Chinese parallelism in an English-language scientific paper

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I received the following letter and observations from the editor of a science journal:

I replied:

You have raised a very interesting question — stylistic-rhetorical crossover between Chinese and English.

You may tell your Chinese authors not to emulate the parallel prose style (piántǐ wén 骈体文), also called 4-6 style (sìliù wén 四六文) in English.  These are ancient — dating back to a thousand to two thousand years ago, but some pedantic folks still try to keep them alive in the modern era.

As for books that address such matters, see Perry Link, The Anatomy of Chinese:  Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics and Cecile Chu-Chin Sun, The Poetics of Repetition in English and Chinese Lyric Poetry.  Although the latter book is about poetry, it has a spillover effect upon prose.

Parallel prose may work for Chinese because of the nature of Sinitic language and Sinographic writing.  Even so, it sounds antiquated in modern vernacular writing.  As for employing it in English, it comes across as schlocky and mannered at best.


Selected readings


  1. Kenny Easwaran said,

    July 12, 2022 @ 11:39 am

    As a native English-speaking academic with no experience with Chinese, I would say that I actually like this sort of style! It seems very clear and readable to me, and I would think that if I'm reading about chemical and geological properties of karst landscapes, I'd be much more concerned with clarity and readability, and easy of finding which paragraph has what reference when I'm looking back at something I've already read, than un-clunkiness.

  2. Joe said,

    July 12, 2022 @ 11:55 am

    I don't see any problem with this paragraph structure. The relevant advice is just not to use exactly the same paragraph structure more than once in the same article.

  3. Rachael Churchill said,

    July 12, 2022 @ 5:52 pm

    Sounds like a personal peeve of the editor to me. I think the style is fine: very clear and easy to follow. It's a little bit boring, but they're not trying to write a novel. I'd recommend it as a safe default choice.

    I feel like I've more often seen the opposite failure mode: paper authors who are so afraid of repeating a word or sentence structure that they use ever more convoluted or unnatural alternatives, which is distracting.

  4. Stephen L said,

    July 12, 2022 @ 7:10 pm

    I think I remember reading some speculations about the influence of classical Chinese style on modern academic writing by Chinese authors in english – I read the book "Chinese Rhetoric and Writing: An Introduction for Language Teachers" by Andy Kirkpatrick, + Zhichang Xu a very long time ago ( ). From what I (foggily) remember the punchline in the end was that they traced the style to a particular manual for writing academic English in China that encouraged such style, and pointed the finger squarely at that as the cause. Very foggy recollection!

  5. David C. said,

    July 12, 2022 @ 7:29 pm

    I'd posit this writing style is motivated by one of the demands of writing for academic journals – the need to make multiple citations to boost the credibility of an article. As some of the commenters above said, there are only so many ways you can say this.

    Rather than specifically trying to emulate classical Chinese prose, I wonder if it stems from a desire not to mess with what is considered tried and true. It's easily understandable and more likely to receive approval from peers and superiors.

    Perhaps the oddness is also caused by the relative lack of logical connection between the sentences in the two examples, thereby exacerbating the effect. X did this; Y did that; there are various ways to do [this type of research].

  6. Kliktoko said,

    July 12, 2022 @ 7:32 pm

    Most Malaysians know at least a little English because it's taught as a second language from primary school onward. I don't know if there's an official translation for "charger", but the English word would be very widely understood, and as far as I remember from secondary school physics, transformer is just that.

  7. AntC said,

    July 12, 2022 @ 7:44 pm

    I don't like the style (but then I don't usually read academic papers on Geophysics).

    Is "illustrate to this paper"/"illustrate to this study" a usual way to put it? I suppose they're trying to depersonalise/take the authors-as-persons out of the picture – as I was instructed in writing up school Chemistry experiments. (Mr. Lane was a teacher of stunning unimaginativeness.)

    Completely taking out the "to this X" phrase would help a lot. And possibly "illustrate" is not the best choice of verb — "suggest"? "provide"?

  8. Noel Hunt said,

    July 12, 2022 @ 7:58 pm

    How the editor can call this prose 'nearly flawless' is beyond me. It is replete with phrases where it is clear the authors don't understand how to express genericness or definiteness in English, e.g. '… in typical karst faulted basin' should be 'in a typical karst faulted basin', or, 'in typical karst faulted basins'. Another example, 'Guo et al. (2022) studied karst groundwater system', should be '…studied karst groundwater systems', or since the context seems to imply the existence of a particular system, 'studied the karst groundwater system'. Given that the authors are not native English speakers, why haven't they sought to have their prose proof-read by a native speaker?

  9. AntC said,

    July 12, 2022 @ 10:43 pm

    parallel prose style aka 4-6 prose on wikipedia.

    Bemusingly, googling for piántǐ wén or sìliù wén, the first hits are to this article. "4-6" or "four-six" finds cookery articles: dishes for 4-6 people, or using 4 X's and 6 Y's.

    According to the Shuowen Jiezi, the word 'pian' (駢), with a horse radical and the character for 'aligned, in line', originally referred to a two-horse carriage where the horses run alongside each other.[1] This is analogous to the way pianwen couplets are aligned and parallel each other.

    Ref the recent article 'Language is not script' and the alleged transnational tracing out of characters, who would guess that the horse radical is there to denote 'two parallel lines'? Whereas the 4-6 refers to the number of _characters_ — not necessarily the numbers of syllables or words.

    The characteristics of vernacular Chinese, where many words are formed from more than one character, make it almost impossible to write the strictly parallel couplets demanded by pianwen.

    Literary English does play on parallel constructions. But yes, forcing them into a Geophysics paper would rapidly get tedious.

  10. GH said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 1:34 am

    To the first three commenters who have no objection to this style, are you overlooking the part where "it continues many times"?

    Because while I think using the exact same structure and largely the same phrasing in two consecutive paragraphs is tolerable (though far from ideal), having it repeat for five, six paragraphs or more would become unbearably monotonous: a litany rather than a readable narrative or argument.

    Also, if the structure is always a pair of papers followed by a statement of their relevance (rather than, in some cases, three or more papers, or just one paper), I would as a reader become very suspicious that the choice of references had been manipulated to facilitate the structure.

  11. Jon said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 2:45 am

    Noel Hunt – Finding a native English speaker to proof-read is not going to be easy for most Chinese scientists. They need to find someone in the same field so they understand the arguments and get the terminology right, and who is willing to put the time and effort in.

    I recall being approached by a Chinese man at a scientific conference, who struck up a conversation with me, then asked me to correct the English in his paper. When I looked at it, I realised it would be a major task. Though it was in my field, there were places where I could not understand the point he was making, and others where it seemed the logic of his argument was flawed. I apologised and declined.

  12. Rachael Churchill said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 3:20 am

    @AntC Noel Hunt @GH:

    When I said "I think the style is fine" I meant it in the context of the OP: specifically referring to the macro-scale repetitive sentence structure, not as an unqualified statement about everything in the excerpt.

    Indisputably, within that macro structure, there are a lot of syntactic errors involving misuse of articles and other things, and a lot of unnatural non-native phrasing. I assumed everyone was on the same page about that, and that we were discussing the repetitive structure that the quoted editor objected to.

  13. David Marjanović said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 8:17 am

    The run-on compound nouns with adjectives in the middle of them ("karst faulted basin" and longer) also strike me as a Chinese-influenced feature.

    Is "illustrate to this paper"/"illustrate to this study" a usual way to put it?

    I've never seen it before. I agree with your recommendation to just drop it.

    I suppose they're trying to depersonalise/take the authors-as-persons out of the picture –

    Yes, but they're clearly overdoing it.

  14. Gregory Kusnick said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 10:10 am

    To me it reads as if the authors are working from some step-by-step guide on how to write a scientific paper, which instructs them to (a) cite previous work in their area and (b) show ("illustrate") how it's relevant to their work. The stilted prose and repetitive structure could then be just the result of robotically filling in the blanks in this template.

  15. Andrew Usher said,

    July 13, 2022 @ 9:13 pm

    Yes, that's about it. The problem is not a lack of English competence (though that is present, as in the non-English 'illustrate to this paper/study'), but a lack of competence writing a scientific paper (and if I know what this means in terms of the Chinese system, they probably don't have enough original work to merit one, and may believe that padding it out will disguise that).

    I have read academic papers in a large variety of subjects and can't recall ever seeing a separate 'reference to previous work' section like that. Normally clustering a large number of references together is avoided, and when it is necessary, the text would be much condensed.

    Giving advice here to avoid repetition would just result in elegant variation, which would not be an improvement. Unfortunately it's not clear if any advice – that could be given in a single message – would help, and the only comment I might make is that it's simply not good English writing – but if, indeed, they are just trying to get published somewhere, to meet their 'quota', with the minimum amount of work, how could one expect it?

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.cpm

  16. Rachael Churchill said,

    July 14, 2022 @ 3:26 am

    @Andrew Usher, what do you mean? I've also read academic papers in a wide variety of subjects, and a "literature review" section is very standard (as, indeed, the editor in the OP acknowledges, by saying "the usual"). Most Google results for "structure of an academic paper" or "parts of an academic paper" include it. I expect it's more common in some fields than in others, but I'm baffled that you "can't recall ever seeing" it.

  17. AntC said,

    July 14, 2022 @ 5:50 am

    As @Rachael says, I'd expect 'reference to previous work' to be more or less de rigeur. It's in every paper I read in my areas of study.

    Otherwise, you'd suspect the authors are either re-inventing the wheel but claiming originality; or ripping their findings out of thin air. I would expect a respected Journal to insist on it. (Especially on a topic so well-drilled as Karst landscapes. ;-)

    Do we talk about Popper's distinction between science (groundbreaking/revolutionary) vs innovation (cumulative/evolutionary)? — in which the latter explicitly builds on previous work, and authors are expected to show how.

  18. Bob Ladd said,

    July 14, 2022 @ 9:12 am

    What Jon said. Fixing the problems in papers written by people with an inadequate command of English is a lot of work. Partly for historical reasons and partly for cultural/linguistic reasons, there are a lot of Chinese academics whose command of English can best be described as inadequate, and, for other related reasons, their access to native speakers with the time and inclination to undertake all that work is very limited.

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