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The structural description, symmetry and diffraction properties of incommensurate modulated phases are revised using a real-space framework. The superspace formalism usually employed is reformulated using a practical description where no multidimensional geometrical constructions are needed. The incommensurate structural distortion is described in terms of 'atomic modulation functions' where the internal space is only considered as a continuous label for the cells of the non-distorted structure. Hence, no atomic positions or thermal tensors in a multidimensional space are defined. By this means and with the introduction of the concept of 'atomic modulation factors' a general expression for the structure factor is proposed which constitutes a direct generalization of the standard expression for a commensurate structure. The concept of superspace symmetry is reduced in this approach to a simple relation between the defined atomic modulation functions, which can be directly translated by means of the structure-factor expression into the symmetry and extinction rules of the diffraction diagram. The advantages of superspace formalism in the analysis of commensurate modulated phases are also discussed. The use of superspace groups for describing the symmetry of superstructures, contrary to some recent claims, does not formally reduce the number of structural parameters but may often allow some of them to be neglected.
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