Understanding the Language of Science

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Understanding the Language of Science

By Steven Darian

Steven Darian examines the language of science in order to analyze the patterns of thinking that underlie scientific endeavor.



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6 x 9 | 262 pp. | 22 figures, 4 tables

ISBN: 978-0-292-71618-6

From astronomy to zoology, the practice of science proceeds from scientific ways of thinking. These patterns of thought, such as defining and classifying, hypothesizing and experimenting, form the building blocks of all scientific endeavor. Understanding how they work is therefore an essential foundation for everyone involved in scientific study or teaching, from elementary school students to classroom teachers and professional scientists.

In this book, Steven Darian examines the language of science in order to analyze the patterns of thinking that underlie scientific endeavor. He draws examples from university science textbooks in a variety of disciplines, since these offer a common, even canonical, language for scientific expression. Darian identifies and focuses in depth on nine patterns—defining, classifying, using figurative language, determining cause and effect, hypothesizing, experimenting, visualizing, quantifying, and comparing—and shows how they interact in practice. He also traces how these thought modes developed historically from Pythagoras through Newton.

  • Introduction
  • 1. The Development of Scientific Thinking
  • 2. The Language of Definitions
  • 3. The Language of Classifying
  • 4. The Role of Figurative Language
  • 5. Cause and Effect
  • 6. The Language of Hypotheses
  • 7. The Language of Experiments
  • 8. More than Meets the Eye: The Role of Visuals
  • 9. The Language of Quantifying
  • 10. The Language of Comparison
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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I had no desire to entice you with misleading premises, for there are, to be sure, many languages of science: the language of university science lectures and the explanatory inquiries of the elementary school classroom; the language of scientists debating issues in the laboratory; the language of papers presented at conferences and of articles in scholarly journals; plus the actual language of discovery. We also find pieces for the layman, from Popular Mechanics and Scientific American articles to accounts in print and broadcast journalism; and then, the language of textbooks, from primary and secondary school through university level, in textbooks introductory and advanced, on subjects from general biology to immunology.

This language of science, as we can see, is an enormous undertaking, with a nearly endless variety of audiences and participants, purposes, and degrees of complexity. A work encompassing this would be a lifetime's task, like tracing the declensions of the stars. Instead, I have chosen a more modest task, but one that, I would suggest, underlies the rest of them. I have taken, as my sample, university textbooks from a range of disciplines—geology and physics, biology and chemistry—with the thought that these illustrate, in a basic yet polished way, the language of science. For while these various languages seem to multiply as in an algebraist's dream, the tools, or syntax, of scientific inquiry are relatively few in number.

In contrast to textbooks, practitioners tend to reject the term "scientific method," arguing that there is no rigid sequence in the process of scientific discovery and validation. While this is true—as we will see in Chapter 1—we are still left with a limited number of tools, ways of thinking, or, as they are called in the humanities, rhetorical modes. These are the thought patterns I have focused on in our study. One problem, of course, is that textbooks do not peek beneath the covers, to show the conflicts and conundrums, the false starts and blind alleys that all scientists encounter in their search for truth. And we will try to catch some of these in our historical excursion.

Admittedly, as O. Régent remarks, the types of scientific discourse used in practice "contain none of the uniformity nor the simplicity of the expository discourse to be found in school or university textbooks" (in Riley 1985, 105). We even find differences in cultural attitudes. But the beauty of the texts is their closely argued, tight-fitting interaction between these various modes of thought: How do definitions and examples, cause-and-effect statements and classifying, hypotheses and experiments, figurative language and visuality relate to one another? How do they interact? What is the syntax of definitions? The vocabulary of hypotheses? These are some of the questions we will examine in our time together.

Our topic—the language of science—is important for a wide range of readers. I have tried to keep those readers in mind throughout the book—in my presuppositions and use of technical vocabulary. While at times the analysis goes deeper than some readers might need, the chapters also contain suggestions and activities for teaching the various thought modes. As such, I hope the material will be useful for all of you interested in the teaching of science and the teaching of thinking in general, as well as those involved in scientific and technical writing. This should include:

Teachers of science at all levels, elementary through graduate school. Underlying the teaching of science is the language of science. Crucial to understanding that language is mastery of the various thought modes that we've analyzed in the book. Normally, these thought modes are taught implicitly, if at all, in courses on science and other subjects. And it is unlikely that teachers, even science teachers, fully understand the structure of these thought modes—their lexical and syntactic patterning.

Teachers with language-minority students. Language-minority students include those whose first language is not English, as well as native English-speakers who have not developed the needed linguistic facility in some of the critical thought modes analyzed in our study. Again, these students are found at all levels—from elementary through graduate school. They may be ESL (English as a second language) students, those we traditionally classify as minorities, or any others who need developmental work. My own sense is that one of the major problems discouraging minority students from going into science is deficiency in the linguistic and sometimes cognitive mastery of the thought patterns discussed in this volume.

All those concerned with the teaching of critical thinking. Clearly, the thinking skills—or rhetorical modes—found in our book are not the special province of science. It is important for all those involved in the teaching of thinking in general—and critical thinking in particular—to better understand the structure of those thought modes: defining, classifying, hypothesizing, and so forth.

Scholars, in all fields, who are interested in the language of science. Inquiries into science and language—and especially into their interrelation—have expanded far beyond the discipline of the sciences, and have become a major concern for scholars in linguistics, English, rhetoric, anthropology, sociology, history, and philosophy. As a result, Understanding the Language of Science should appeal to scholarly readers from a wide range of disciplines.

Practitioners of all sorts, including people in scientific and technical writing, foreign scientists who want to publish their work in English (of whom there are a great number), and practicing scientists who are native speakers of English and who are interested in the language of their craft.

I have used the theoretical material of the book as the basis for a school text entitled Skills Workshop: Reading in the Content Areas, which—I hope—will also be useful for students at different levels and from different backgrounds.


Let's begin by exploring some of our thought patterns in their historical context. The history of science is, of course, a giant field in itself, and all we can do, within that universe of discourse, is to catch glimpses of our topics—such as classifying or defining—as they evolve across the centuries and eventually take their place as essential tools of scientific inquiry.


Steven Darian is Professor Emeritus of Linguistics and Education at Rutgers University. He has also been a Fulbright Visiting Professor in India (1992), Uzbekistan (1997), and Ukraine (2001).

"To my knowledge, there has never [before] been a volume that analyzes, in one place, the actual language of science—those elements of thinking that are acknowledged to be the basis of scientific thought. . . . [Thus] this is a very important book, contributing to several fields: science, education, rhetoric, medicine, and perhaps even philosophy. . . . Darian's erudition is truly astonishing."
—Celest A. Martin, Associate Professor, College Writing Program, University of Rhode Island

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