Scientific Language blog post image

Scientific language and terminology

Scientific Language – When trying to understand the universe, the laws of nature and how reality seems to be; Scientific Language blog post imagewe humans have a difficult time because it is just so complex. One technique which works well most of the time is to categorise, group and label things. You see those big brown and green things swaying slightly in the wind? We’ll call those trees. It’ll make communication so much easier that way.

However as our understanding of nature deepens, (thanks largely to this labelling), we have to come up with more and more imaginative labels for more and abstract things. Some of these things we have never seen: atoms and molecules for example. Some of these things could not possibly be pointed at: forces, magnetic fields and some describe a process rather than a thing at all: evolution for example. But, love or hate them, these words are very useful if we are to understand and communicate our ideas.

Ok, I get it… Do you have any advice?

Well yes, I think I do. Let’s see if I can help.


Using Scientific Language

A lot of the time students will be revising something or trying to answer a question and feel totally lost. They feel uncomfortable because they do not know how to get unstuck. Often this comes down to the language. The first thing to do in this situation is to relax. Remember everything takes time and you will get there.

  1. Re-read the question or sentence.Scientific Language notepad
  2. Highlight, circle or underline the words you do not understand
  3. Look up those words on your favourite revision site (BBC bitesize is a pretty good go-to for this)
  4. Re-read the sentence again. Can you put into words what you are confused about? Or could you ask a specific question? Can you research this question or ask a teacher?
  5. Watch a video on the topic.

By systematically and calmly working through this process you will find things gradually demystify. Too many people think a topic is beyond them and this is rarely the case. It might be true that some people pick up some topics more quickly than others but try not to get distracted by this. No doubt you pick up some topics more quickly than others and this will the case for everyone. Just keep at it.




False friends

Learners of foreign languages may have heard of this term. It is when a word in another language is like one in English and so you think it means the same thing, but it doesn’t. For example, the French ‘attendre’ means ‘wait’, not ‘attend’ in English. We have “faux amis”in science as well! Let’s look at a few on the sub-topic of refraction, within the topic

Scientific Language figure 1
Figure 1. Coin in water trick

of waves, within the subject Physics. Specifically, medium and normal. Both of these words are very familiar to us and so our guard is down. They are adjectives, or describing words.

When waves travel, the space in which they are traveling may have something in it, such as glass, air, water; or it may be a vacuum. This something, or lack of something, is called the medium. In other words, the medium could be a vacuum, glass, air, water or a number of other materials. When a wave moves from one medium to another it often changes direction.

Scientific Language figure 2
Figure 2. Refraction of pencil in water.

This changing direction is called refraction and are no doubt familiar with it already. Figure 1 shows it in action. Click on the picture and a video shows how it in action. You will also have noticed the effect when placing a pencil in water (see figure 2).

Scientific Language figure 3
Figure 3.


Figure 3 shows a classic school diagram with the normal labelled which is an imaginary line we draw on our diagrams perpendicular to the new medium the wave is about to pass into. We draw this line at the point the ray of light touches the glass block. We can then describe the angle of incidence as the angle between the normal and the ray of light.




Avoid getting too bogged down the with terminology

The most important thing is the understanding. If you say ‘shaking’ instead of ‘oscillating’ or ‘bouncing’ instead of ‘reflecting’ that is not a huge deal. You may lose the odd mark, so it is important, but not as important as understanding the topic. Get the understanding down first and then look to sharpen up the language after. I see countless examples of students attempting to blag a question by throwing loads of scientific sounding words at it, but not really saying anything very meaningful.

Imagine you are trying to get someone else to understand. If there is a simpler way of saying something that is still correct than say it that way. One of my favourite scientists that applies this philosophy to learning and teaching science is Professor Richard Feynamn. Here is a video of him talking about how we see not really using any scientific language.



A bit about the author, Paul H:

Paul is a qualified and experienced Physics, Maths, and Science teacher, now working as a full-time tutor, providing online tuition using a variety of hi-tech resources to provide engaging and interesting lessons.  He covers Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Science from Prep and Key Stage 3 through to GCSE and IGCSE, plus teaches Physics, Maths, and Chemistry to A-Level across all the major Exam Boards.

You can enquire about tutoring with Paul here

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