranda
  • Minimum vs. minima
  • Modulus vs. moduli
  • Modus operandi vs. modi operandi
  • Nucleus vs. nuclei
  • Optimum vs. optima
  • Person vs. people
  • Phenomenon vs. phenomena
  • Polyhedron vs. polyhedra
  • Quantum vs. quanta
  • Radius vs. radii
  • Radix vs. radices
  • Schema vs. schemata
  • Simplex vs. simplices
  • Spectrum vs. spectra
  • Stimulus vs. stimuli
  • Stratum vs. strata
  • Syllabus vs. syllabi
  • Synopsis vs. synopses
  • Synthesis vs. syntheses
  • Thesis vs. theses
  • Tooth vs. teeth
  • Vortex vs. vortices
  • Woman vs. women

Countable objects where the plural and singular are identical

There are some rare cases where singular and plural are the same. Examples are as follows.

  • Advice
  • Aircraft
  • Corps
  • Crossroads
  • Equipment
  • Fish
  • Forceps
  • Furniture
  • Headquarters
  • Hovercraft
  • Information
  • Knowledge
  • Luggage
  • News
  • Offspring
  • Poetry
  • Series
  • Spacecraft
  • Species
  • Sheep

Uncountable objects

If something cannot be counted then in English there is no plural (even if there is a plural when translating from another language). Nouns such as 'water' and 'oxygen' are uncountable so we keep these singular. Also 'work' and 'research' are uncountable. Many students make the mistake of trying to force 'research' to be countable and incorrectly write 'researches'. This is sounds strange to a native English speaker. If you want to force it to be countable you should write 'research studies' or simply 'studies' will do.

Some words can sometimes be countable and sometimes be uncountable; for example you might say 'I heard strange noises in the night'. These are countable because you heard a number of sounds that you can count. However, when talking about a noise signal in engineering it is uncountable so we do not say 'noises'. My advice is to always avoid saying 'noises' in a scientific paper when talking about noise signal. When you are forced into talking about countable cases use phrases like 'noise types' or 'noise sources' or 'noise outputs'. Saying 'noises' sounds very strange to the native English speaker in this scientific context.

How to annoy the hell out of a PhD examiner

Prof. Bob Bogner used to have a list of ways to annoy a PhD thesis examiner. These also apply to journal reviewers. Remember, this is a list of what not to do. So make sure you avoid them. I have adapted his original list as follows:

1. Use the word "this" ambiguously. "The dynamic system goes unstable when the feedback coefficient exceeds unity and then the machine may over-speed and explode. This may be avoided by the use of the proposed design method." Notice that "This" could refer to the system, to the instability, to the over-speed, to the explosion, or to the situation. Be aware that the word "it" also can have the same ambiguity problem.

2. Use "however" as a conjunction. "The coil overheats, however the motor does not catch fire." Try to avoid this. Three correct alternatives are:

  • "The coil overheats, and the motor does not catch fire."
  • "The coil overheats, but the motor does not catch fire."
  • "The coil overheats. The motor, however, does not catch fire."

3. Use "so" as a conjunction. "The train left early so many people missed it." The correct connection is made by the use of "and so", indicating the cause and effect relationship: "The train left early and so many people missed it." A different sense is implied by the construction: "The voltage is low so that users will be absolutely safe." This case is allowed because "so" indicates a purpose for the voltage being made to be low.

3. Use "it's". The word "it's" with an apostrophe should not appear in technical writing. We do not allow contractions, and so its use to mean "it is" is not allowed. The case of "its" without the apostrophe is the possessive form. So you use it correctly as follows: "The resistor is connected, and its function is to introduce a voltage drop."

4. Missing or erroneous references to figures. Make sure every figure is referred to in the text.

5. Omit the object of comparison. "This thesis presents a better method for designing amplifiers." Better than what?

6. Confuse singular and plural words. Tricky cases to watch out for are given in a previous section above.

7. Treat singular concepts as if they have gradations. "The parameters have an improved level of optimality." Words such as "unique", "optimum", etc. do not have gradations. Something is unique or it is not. Something is optimum or it is not. It is like virginity.

8. Use the word "hope" or "hopeful". These types of words are meaningless in scientific writing and are completely banned. Do not use them at all. "We hope our model is an improvement over Shannon's model" is better written as "Our model is aimed at providing an improvement over Shannon's model." Also, "Hopefully the voltage will not be excessive" implies that the voltage hopes like a person. A better form is: "It is anticipated that the voltage will not be excessive."

9. Use capitals incorrectly. This can really annoy the reader. Never use block capitals for emphasis, as it looks very uneducated. Don't use capitals for chemical compounds, unless at the beginning of a sentence. The rules for capitals in English text are:

  • Capital at the beginning of a sentence
  • Capital for proper nouns (i.e. named things)
  • Capitals for acronyms
  • Capitals for Section 1, Figure 1, Equation 1, Table 1 etc, because you are naming those items. When you are generally referring to sections, figures, equations, tables etc. they are lower case because you are not naming a specific one
  • Capitals in title case for any part of a reference that is in italics
  • Capitalize the first letters of all German nouns when referencing a paper in the original German

10. Omit the subject of a participle. "Making the insulation thin the strength is too low and it may rupture." Who or what is making the insulation thin? The sentence construction implies that the strength made it thin. Perhaps the author meant "Making the insulation thin causes the strength to be too low and it may rupture." Who can tell what the author meant if the words are ambiguous?

13 Use "/" in written text to mean "or". This is sloppy and is banned.

14. Use the phrase "as such". This leads to sentences that sound like they contain superfluous waffle and is best avoided.

Why all the above rules are important for your PhD thesis

Many years ago, whilst studying at the University of Cambridge, Ken Moxham from our Civil Engineering department saw the following passage: "Because of the impracticability of an examiner's establishing the details of the conduct of the research, the care with which a thesis is prepared will be taken as prima facie evidence of the care with which the research has been carried out."