I am refereeing a paper (a good one) for a mathematical journal. The author repeatedly writes like this: "we can't do", "we don't know" etc. He is not a native English speaker, and this paper is his first paper in English.

Question. I am going to ask the author to change "can't" and "don't" to more formal "cannot" and "do not". Is that a right thing to do?

I am not a native English speaker either....

(Since a referee is supposed not to disclose their identity, I ask the question anonymously.)

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    FWIW, I think it's fine to correct grammatical lapses as a referee. I don't believe however that your recommendations are warranted in this case (I am a native English speaker). – Todd Trimble Jan 24 '16 at 15:51
  • what did the editor say when you asked them? – 410 gone Jan 25 '16 at 11:08
  • @EnergyNumbers The editor is not a native English speaker either, so instead of asking the editor I decided to ask mathoverlow.net. – reviewer Jan 25 '16 at 15:32
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    that's irrelevant. It's the editor's job. You're asking a question about the journal's style guide, and about what's expected of a reviewer at this particular journal. Only the journal's guide for reviewers, or (failing that) your editor, can answer your question – 410 gone Jan 25 '16 at 15:47
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    Making no claims on whether this should be left to an editor or is the referee's job, I'm generally fond of the suggestions in The Grammar According to West which recommends against contractions – Mark S. Jan 26 '16 at 3:21

My experience has typically been that the more formal mode, with no contractions, is preferred for most scientific publications. It is not a terribly strong or important custom, however, and in one of my more high-profile multi-disciplinary publications, I actually found the copyeditor introducing contractions into my writing!

In short: worth mentioning, but not a big deal. As a reviewer, you might say something like: "I found the contractions distracting, and would advise removing them" but I wouldn't recommend being much stronger than that in your statements.

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    A copy editor approves. :) Note that we tend to expand them where I work, but if we miss them, it's not a big deal. – yo' Jan 24 '16 at 16:47
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    FWIW, I've noticed more contractions lately in papers published in the past decade or two than the ones published last century (still feels weird saying last century haha) when it was a rarity. Sadly, Google's n-grams don't let you search for contracted forms to back it up with numbers. – user0721090601 Jan 25 '16 at 0:20

Leave copy-editing to the copy-editors, unless the issues with the writing affect understandability. If the journal has an opinion on whether contractions are acceptable, the copy-editors will deal with it.

Honestly, I don't (sorry, do not) see why the contractions could be a problem. They're (sorry, they are) completely comprehensible and it seems that your only objection is that you think there's (sorry, there is) a rule that says you can't (sorry, cannot) use them in formal writing. There is no such rule.

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    I must say, honestly, that I much preferred to read the non-contracted versions of your sentences. – Pål GD Jan 24 '16 at 23:57
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    I also see no good reason to avoid contractions, and I use them occasionally in my writing, without really thinking about it --- I tend to just write what sounds natural. Occasionally, editors or copy editors will expand my contractions, and I don't complain about or revert the changes. – Andreas Blass Jan 25 '16 at 1:11
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    What do you mean by "There is no such rule."? I have heard (and been forced to obey) that rule many times, so it definitely exists. Do you mean that the rule is wrong or not applicable everywhere? – JiK Jan 25 '16 at 13:28
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    @JiK That's a series of rules about avoiding contractions in various formal contexts (e.g., individual journals' style guides), not a rule against using contractions in formal writing. – David Richerby Jan 25 '16 at 15:20
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    @ChrisCirefice Presidential speeches aren't a particularly good example. For example, Obama said the other day, on the weighty and important subject of the U.S.'s relationship with Iran, "We’ve seen the results" and, a couple of sentences later, "As I’ve said many times". So, hey, contractions are fine there, too. – David Richerby Jan 26 '16 at 0:41

These matters will usually be regulated at the level of the journal's style sheet, which oftentimes will respect conventions of the journal's publisher. There are many other related issues apart from the use of contractions: single versus double quotes, British versus US spelling, etc. All of these technicalities are best left to the editors, while the referee should focus on the merit. Unless of course the journal's referee report form (if there is one) explicitly asks for comments in this area.

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    Doesn't answer the question. – Pål GD Jan 24 '16 at 23:13
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    @PålGD Yes it does. The OP asks if asking the author to expand contractions is the right thing to do; the answerer's response states that that (and other stylistic changes) should be left to editors (unless explicitly asked). – TripeHound Jan 25 '16 at 14:52

Technical writing is often an aspect of a professional engineer or science researcher as I have been both and proper writing style or grammar is so important that not practicing it tends to appear lazy or may leave ambiguity in key ideas all of which tend to discredit the paper or the author. Although the use of contractions are not ambiguous they are supposed to mimic how some conjunctions (word pairs or word groups working together) are often used in casual speak so I say absolutely yes make those corrections. This is supposed to be a technical paper not a talk about a movie scene you liked. I am certain the author will appreciate learning from them.

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    If your lack of punctuation is intended as irony, I would suggest making that more obvious; if it is not, I would recommend editing your post. – jakebeal Jan 25 '16 at 20:08
  • Your whole argument is lazy, in a much more serious way than typing "I'm" (three keypresses) rather than "I am" (four). "This is supposed to be a technical paper not a talk about a movie scene you liked." How is that an argument against contractions? How does it differ from the following? "Yesterday, you were discussing a movie scene that you liked, and you did that in English. Your technical paper isn't a talk about a movie scene you liked, so it's not appropriate to write the technical paper in English." – David Richerby Jan 26 '16 at 0:38

In mathematics writing, a small reason to avoid contractions is that the apostrophe vaguely suggests mathematical notation, so having this occur in the natural-language part of a paper impairs skimming/reading. A slight extra, needless cognitive load.

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    Better avoid commas, periods, dashes, colons and the word "a", too! – David Richerby Jan 25 '16 at 1:22
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    @DavidRicherby Would ! at the end of a sentence mean factorial the whole sentence? – Insane Jan 25 '16 at 6:38
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    @Insane No, just the last word. And too-factorial is too so the factorial didn't change my sentence, luckily. – David Richerby Jan 25 '16 at 7:11
  • This whole thread is hilarious. I should definitely start using bitwise notation to make my email communications more succinct, if not more obtuse. Efficiency at all costs! – Greg Combs Jun 8 '16 at 15:26
  • @GregCombs: Well, if the question is not too silly to be answered in the first place, why not answer it? – paul garrett Jun 8 '16 at 21:11

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