Language for science – day 3: word building

Language for science – day 3: word building

Free Preview

In this article, we will look at more language from academic articles and explore how certain words change according to word type. Pay attention to any changes in pronunciation in order to improve accuracy when using these words in spoken English.

Commonly used adverbs
  1. theoretically (meaning: when something could happen, be true or exist)
  • Pronunciation: In both the adverb and adjective forms of this word, the stress is on the second syllable /θɪəˈretɪkli/. However, in the noun and verb forms, the word stress is on the first syllable.

E.g. The team knew that it was theoretically possible to find a cure for the condition using existing methods.

Noun forms Other  forms
(a) theory

·        This noun can be both countable and uncountable as it can refer to a specific idea or ideas OR a set of ideas/principles that form the basis for a particular subject

e.g.(countable) Her theories were tested on a small group of participants.

(uncountable) While at university I studied literary theory.

·        This noun is often used with these verbs:

propose, outline, construct, develop, formulate, apply, test, contradict, disprove, refute


a theorist (meaning: a person who develops/studies theories)


a theorem (meaning: a statement or rule that can be proven to be correct/true – especially in mathematics)

Verb form:

to theorise/theorize


Adjective form:

theoretical (meaning: when something is based on theory rather than experience)

·        This adjective often collocates with these adverbs: largely, mostly, primarily, entirely, purely, strictly

E.g.  The team conducts investigations that are largely theoretical in nature.


  1. commonly (meaning: usually OR by most people)

E.g. The most commonly-used extraction method involves the use of chemical agents.OR

Elvis Presley is commonly known as the ‘the King.’

Adjective form Other  forms

This adjective has multiple meanings:

1.       when something happens frequently or exists in many places

E.g. Smith is a common English surname.

2.       when something is shared by multiple people

E.g. The institutions have a common interest in the development of local resources.

3.       when something is ordinary/not special

E.g. The artefacts appear to have belonged to a common footsoldier.

4.       when a plant/animal is not rare and can be found in large numbers

E.g. We captured several samples from the common garden frog.

5.       (British English, negative/rude) when someone is from a low social class

E.g. They thought he was quite common and made no effort to include him in their conversation.


Noun form:

(!) unrelated in meaning to other forms)

a common (meaning: an open piece of land in a town/village that can be used by anyone)

E.g. I often go for a run on the common.



to be commonly held (that)

(meaning: believed by many people)

E.g. It is a commonly held misconception that you need to drink eight glasses of water each day.


Commonly used adjectives

3.  fundamental (meaning: something that forms the basic nature of something OR something that is an important part of something)

  • This adjective is often used with these nouns: flaw, problem, change, difference, right, issue, principle, question

E.g. It will be necessary to make fundamental changes to way in which data is gathered. OR

One of the fundamental issues with previous studies has been a lack of access to uncontaminated samples.

Adverb form Noun form

E.g. AI will fundamentally change the way in which we conduct our research.

fundamentals (usually plural)

E.g. The first year of study covers the fundamentals of microbiology.

4. empirical (meaning: based on experience rather than theories)

E.g. It is my aim to conduct an empirical study to support my claims.

Adverb form Noun forms

E.g. In order to test these ideas empirically, it was necessary to conduct a series of tests in controlled conditions. 

empiricist (meaning: a person who bases their ideas on experience)


empiricism (meaning: the belief that ideas should come from experience and experiments)

5. proportional (meaning: when something is suitable in amount or size in relation to another factor)

E.g. Commission is proportional to sales figures.

Adverb form Noun forms
proportionately OR proportionally

E.g. Wages have not risen proportionately/proportionally to the cost of living.


proportion (meaning: a part of a whole)

Watch out for agreements with this noun:

‘proportion’ + a singular/uncountable noun → singular verb agreement

E.g. A significant proportion of our time was spent gathering data.

‘the proportion of’ + plural countable noun/singular noun representing a group → singular verb agreement

E.g. The proportion of patients displaying long-term symptoms remains low.


‘a proportion of’ + plural noun → plural verb agreement

E.g. A large proportion of nurses have chosen to go on strike.


Examples of this language in use

Examples of language from this lesson can be found in the following extract.

  1. Introduction

Over the past several decades, there has been a renewed interest in the interplay between lifespan inequality and life expectancy in wild and human populations. In humans, for example, it is a well-documented phenomenon that social health risk factors (e.g. social determinants of health) and social conditions operate as fundamental causes of disease and death (see, e.g. [1–3] and references therein) and underlie the variability in ages at death in a population whereby, for example, individuals with low socio-economic status and/or with social disadvantage tend to die at younger ages than those in more privileged positions [4]. While demographers use a variety of metrics to quantify this variability in lifespans (see [5] and references therein for a summary), two of the most commonly used metrics are the variance in the ages at death, σ2, and the ‘lifespan disparity’ [6–10], e†

. These metrics’ useful demographic interpretations are what probably drive their popularity: the latter (e†) has been shown to measure the average life expectancy lost due to death [9,10] and is intimately related to other information-theoretic lifespan inequality metrics (see [11] for a discussion); the former (σ2) is a more traditional statistical measure of dispersion that describes the age-wise spread of mortality in the population’s deaths distribution. Empirical work using these lifespan inequality metrics finds that in modern human populations both e† and σ2 are positively correlated with life expectancy at birth (e0) for e0⪅40 years, uncorrelated for e0≈40 years, and negatively correlated for e0>40 years [12–16]. One ramification of this particular three-phased pattern of correlation is that e† and σ2 are positively correlated, a well-known empirical finding that was only recently partially explained theoretically by the work of Fernandez & Beltrán-Sánchez [17], which shows that e† can be expanded in a series whose terms are proportional to the central moments of the deaths distribution, with the lowest-order term in the expansion proportional to σ2. But why do both e† and σ2 follow the particular three-phased pattern of change in their correlation with e0? And does this regularity extend beyond modern human populations and hold for other species?

This extract is taken from: Fernandez Oscar E. and Beltrán-Sánchez Hiram, On the emergence of the correlation between life expectancy and the variance in the age at death, R. Soc. open sci. 9: 220020. 220020. http://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.220020

Test your knowledge

Try the short multiple-choice quiz below.

Lesson tags: English for science, Word building
Back to: English for Scientists