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The appearance of the sample (object) was characterised by transparency, stiffness and smoothness.

I know I can also simply say 'The sample (object) had a transparent, stiff and smooth appearance.'

But is the first sentence really correct or wrong? Which one is better?

  • In scientific/technical context, I believe it's not uncommon, though it might be better to write: The appearance of the sample (object) was characterised by its transparency, stiffness and smoothness. – Damkerng T. Apr 12 '14 at 8:31
  • The first sentence isn't wrong, but it's wordier than it needs to be, and that's generally undesirable. Why not this? The sample object was transparent, stiff, and smooth. – J.R. Apr 12 '14 at 11:29
  • @J.R. My chemistry lab instructor (who is also a non-native English-speaker student himself) suggested what you did, in assessing my chem lab report, which is just correct. But it seemed non-technical and irrelevant and I apparently have lost some points for the language. Nonprofessional. – user5711 Apr 12 '14 at 12:00
  • Ah! Now that's an interesting tidbit I wish you had added to your original question. However, making something wordier than it needs to be, or adding fancy words, does not make the language more suitable for a technical context. Your teacher has given you sound guidance and taught you a valuable lesson. Perhaps you could read this if you're not convinced. – J.R. Apr 12 '14 at 12:29
  • Good to know that but I was just annoyed by the grade. I'll take your advice though. – user5711 Apr 12 '14 at 13:21
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The appearance of the sample was characterised by transparency, stiffness and smoothness.

The sample had a transparent, stiff and smooth appearance.

Other respondents have pointed out the impropriety of the word appearance when speaking of stiffness, and possibly smoothness, too.

But what's wrong with both these sentences is verbosity. You use 9 or 12 words to say what can be expressed in just 7 words, with no loss of meaning.

The sample seemed transparent, stiff and smooth.

Why on earth would you want to make your reader do all the extra work?

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Your sentence is not correct, but the problem has to do with "appearance," not with "characterize" (the more common spelling; your spelling is an acceptable variant in British English).

It is appropriate to use the verb "to appear" to describe both visual and non-visual aspects of a person or an object. For example: "I just heard from Fred, and it appears we're all going to be late to dinner."

However, the noun "appearance," when used in this sense, almost always refers exclusively to visual appearance. A substance may be transparent in appearance. It may be smooth in appearance--meaning visually smooth, not smooth to the touch. It may even be stiff in appearance--but I get the feeling that is not what you meant to write here, and in any case it is ambiguous, which is always undesirable in a lab report or other scientific writing.

You could use another form of the verb appear; for instance, this would be proper:

The sample appeared to be transparent, smooth, and stiff.

or

The sample appeared transparent, smooth, and stiff.

You could also use "characterized" on its own, to describe the object itself, not its appearance.

The sample was characterized by transparency, stiffness, and smoothness.

Better yet would be to remove the ambiguity altogether by rephrasing. For example:

Upon examination, the sample was transparent in appearance and smooth and stiff to the touch.

This makes it clear both how you observed it (visually and by touch) and what you observed (transparency, stiffness, and smoothness). "Upon examination" is optional but if your concern is that your language will be seen as too simple or "non-technical" it plays that role while keeping the actual sentence simpler.

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I'd say "Transparency, stiffness and smoothness are the specific characteristics of the sample"

  • Sorry to be blunt, but I'd say that's a step in the wrong direction. – J.R. Apr 12 '14 at 11:31
  • Don't get your point, Sorry. – user5267 Apr 12 '14 at 11:43
  • I'm saying that I thought the O.P.'s sentence wasn't very good, and that your version is even worse. – J.R. Apr 12 '14 at 12:32

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