In today’s class, we’re going to talk about the scientist’s adverb. I bet you didn’t know that scientists have an adverb all their own, so you’re no doubt thrilled that you stumbled upon this post.

Before I get too far, I sense some of you are struggling to remember the specifics of adverbs. In fact, some of you might be getting sweaty palms just thinking about grammar worksheets and identifying parts of sentences. Take a deep breath. You’re not in middle school –  this is just for fun. To refresh your memory, adverbs modify verbs. If a word ends in “ly” then it’s a probably an adverb. Before the big reveal, I should mention that writers (i.e., real writers like Stephen King) hate adverbs. King has a famous quote that starts, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.” Need I say more?

I can sense you’re getting impatient, so here it is. The scientist’s adverb is “strikingly.”  I’ll be calmly reading an article and then, yep, there is again, strikingly. Most often, strikingly comes at the beginning of the sentence.  Strikingly, when incubated for 24h with Equine Growth Factor, the bacteria E. secretariatum tripled in size and grew into the shape of a horse. I assume the writer uses the word “strikingly” to wake up the reader. Perhaps it’s meant to be a neon sign, flashing and pointing to the rest of the sentence, saying, “Hey, this is the important part, pay attention!” Okay, I get that. I’ve been known to slip an adverb into the beginning of a sentence as a bit of a “pick me up” for the reader. However, I’m more of a “surprisingly” gal. Maybe this relates to some deep borne insecurity as a child. Sounds like a good topic for my next therapy session.

Although childhood trauma could be part of my aversion, another part is just the feeling the word gives me. “Strikingly” makes me think of Clark Kent ripping open his plain white shirt to reveal a bulging chest with the letter S emblazoned in the middle of his super suit. “Ta da, here I am, ready to vanquish my foes!” By contrast, the word “surprise” conjures images of unexpected delight – flowers, a small gift, an empty dishwasher…..

I started this post by saying that strikingly is the scientist’s adverb, implying that strikingly is used less frequently in non-science writing. Being a scientist at heart, I thought I’d “put my money where my mouth is” and see if there’s any truth to this rumor. First, I searched PubMed for the word strikingly, and compared this to my preferred adverb, surprisingly. Let’s face it, surprisingly is a more common word, and it got 90,155 hits as opposed to the challenger, coming in at 33,645, or about a 3-fold difference. I chose the New York Times as a non-science comparator. One unexpected problem (like in a grant) was that when I searched the NYT archives for the “ly” version of either word I also got all “ing” versions plus the “ly.”  For both words, the “ing” version was used much more often than the “ly.” I guess writers published in the NYT agree with Stephen King. Anyway, to address this unexpected pitfall, I only looked at article titles. I then counted 239 titles that contained “surprising” and 239 that contained “striking” or the adverb form of each. Why 239? That’s when I got tired. Of 239 titles with the word surprising or surprisingly, 29/239 or 12% had the adverb form. Strikingly, on the other hand, was only used twice in 239 titles (0.008%). Therefore, in the scientific literature, surprisingly was used only 3x more often than strikingly, but in the non-scientific literature, surprisingly beat strikingly by over 14-fold. Ah ha!! Scientists do have a tendency to use strikingly. Case closed. Quod erat demonstrandum. All done, bye bye.

Okay, quell your righteous indignation. I realize my experimental design lacked rigor, but that’s okay, I’m not trying to cure cancer, just doing a little sleuthing for fun. Another fun fact? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the use of strikingly peaked in the 1850’s, but it’s still on the rise in PubMed.

Last, but not least, according to PubMed the word strikingly was first used in the title of a paper by S Theobold in 1894, “The Ophthalmoscope Does Not Always Reveal Latent Hypermetropia, With Notes Of A Case Strikingly Illustrative Of This Fact” published in Transactions of the American Ophthalmological Society.

One might surmise that my social isolation has gotten the better of me and has reduced me to searching adverbs in PubMed. Alternatively (note adverb slip), one might hypothesize that I like words. No doubt there’s an element of truth to both.

Related Resources:

One-Minute Writing Tuneup: Don’t Dangle Your Modifiers Off a Cliff

Exciting AND Consistent? Verbs and Nouns in Scientific Writing

The Write Rules

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