A Note on Everyday Speak and Science Linguo

Posted on June 23, 2010 by


In the middle of reading “The Language of Science” by M.A.K. Halliday.

Lot of stuff I think I understand, but can’t immediately put into words.

But there was a particularly eloquent example of the difference between plain everyday language and the language of science on page 56.

Exhibit A:  “The driver drove the bus too rapidly down the hill, so the brakes failed.”


Exhibit B:  “The driver’s overrapid downhill driving of the bus resulted in brake failure”

Exhibit A, or the first sentence, is the way were all inclined to talk about things in plain everyday English.  I’m inclined to write in that way too.

Exhibit B, or the second sentence is not really one way that anyone, including scientists would actually talk, but it’s an example, a representative of the structure of the language used in scientific papers and books in English.

Both sentences refer to the same exact event.

However there are some big differences between the two.

1)  The first sentence talks about the event as it happened.  It talks about the past as if they were there to witness it and are simply reporting the events back.

The second sentence also talks about the event as it happened, but with the flipping of two key verbs (“drove” into “overrapid downhill driving” and “failed” into “failure”), makes it sound as if the event was bound to happen.

2)  The second sentence turns the action verbs into nouns, or “things”.

In the first sentence, the past-tense action is that the “brakes failed.”

In the second sentence, however, the brakes are no longer doing an action.  The action of “brakes failed” turns into this metaphorical object, this “thing” — a “brake failure”.

“Brake Failure” isn’t a concrete “thing” like  a computer is a concrete “thing”, but for our purposes has the functions of a thing.  “Brake failure” as a “thing” becomes this broad category capable of being associated with other things and actions.

As this broad category, the phrase “brake failure” implies that the failure has happened before and will continue to happen.  It’s a trend, a phenomena.  As this “thing”, this “category”, past and future instances of “brake failure” can be noted and later discussed by the authors or by anyone else.


-Scientific language is couched in nouns describing habits which help form categories.

-By employing these categories as in “brake failure”, scientific language allows more room for a sense of history and future.   In the first sentence, there is no sense that the event happened before

-Making an action a “thing”, makes things more permanent-seeming.

-Using more nouns and adjectives, as was seen in the second sentence, there appears to be more of this entitled sense of authority employed by the language of science.

For example, the phrase “Overrapid downhill driving” becomes a part of the driver’s character.   In the first sentence in contrast, there is no adjective describing the driver.  He could have been a mensa driver who just simply “drove the bus rapidly down the hill.”

I think that the abundance of nouns and adjectives in scientific language can get in the way of not-as-biased raw observation.

Posted in: Math, Uncategorized