ESWTOTD: “Bioinformatics”

The field of bioinformatics, namely the use of computing to collect and analyze biological and biochemical information, is exploding in popularity. The word itself, however, is new. The noun “bioinformatics” was coined by researchers Paulien Hogeweg and Ben Hesper in 1978. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, it is a special kind of collective noun that is plural but singular in construction. This means that it refers to a group of computational techniques, the group itself is treated as a singular subject:

  • “Bioinformatics are the study of…” WRONG
  • “Bioinformatics is the study of…” RIGHT

There is some debate as to how “bioinformatics” should be used as an adjective. In English, some nouns may be used to modify other nouns in the same way as an adjective:

  • “I studied biology in school.” (noun)
  • “I used a biology textbook in my classes.” (noun modifier)

However, many nouns also have adjective forms, which are preferred in most contexts. For example, the adjective form of “biology” is “biological":

  • “I did a biology analysis.” (noun modifier)
  • “I did a biological analysis.” (adjective)

While the former is grammatically correct, to my ear the latter sounds more natural and idiomatic. For the noun “bioinformatics,” the Merriam Webster dictionary identifies “bioinformatic” as the adjective form:

  • “I did a bioinformatics analysis.” (noun modifier)
  • “I did a bioinformatic analysis.” (adjective)

Like the previous example, while I can’t definitively say that the former (noun modifier) form is grammatically incorrect, I prefer the adjective form “bioinformatic” when an adjective is called for.