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Care to elucidate? The vocabulary of grant applications

I love words. I’ve been an avid reader since I was a kid, and I worked in bookstores throughout my late teens and early 20’s to pay for my habit. I play Scrabble, and I collect vocabulary the way some of my colleagues collect bird sightings or rocks. I married a writer. I often joke about the fact that became a scientist in large part because of all the awesome words (sverdrupribozome, hysteresis…).

So far, 2015 has been the Year of Grants (which also makes it the Year of Grant Rejections, but that’s another post). I’m collaborating on a proposal right now where I’m not the lead, so I’m a bit more self-conscious of my language choices than usual. One of the biggest challenges I found as I transitioned out of graduate school was collaborative writing, (as opposed to the grad school model where I wrote the entire paper and then had my advisor or co-authors return edits), and one thing I still find tricky is integrating multiple writing styles into one cohesive voice.

Overuse of the thesaurus in the attempt to sound more intelligent, or to avoid redundant word use, is not an effective strategy.

Overuse of the thesaurus in the attempt to sound more intelligent, or to avoid redundant word use, is not an effective strategy.

In revising a draft today, I found myself changing a co-author’s “discover” to “elucidate.” Some of you are probably cringing, or yelling WHY? at your screens right now. To me, “discover” implies something totally new, and set in stone. “Elucidate” makes me think of a process — to shed light on something is to contribute to its greater understanding, even if you don’t have all the answers. Why not just say “shed light on?” To reasons: first, I worry it sounds too conversational. Second, it’s two extra words. In a proposal, every extra word matters when it comes down to fitting into page limits.

So, instead of discovering, I decided we were elucidating instead. I immediately started second-guessing that choice, because “elucidate” is definitely a twenty-dollar word when a five-cent word works approximately as well, even if it’s not really the most accurate at conveying what I mean. “Elucidate” is not a colloquial word, and it comes across as unnecessarily complicated or pretentious. While I doubt that any one word will sink a given grant, people feel pretty strongly about “elucidate,” as I discovered on Twitter.

As I type this, imagine a little angel and a little devil arguing above my shoulders. The angel makes a reasonable argument: “Why use it you’re just going to alienate reviewers?” The devil is a little stubborn, and a bit selfish: “Elucidate is a great word.” Both are correct, but neither are sitting on a DEB panel come fall.

Like most early career researchers, I’ve combed through blog posts and books, and sat in on seminars full of grant-writing tips. Avoid unnecessary jargon or “big words” (even if you love them). Avoid the passive voice, and ditch padding like “furthermore” and “moreover.” Steer clear of words like “innovative,” “unique,” or “cutting edge,” because you want to show, and not tell; you also run the risk of overselling your proposed work.

I’ve yet to sit on a panel, myself, though I’ve done a fair amount of ad hoc reviewing, so I have yet to build up a repertoire of linguistic pet peeves. Over time, I’ve purged some language from my own writing (I once had a reviewer relentlessly flag instances of “in order to” from a manuscript), but I don’t necessarily have a list of words or phrases that regularly induce eye-rolling or mockery.

So, what are your feelings about “elucidate?” Are we sucking all the fun out of scientific writing by eschewing all the nifty words? Are there words you’re sick of reading in grant applications? Should sverdrup be a legal Scrabble word? Should I stop procrastinating and get back to revision?

Categories: Professional Development

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Jacquelyn Gill

17 replies

  1. I work in the field of corporate fundraising, so adopting a more laidback style is a better approach than heavy technical grant writing. I have to say, however, that your post – even though I’m so very late to the party with this comment – made me laugh and also pricked me a little on some of my word choices (I use the word “utilize” a fair bit although I often think it is in the right context). Thanks for this and now I’m going to rummage through the rest of your blog to see what I may… discover.

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  2. Great post! Word choice certainly does matter, and not just for grant writing. Every synonym has a slightly different, nuanced meaning to the rest of its synonyms – so relying on a thesaurus without using the dictionary won’t always give the most appropriate word choice.

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  3. Well, there’s always adumbrate: to bring out of shadow. But seriously, elucidate means to clarify (to make lucid), not to illuminate. Try “clarify” instead.

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    1. “Illuminate” shows up as a synonym for elucidate in the thesauruses I’ve checked, so I think it’s a vid alternative, depending on context.

      I don’t think clarify works as an alternative to discover, necessarily, and depending on context I’d worry about the same problems as “characterize” noted in the earlier comment.

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  4. I like and use “elucidate,” although sparingly. Same rationale: it implies a process.

    One word I don’t like is “characterize,” as in “we will characterize the ____”…largely because I was taken to task on it early on. I agree now that it does imply material, a project, etc. that’s rather immature in its development. Hope Jahren has some words on exactly this:
    http://hopejahrensurecanwrite.com/2014/06/02/how-to-turn-a-good-proposal-into-an-excellent-proposal-in-eight-admittedly-arduous-steps/

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  5. Use words that mean what you say and write to say what you mean. I have no problem with elucidate or unique or innovative, as long as they are appropriate. If something really is innovative and you can back it up, feel free to highlight it to the tired reviewer. However, don’t simply say something is innovative without any justification. Likewise, if you have the killer experiment that really with elucidate X, say elucidate. (Discover is more something aspirational for the project aims, I think, but you can never say with confidence that you will discover something.) If, on the other hand, you may not elucidate X, say “investigate” instead. Many experiments further our understanding but don’t really add clarity.

    The biggest problem with *most* words is that they come with baggage and you never know what baggage a reader will bring with them. If you rely on the reader having the very same definition in mind for a specific word that you use, you will always risk being misunderstood, no matter what that word is. Context is crucial and good writing will lead the reader to right definition, even if it is not a word that they know/like.

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  6. Wyrd’s comment is spot-on: those two words “elucidate” and “discover” are not interchangeable though there is some overlap.
    I tend to disagree with the earlier commenters, and agree with Jacquelyn that “‘elucidate’ is a twenty-dollar word” and unless your grant proposal is being submitted to the Society of Highfalutin Verbiage you should be cautious about overuse of words like that. If words like “explain”, “clarify” or “illuminate” will do the job, use those instead.
    A few uses of “elucidate” would be OK with me but I’d get annoyed if I saw it very often in one proposal.

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  7. I’m a big fan of language and vocabulary, and I think ‘elucidate’ is a fine word if that’s the word that carries the best meaning. The thing that strikes me is is that ‘discover’ and ‘elucidate’ don’t have meanings that I see as intersecting. It’s hard for me to imagine a context in which you can’t pick one word over the other… the context should make that so clear as to remove all doubt and choice. Really, those words aren’t anything alike.

    You can only discover something you don’t know. You can discover something for yourself, or you can discover something on behalf of others.

    You can only elucidate something you already know for someone else. You cannot elucidate a topic for yourself. I see ‘elucidate’ as being similar to ‘teach’.

    To be frank, if you’re confused over whether ‘elucidate’ or ‘discover’ is correct, then I feel like you’re either confused about the meanings of those words or you’re confused about what your paper is saying at that point.

    Are you going out seeking new information? That’s discovery. Are you going out seeking to clarify matters you already understand for others? That elucidation. If you really mean “to clarify and illuminate” for ourselves, then you need to add a few words to elucidate (i.e. “for ourselves” and “elucidate for ourselves” is, I think, a clumsy use of language).

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      1. I agree “discover” doesn’t quite fit, but I’m not sure “elucidate” does either given the the sentence fragment (unless you *already* understand those drivers and are elucidating them for others). Perhaps “explore” might work?

        (Are you seeking to understand these drivers or do you already understand them? If you’re seeking, then I don’t think “elucidate” quite works. As I mentioned, I tend to see its semantic as very close to “teach”… the “clarify” and “illuminate” aspects of the definition.)

        FWIW, I don’t agree “characterize” is a bad word. Per the linked post, I’d agree it’s not ideal in the *title*, but as a word in the text, I think it’s a rather good one. It actually sounds like it matches the sentence fragment very well. (NASA uses it all the time in reference to their systems. Their failure modes are carefully characterized and cataloged for reference during missions.)

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  8. “Elucidate” has never bothered me, but I’ve often corrected my students about “utilize” when it could just be “use.” And I agree with @ahdavey and @Jeremy John Parker. Thanks for another “enlightening” post! 🙂

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  9. Be impeccable with your words. We have so many words for their various shades of meaning. 1 is really close to 2, but you wouldn’t say 1 when you really meant 2 in an equation, so why would you short-change a sentence in the same way?

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