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Language and Terminology

If Results Could Talk: Avoiding Anthropomorphism in Scientific Writing

 

Amy Clark, Senior Associate Editor

January 2022


What is anthropomorphism?

Anthropomorphism is giving human characteristics or actions to nonhuman things.

For example, in the sentence “The results concluded that the optimal sleep duration for teens was 8−10 hours,” the noun “results” is given the human quality of drawing a conclusion. This is imprecise, as it is the researcher who makes the conclusion based on analysis of the results.

A solution to this anthropomorphism pitfall is to use the first-person point of view and active voice: “We concluded that the optimal sleep duration for teens was 8−10 hours.” In other words, it is acceptable to write “I” and “We.”

Why should we avoid anthropomorphic constructions in research papers?

Anthropomorphic phrasing can lead to confusion and lack of clarity. In scientific writing, preciseness is important, and we do not want to mislead readers by assigning human agency to things or concepts that cannot actually think, feel, and act.

Are there any acceptable uses of anthropomorphism?

Indeed, there are. The following examples of anthropomorphic phrasing are common constructions in scientific papers, their meaning is clear, and they are considered acceptable according to The Chicago Manual of Style and APA Style guidelines.

The results indicated (or suggested, demonstrated, showed)

Table 5 presents

This section focuses on (or addresses)

The data provide evidence that

Rules of thumb

The above list is only a partial sampling of widespread and acceptable anthropomorphic constructions. With so many exceptions to the recommendation to “avoid anthropomorphism,” how do we know what is acceptable usage and what is not? Browse recently published articles in prominent journals in your discipline, taking note of any anthropomorphisms that pop up frequently. This is always a good way to determine acceptable style conventions for writing in your field, including use of first-person pronouns and active voice. Finally, when in doubt, take the cautious approach by rephrasing your sentence to focus on the researcher(s) as the subject or to eliminate the questionable noun−verb construction. Remember: Results can show, suggest, or indicate, but they cannot argue, conclude, do the laundry, or walk the dog.

References

“Anthropomorphism,” APA Style Blog, Accessed December 15, 2021.

Usage and Grammar, Q&A, The Chicago Manual of Style Online, Accessed December 15, 2021.

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