Terms to watch out for

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Aboriginal, Aborigine

Aboriginal is an adjective; Aborigine is a noun (eg Aborigines are Aboriginal people). Note that Aborigine is not commonly used. An Aboriginal person is defined legally as someone who is a descendant of an Aboriginal inhabitant of Australia, sees themselves as an Aboriginal person, and is recognised as Aboriginal by members of the community in which they live or have lived.

absorption, adsorption

absorption: the taking up of one thing by another through (for example) capillary, chemical or molecular action

The sponge absorbed the water.
Digested food is absorbed by the gut.

adsorption: the holding of something on a surface

The protein adsorbed to the membrane.

accuracy, precision

accuracy: the closeness of a measurement to the expected or ‘true’ value; the correctness of a statement

The spectrometer was more accurate after it was calibrated.
His assertion that Earth is flat was inaccurate.

precision: the closeness of measurements to each other (ie the ‘spread’ of the data); the degree of specificity of a measurement

The similarity of the replicates demonstrates the precision of the method.
3.14159 is more precise than 3.1.

adaptation, adaption

These have the same meaning (an adjustment or alteration, or something produced by an adjustment or alteration). Adaptation is the more accepted alternative, and adaption should be avoided.



affect, effect

affect (verb): to have an influence on, alter, cause a change in

Changing the pH of the solution may affect [alter for better or worse] the result.

affect (noun): observable feeling or emotion, or subjective experience of emotion associated with a thought

Most subjects in the trial showed a happy affect in response to the photos of the puppies.

effect (verb): to bring about, cause, produce, result in

Changing the pH of the solution can effect [bring about] a colour change.

effect (noun): the result of a change

The effect of changing the pH of the solution is ...


AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome): the disease that can result from infection with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). It is incorrect to refer to the AIDS virus (the virus is HIV, not AIDS), AIDS-infected people (people are infected with HIV, not AIDS) or AIDS test (it is not possible to test for AIDS).

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus): the virus that causes AIDS. Note that not all people who are HIV-positive have AIDS.

aliquot, sample

aliquot: one of the parts of a total amount of a gas, liquid or solid that has been completely divided into equal parts

1 mL is an aliquot of 10 mL

sample: a part taken as representative of its source for analysis or study

We collected a 100-mL sample of pond water, which was divided into 10-mL aliquots.

allele, gene, gene product, locus

allele: any alternative form of a particular gene. Different alleles often confer different phenotypes

gene: a section of a DNA molecule (or RNA molecule, in some viruses) that contributes to a particular function or phenotype

gene product: the ribonucleic acid (RNA) or protein that is the product of the gene being expressed (transcribed or translated). The RNA or protein often has a name that is the same as, or similar to, the name of the gene, so it is important to distinguish between these entities

locus: the mapped location of a DNA sequence; it is not a synonym for gene. Loci is the plural of locus. See also Chromosomal location

alternate, alternative (as adjectives)

alternate: relating to every second item in a series

The beetle had alternate stripes of red and brown.

alternative: relating to a choice between 2 or more things

We considered 3 alternative designs for the experiment.


amount, concentration, level

amount: quantity of a substance

concentration: quantity of a substance in a unit volume or mass of another substance

level: a measure of some quantitative property of a substance (eg mass, concentration, height). For clarity, level should be avoided if a more precise term, such as concentration, could be used instead

analogue, homologue, homeologue

analogue (noun): in organic chemistry, a compound that is structurally similar to another (structural analogue) or performs the same functions (functional analogue); in biology, an organ or part with a different origin but the same function (eg the wings of a bee and the wings of a bird)

analogous (adjective): in evolutionary biology, referring to organs that have the same function or are similar in appearance but are not equivalent morphologically and did not evolve from the same organs (eg the wings of a bee and the wings of a bird)

analog (adjective): referring to information that is not digital, or a device that records information in a way that is not digital (ie properties are encoded in terms of frequencies and their amplitudes)

homologue (noun), homologous (adjective): in evolutionary biology, refers to things that have the same structure and origin but not necessarily the same function or appearance (eg the wing of a bird and the foreleg of a horse). In genetics, describes a pair of chromosomes (one from the mother and one from the father) that have the same genes at the same loci. In molecular biology, describes sequences (DNA or protein) with a shared ancestry. In chemistry, describes a series of organic compounds of the same chemical type, but differing by a fixed increment in a repeating unit, or chemical elements that occur in the same group of the periodic table and share some electrochemical properties. In medicine, relates to an antiserum in which the antibodies correspond to the antigenic material that was used to produce the antiserum. Also sometimes used in developmental psychology to indicate behaviours that have common origins

homeologue: in molecular biology, homeologous chromosomes are chromosomes from different species that are partly similar as a result of a common ancestor (ie only partly homologous)

anatomy, morphology

anatomy: physical structure and composition of an animal or plant, or the study of this area

morphology: form and structure of an animal or plant, or the study of this area. Anatomy is a subset of morphology

antibiotic, antimicrobial, antiviral

antibiotic: a chemical substance that kills or inhibits the growth of bacteria (a more precise term is antibacterial)

antimicrobial: a chemical substance that kills or inhibits the growth of microorganisms; this is a broader term than antibiotic, since it includes antibacterials (active against bacteria), antifungals (active against fungi; also known as antimycotics) and antiparasitic agents (active against parasites)

antiviral: a chemical substance that inhibits the replication of viruses and is used to treat viral infections. In contrast, viricides inactivate viruses, either within or outside the body

antivenene, antivenin, antivenom

Alternative terms for a biological product used in the treatment of venomous bites or stings.
Antivenom is the preferred term in Australia.

asteroid, meteor, meteorite, meteoroid

asteroid: a minor planet (with a diameter between 1 km and several hundred kilometres), especially in the inner Solar System (between Mars and Jupiter)

meteor: a streak of light that is seen when a meteoroid enters Earth’s atmosphere; often called a ‘shooting star’ or a ‘falling star’

meteorite: a meteoroid that falls to Earth’s surface

meteoroid: a solid body travelling through space that is smaller than an asteroid; mostly the remnants of comets or asteroids. When a meteoroid enters Earth’s atmosphere, heating results in its becoming visible as a meteor

autopsy, necropsy, postmortem

All 3 words refer to examination of the body of an animal after death. Necropsy tends to be used to refer to nonhuman animals, and autopsy to humans, whereas postmortem can refer to either. Postmortem can be used as either a noun or an adjective (eg postmortem findings).

average, mean, median, mode

average: a general term usually used to mean the arithmetic mean, but may be incorrectly used to mean median or mode

mean: the sum of a set of values divided by the number of values (arithmetic mean)

median: the central value in a set of values ordered by value

mode: the most frequent value in a set of values

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