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Care to elucidate? The vocabulary of grant applications

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Author: Jacquelyn Gill

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?

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