'the jingle allegedly contained a grammatical error.'
October 1, 2014 7:33 AM   Subscribe

Why Academic Writing Stinks, by Steven Pinker
The curse of knowledge is a major reason that good scholars write bad prose. It simply doesn’t occur to them that their readers don’t know what they know—that those readers haven’t mastered the patois or can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention or have no way to visualize an event that to the writer is as clear as day. And so they don’t bother to explain the jargon or spell out the logic or supply the necessary detail. Obviously, scholars cannot avoid technical terms altogether. But a surprising amount of jargon can simply be banished, and no one will be the worse for it.
Pinker's new book, a style guide, The Sense of the Style, has ten grammar rules it's OK to break (sometimes). He talks to Edge on Writing in the 21st Century, which includes the occasional fMRI.
posted by the man of twists and turns (67 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
 
"Why should a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge so often turn out prose that is turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand?"

Sturgeon.
posted by escabeche at 7:42 AM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


The Guardian headline - "Ten grammar rules it's OK to break (sometimes)" - unfortunately helps reinforce the myth that such rules exist, and good writers know when to break them (which is a prescriptivist tactic for dissing the evidence of usage by respected writers). Pinker's point is far more robust: that many rules are actively bogus, the pet peeves of Latin-obsessed self-appointed pundits of the late 18th century.
posted by raygirvan at 7:43 AM on October 1, 2014 [16 favorites]


So true. So much academic writing is so awful.

I write with scientists. So many of them appreciate clear, direct writing, and yet they also think that "good" writing sounds complicated. It's a damn shame.

Clear writing indicates clear thinking.

And, clear writing makes your information more likely to be understood.
posted by entropone at 7:49 AM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


Steve Pinker's writing is clear but puts forward bad ideas. Does that make it bad writing?
posted by shivohum at 7:51 AM on October 1, 2014 [22 favorites]


Steve Pinker's writing is clear but puts forward bad ideas. Does that make it bad writing?

Mrs. Simmons? Is that you?
posted by echocollate at 7:55 AM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


One of the most important things I ever learned in school, day 1 of my college technical writing class: "You are not writing to impress your readers. You are writing to convey information they don't know. You won't do that with obscure words they don't know or long sentences that are hard for them to follow."
posted by localroger at 7:58 AM on October 1, 2014 [16 favorites]


As usual, Pinker's tone is gently and insistently patronizing, mixing obvious banalities with genuinely bad advice. It's plainly absurd that "academics" should all start writing like Hemingway, because the professional needs of a mathematician, an English professor, and a historian are all quite distinct from one another, and no one-size-fits-all approach is going to do any of those fields any good.

I find it especially frustrating that Pinker fails to distinguish between technical writing (which scientists must become better at) and popular writing (which, so far as I am able to discern, is the only kind of writing Pinker has ever done, even in his peer-reviewed work). These two styles are both necessary and both work at cross-purposes, and it is that tension that makes writing high-quality science difficult. Pinker's plea that academics write using simple English, by contrast, represents a kind of glib populism that I would normally attribute to Malcolm Gladwell: The kind that aims to sell books (which, unsurprisingly, Pinker is presently doing).
posted by belarius at 7:59 AM on October 1, 2014 [32 favorites]


I really believe that most of the 'grammar rules' I know were taught to me by descriptivists telling me I could ignore them.
posted by Segundus at 8:00 AM on October 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


Sloppy-to-non-existent editing in scholarly journals seems increasingly to be magnifying the problem, too. I slogged through an article full of grammatical errors from the Communications of the ACM yesterday - given, the authors are not native English speakers, but could they really not find anyone to read the four pages and correct the basic errors to make it more readable?
posted by ryanshepard at 8:03 AM on October 1, 2014


In the Guardian article, he says "With the infinitive left unsplit – 'The board voted to immediately approve the casino' – it can only be the approval."

Isn't the infinitive split here?
posted by ChuckRamone at 8:04 AM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


I wonder how much crappy writing exists because of editorial constraints. I've worked with a few scientists, and they all, to a one, got super frustrated when a given a "we'd love to publish this paper, can you trim it from 9 pages to 2 and remove all but one graphic"? request.

It always boggled my mind, because, what - they run out of font on the website or something ?
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:07 AM on October 1, 2014 [8 favorites]


I really believe that most of the 'grammar rules' I know were taught to me by descriptivists telling me I could ignore them.

My ninth-grade English teacher told me, when I questioned the utility of an arcane grammar law, that I could break the rules at my leisure once I'd learned them. The message, I think, is that some of the rules (as Pinker acknowledges) are useful to know in order to avoid ambiguity in certain cases; because—reasonably or not—certain corners of the professional world will judge you harshly for informal writing; and because learning formal rules and their correct application is an exercise in structured thinking.
posted by echocollate at 8:12 AM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


Steve Pinker's writing is clear but puts forward bad ideas.

Maybe share with us some of his ideas you think are bad?
posted by lefty lucky cat at 8:18 AM on October 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


As a graduate physics student, I find that writing clearly and concisely isn't enough. One has to write clearly, concisely, and exactly. Otherwise ten different people are going to interpret a statement ten different ways and then proceed to question your knowledge of the subject.

Writing is easy, but writing well with those constraints is not easy. Not only is it not easy, it's low enough down on the list of not easy things that one is expected to do that it ends up being a learn as you go thing. I mean a 'science writing' class that was taught well would be phenomenal. Unfortunately, I don't think I'd trust such a class to be taught well, because there's so few people who write well enough to teach it. So I suppose Pinker does have a point.
posted by Zalzidrax at 8:19 AM on October 1, 2014 [6 favorites]


Sloppy-to-non-existent editing in scholarly journals seems increasingly to be magnifying the problem, too. I slogged through an article full of grammatical errors from the Communications of the ACM yesterday - given, the authors are not native English speakers, but could they really not find anyone to read the four pages and correct the basic errors to make it more readable?

I'm a technical editor for an engineering society. We publish approximately 10,000 to 15,000 pages of highly technical original work each year. This material is edited by four people. Four. We're forced—by approval schedules and publication deadlines—to prioritize other things over optimal clarity (though we do try to correct the more egregious grammatical errors). This drove me mad my first three years on the job. Eventually you learn to live with it.

If editors determined production schedules, the publishing world would look a lot different.
posted by echocollate at 8:21 AM on October 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


Eventually you learn to live with it.

Maybe as a producer - as a selective consumer, it makes the product far less useful.

I have no idea if this is scalable - or even advisable - but out of sheer frustration, I would volunteer as an editor on articles in my areas of interest, just to have the published literature on them be marginally less shoddy. I know I'm not alone on that.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:26 AM on October 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


So much of academic writing (and presentation-giving) would be made hugely better if people engaged in the simple rule of thinking about how the members of the audience can interpret it. How do you get them asking the same questions you are with the same interest? What assumptions that you have might they not have? What concepts are most necessary to understand anything else, and are they stated as clearly as can be? Preferably, multiple times in slightly different ways, so that there are a variety of bits that will click for different people. If someone forgets what a certain acronym or rare bit of jargon means, will they be able to recover or is their time irretrievably lost?

If a few hedge words or stodgy uses of scare quotes were the biggest problems with the presentation of academic information, I'd be a happy scientist indeed.
posted by Schismatic at 8:28 AM on October 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


Maybe as a producer - as a selective consumer, it makes the product far less useful.

I've made that exact argument for years to our publisher. The thing is, we receive very few complaints about our publications, and there's no evidence that dramatically improving the quality of the work would increase sales, readership, or impact, so throughput is prioritized over careful editing.
posted by echocollate at 8:36 AM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


out of sheer frustration, I would volunteer as an editor on articles in my areas of interest, just to have the published literature on them be marginally less shoddy.

It's tough, though - what might seem more readable might also be more ambiguous, and you need serious domain knowledge to decide how to phrase things for minimum ambiguity. A big part of the challenge of academic writing is being clear while also being precise. Also, I'm pretty sure that most of the reviewing & suggesting is already done by scientist "volunteers" as part of their service requirement to their respective universities. Not sure about the editorial positions, but the way things are going in academic publishing, I'd bet a good number of them are also "volunteers."

I'm torn on this. Obviously, scientists could be a lot better at communicating with the public, but I'm not sure that retooling journal articles to be more accessible to laymen is the way to do it. The literature serves a very specific purpose: advancing the state of knowledge and telling your academic peers what you did, why you did it, how you did it, and what it means. I would rather see scientists get into the habit of writing their own press releases than see academic articles turn into jargon-free zones.

We definitely need more code switching, but we don't need to completely eliminate the inside-baseball scholarly communication that generally seems to serve scientists alright, just not the general public. The audience for an academic article is not general, it's academic, and that's OK - but we should also have ways of engaging with public audiences more directly.
posted by dialetheia at 8:41 AM on October 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


Let me be a contrarian.

The problem with academic writing is a lack of accountability.

Look at a giant block of unreadable academic glurge and realize this: It's likely that nobody told the writer that it sucked. And if somebody did, they didn't or couldn't demand a rewrite, for any number of reasons.

The tenured emperor has no clothes. And worse, if you tell him, you plucky post-grad, you'll be bumped off the tenure track yourself. Nobody improves! All hail the emperor!
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:42 AM on October 1, 2014 [5 favorites]


They can lubricate comprehension.

I haven't decided yet how I feel about the rest of the Guardian article, but I can say that that's not a phrase I ever expected to encounter - it jumped out at me and sounds odd to my ear. "Lubricate" comprehension??
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:45 AM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: It lubricates comprehension
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:45 AM on October 1, 2014 [9 favorites]


I bought one of the books Pinker praises, Clear and Simple as the Truth, due to recommendations from Mefites. It is fantastic. However, the authors specifically note "classic style"---the focus of the book---to be inappropriate for scientific writing. In particular, I recall that one of their criteria for classic style is: given two sentences, the third should not be predictable. A good guideline for a lively essay, but not for a useful journal article.
posted by Mapes at 8:46 AM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


The tenured emperor has no clothes. And worse, if you tell him, you plucky post-grad, you'll be bumped off the tenure track yourself. Nobody improves! All hail the emperor!

The Plucky Post Doc or Grad Student is usually the one who wrote it, created the charts and graphs, did the layout - all of this again and again and again - until Professor Professorson decides it's good enough for them to be the "last" author and then makes the PPDoGS submit it and deal with the peer review and revisions.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:56 AM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


My ninth-grade English teacher told me, when I questioned the utility of an arcane grammar law, that I could break the rules at my leisure once I'd learned them.

Ahhhhh, the jazz principle.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:56 AM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


The duality between academic and popular writing is a false one. I know of many academic writers who are brilliant at keeping their work readable and even engaging; similarly, I know of many "popular" writers whose attempts to follow the Gladwellian format feel forced and impersonal.

The problem with academic writing, in my mind at least, is one of what Kirkpatrick Sale refers to as "human scale" — though he doesn't use it to refer to narratives, as many people who write about spatial relations generally don't apply their theories to temporal works, I find the term fits perfectly regardless. Academics, who work with high concentrations of information and theory, often feel the need to condense their writing to these impenetrable nuggets of info written so tightly that it's difficult to worm meaning out of their writing; often those same academics, asked to explain their work verbally, find themselves naturally lapsing into a structure in which each idea is given the space it needs to be articulated wholly, and usually it turns out to be much less space than you'd assume. There's nothing necessarily un-academic about keeping your writing slightly less dense than a neuron star, and you can keep the formal rigidity, the source-citings, and the general worthiness of your paper while making it infinitely more accessible to your reader.

(This holds true, by the way, even within subjects that your reader knows a whole lot about. I am nearly as baffled by papers written about subjects which I've researched and written papers about as I am by papers whose subjects I am nearly clueless on. That sort of academic overjargonization doesn't even benefit practitioners in those fields.)

Bret Victor, whom I love very dearly, wrote a very fun essay arguing that academic and scientific papers would benefit from being designed more like graphic novels, with a stronger coupling of words and visualizations. Victor has done better writing on the nature of communicating abstract thoughts and ideas than anybody else I know, and while this is one of his lesser essays, it's very enjoyable watching him apply his arguments to an existing paper just to see what the results would be like. Perhaps it's not the most practical solution imaginable, but I think about this essay a lot, and definitely think it points to the problem with "intellectual" writing as one that has more to do with form than it does with function or content.
posted by rorgy at 9:06 AM on October 1, 2014 [7 favorites]


Maybe share with us some of his ideas you think are bad?
posted by lefty lucky cat


In my view, nearly all of them. Talk about a naked emperor.
posted by spitbull at 9:06 AM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


Pinker's plea that academics write using simple English, by contrast, represents a kind of glib populism that I would normally attribute to Malcolm Gladwell: The kind that aims to sell books (which, unsurprisingly, Pinker is presently doing).

But he doesn't actually say that. He acknowledges that sometimes jargon is needed, but academic writers use it even when unneeded.

(It reminds me of the fact that in the US police dogs are transported in vans with "K-9" written on the side, while in the UK sometimes the vans just say 'dogs'.)
posted by Thing at 9:10 AM on October 1, 2014 [9 favorites]


My ninth-grade English teacher told me, when I questioned the utility of an arcane grammar law, that I could break the rules at my leisure once I'd learned them.

This is something I've heard a lot from people who break the rules so poorly that it looks like they didn't know the reason for the rule in the first place.

Once, a boss of mine (I am a proofreader) asked me if he could write ad copy that read "Compliment your meal with a nice wine" -- he claimed that because he knew how to correctly use "complement" it meant he was qualified to break the spelling rule and claim creative license. I told him no because it looks too much like a mistake, not like the (weird) pun he intended.

In order to break the rules of grammar, you not only have to know the rule, but you have to know the reason for the rule and how it can be broken without others thinking you've made an error.
posted by phatkitten at 9:14 AM on October 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


Academics mindlessly cushion their prose with wads of fluff that imply they are not willing to stand behind what they say. Those include "almost, apparently, comparatively, fairly, in part, nearly, partially, predominantly, presumably, rather, relatively, seemingly, so to speak, somewhat, sort of, to a certain degree, to some extent, and the ubiquitous I would argue."

I have this habit even in normal speech! It results, in part, from a habit in my teaching of making sure my students have options open to them. If there are three respected theories in the literature I want to make sure they take all three seriously, and sometimes I pull that off by muting my enthusiasm for my personal favorite.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:17 AM on October 1, 2014 [5 favorites]


I've heard two ways to describe academic writing. One is that you attempt to run a football field, and you're free to do it straightforwardly, on your own. But there's a team trying to tackle you on the other side, so you need to defend yourself with a whole team just to fend them off. Because you know someone is gonna try to pick apart anything open to interpretation (or that by its specificity excludes a host of other items that are included in your statement), you need to preemptively deflect questioning that could undermine your main idea. And the ones "attacking you" don't do it out of malice, but because of rigor, to make sure you aren't building a house of cards.

The other way is that your core message is an egg, something that could be explained in very simple terms, but again, you're going to have to drop it from a great height. To survive the impact, you put bubble wrap around it. The problem sometimes is that when you're done taking off the mess of bubble wrap, turns out there's actually little or nothing underneath it.
posted by infinitelives at 9:22 AM on October 1, 2014 [14 favorites]


Happiness will rise when the passive voice is no longer taught and expected in scientific and technical writing.
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:23 AM on October 1, 2014 [3 favorites]


Happiness will rise when the passive voice is no longer taught and expected in scientific and technical writing.

By whom?
 
posted by Herodios at 9:29 AM on October 1, 2014 [10 favorites]


Once, a boss of mine (I am a proofreader) asked me if he could write ad copy that read "Compliment your meal with a nice wine" -- he claimed that because he knew how to correctly use "complement" it meant he was qualified to break the spelling rule and claim creative license. I told him no because it looks too much like a mistake, not like the (weird) pun he intended.

Most people don't know the difference between compliment and complement anyway, so the small subset of people who'd notice are the people who'd think it was a) an error or b) a really shitty pun. That dude has bad marketing instincts.
posted by echocollate at 9:30 AM on October 1, 2014


Metafilter: It lubricates comprehension

...or else it gets the hose again.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 9:31 AM on October 1, 2014 [17 favorites]


My ninth-grade English teacher told me, when I questioned the utility of an arcane grammar law, that I could break the rules at my leisure once I'd learned them.

I have told my own kids this, too, because some of those "rules" that get sneered at are what makes your writing intelligible:
  • If you keep mixing tenses, people get confused about the order of events and can't follow your argument.
  • If you use pronouns without ever identifying their object, the reader can't be sure who or what you're talking about.
  • If you mess up its/it's or their/their/they're, readers have to guess at your meaning.


    I am plenty happy to wave the big, orange Chicago Manual of Style hardcover when my kids think that I am getting especially ranty about this, but not making simple errors allows the reader and the writer to concentrate on the ideas in the piece. And isn't that the point of writing?

  • posted by wenestvedt at 9:34 AM on October 1, 2014 [5 favorites]


    That dude has bad marketing instincts.

    Bad instincts in general, really. He also asked me once why the word "forinstance" (sic) wasn't in the dictionary.
    posted by phatkitten at 9:36 AM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


    But does it comprehend lubrication?
    posted by ian1977 at 9:37 AM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


    Writing is a skill, motherfuckers. If you don't spend time working on learning how to write well, you won't. Like many skills, it's easy to pick up the basics, much harder than it looks to do well, and can seem effortless when an expert wants to make it appear so.

    Having spent far longer than I'd care to admit as a writer/editor grappling with the horrors of government prose, Pinker's pieces felt accurate. From my experience, "governmentese" derives from four sources:

    1. A belief that obscure writing and Latinate words are more "serious." As government is serious business, such language is the only appropriate kind. "Utilize" is so much more intense and serious than "use," innit?

    2. A longstanding culture of governmentese. This is how it's always been done. This is how it's done. So do it.

    3. A lack of consideration for the audience. Heavy jargon can be used without explanation only if you know for a fact that the readership will be people who already know that jargon. Context that makes conclusions obvious to you might not be known to your readership. Supply it if needed. Ask yourself who will read this and what do you want them to know. Write in a way to make sure those people understand what you want them to understand. This is a key skill in writing, and people often aren't good at it. Forget "that v. which." If you can write with an audience in mind, you're a decent writer.

    4. A lack of consideration for the act of writing. Oh sweet merciful jeebus, save us all from writers who construct their works from prefabricated phrases rather than build sentences word by word. Deliver us from clowns who create accidental ambiguity through sloppiness. And protect us from the ineptitude of dipsticks who repurpose an existing word to have a specific, non-standard meaning, and then either forget to tell the reader that or -- better still -- alternate between standard and non-standard meanings for the word in the same goddamned document.

    Writing requires active thought about the act of writing. You have to give thought to the idea of communication. You can't vomit onto a page the mass of words in your head and call it a day. You have to shape that vomit. (Wow, that was a terrible metaphor.)

    Academic writing has different constraints. infinitelives explains it well, above. Given that poking holes in arguments is what academics live for, it's hardly surprising that their language would be structured to avoid hole-pokings.
    posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 9:40 AM on October 1, 2014 [6 favorites]


    Academics mindlessly cushion their prose with wads of fluff that imply they are not willing to stand behind what they say. Those include "almost, apparently, comparatively, fairly, in part, nearly, partially, predominantly, presumably, rather, relatively, seemingly, so to speak, somewhat, sort of, to a certain degree, to some extent, and the ubiquitous I would argue."

    It isn't fluff, it's precision. We talk like this to be precise about our uncertainties and to clearly mark the extent to which we're speculating or making a leap of inference. A lot of people seem to wish that scientists would speak in absolutes but it will never happen - we need to signal verbally that other interpretations are possible, that we're not overly attached to particular readings of the data, that there are disagreements in the literature, etc.

    The lack of certainty is a feature, not a bug.

    3. A lack of consideration for the audience. Heavy jargon can be used without explanation only if you know for a fact that the readership will be people who already know that jargon.

    Yup - and the intended audience for a scientific or scholarly paper is one's academic peers, so it's usually a reasonable assumption.
    posted by dialetheia at 9:45 AM on October 1, 2014 [22 favorites]


    Everyone thinks they're a rebel. We'll rebel ourselves to mutual incomprehensibility.

    Chicago Manual of Style . . .

    CMS FTW! So much goodness there. Whenever I'm queried about the omission of apostrophe in things like users guide, I thumb the bookmark for attributive case.

    It's also in CMS where I first encountered (in 1993) the standard prefixes for derived units yotta, zetta, zepto, yacto, and groucho.
     
    posted by Herodios at 9:47 AM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


    As usual, Pinker's tone is gently and insistently patronizing, mixing obvious banalities with genuinely bad advice. It's plainly absurd that "academics" should all start writing like Hemingway, because the professional needs of a mathematician, an English professor, and a historian are all quite distinct from one another, and no one-size-fits-all approach is going to do any of those fields any good.

    I find it especially frustrating that Pinker fails to distinguish between technical writing (which scientists must become better at) and popular writing (which, so far as I am able to discern, is the only kind of writing Pinker has ever done, even in his peer-reviewed work). These two styles are both necessary and both work at cross-purposes, and it is that tension that makes writing high-quality science difficult. Pinker's plea that academics write using simple English, by contrast, represents a kind of glib populism that I would normally attribute to Malcolm Gladwell: The kind that aims to sell books (which, unsurprisingly, Pinker is presently doing).


    I think perhaps you could benefit from a similar article about reading comprehension, because absolutely none of that is in the article I just read.
    posted by empath at 9:51 AM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


    It isn't fluff, it's precision. We talk like this to be precise about our uncertainties and to clearly mark the extent to which we're speculating or making a leap of inference. A lot of people seem to wish that scientists would speak in absolutes but it will never happen - we need to signal verbally that other interpretations are possible, that we're not overly attached to particular readings of the data, that there are disagreements in the literature, etc.

    The lack of certainty is a feature, not a bug.


    Again, he absolutely says that hedging is important, but not as a matter of habit. If you're going to hedge a statement, be precise about why you are hedging.
    posted by empath at 9:52 AM on October 1, 2014


    A lot of people seem to wish that scientists would speak in absolutes but it will never happen

    Um...I think it just did.
    posted by Greg_Ace at 9:57 AM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


    "The High Cost of the Great American Windbag"
    --Albert M. Joseph
    "This office has become cognizant of the necessity of eliminating unnecessary vegetation surrounding the periphery of the facility."
    or
    "It's time to mow the lawn."

    My father turned me on to this article almost forty years ago and I've found it useful over the years. I still agree 100% with 90% of what Joseph had to say here in 1975.

    We still use "this office has become cognizant. . . " as a kind of code.
     
    posted by Herodios at 9:59 AM on October 1, 2014 [7 favorites]


    Sort of related: Scientists vs. Journalists, an animated GIF.
    posted by Rumple at 10:00 AM on October 1, 2014 [7 favorites]


    "This office has become cognizant of the necessity of eliminating unnecessary vegetation surrounding the periphery of the facility."

    Listening to the Secret Service hearings yesterday was infuriating because of all the nonsensical bureaucratese.
    posted by empath at 10:09 AM on October 1, 2014




    It always boggled my mind, because, what - they run out of font on the website or something ?

    Sounds like someone's a fan of PLOS ONE!

    Seriously, though-- it costs money to publish an article, even online. You have to pay to put in the XML coding. You have to pay to get it copyedited (per page or per hour, even for web publications). You have to pay employees who are sending all these versions to authors and incorporating changes. You have to pay for graphics. You have to pay for proofreaders. You have to pay for everything that leads up to the moment of "the font" going live.

    And then you have to pay to host it.
    posted by a fiendish thingy at 10:45 AM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


    Happiness will rise when the passive voice is no longer taught and expected in scientific and technical writing.

    [Citation needed.]
    posted by entropicamericana at 10:59 AM on October 1, 2014


    Happiness will rise when the passive voice is no longer taught and expected in scientific and technical writing.

    Yeah, it's really not anymore. Some people still write methods, etc. in a passive voice, but I'd say it's most common to encounter first-person plural active voice.
    posted by mr_roboto at 11:23 AM on October 1, 2014


    I think I'm sort of in the middle of the road on this issue.

    On the one hand, I hate Pinker (and I've had a knee-jerk reaction against this sort of complaint for years, but in the linked article he dodges many of my usual harrumphs). On the other, I've seen examples of what he's talking about, and in my extremely limited and narrow experience, they all seem to come down to insecurity. After incompetence* and not having acquired the skills of a) writing well in b) the English language, of course. But I've seen someone I think is a fer realz genius choose shitty, shabby, embarrassing jargony terms when he talks and writes, and I can only guess that he's got a chip on his shoulder and/or is insecure somewhere deep down inside, and thinks 'this is what boffins sound like, therefore to be taken seriously I need to model their speech patterns'. In other cases I've seen people give presentations that are needlessly complex and bogged down in unintelligible and unnecessary data instead of just telling a good story, and that seems to be from a sense of 'if I don't show my work, people will think I didn't do anything/don't know what I'm talking about'. And then there's 'I will avoid saying anything that anyone anywhere at any point in time can say is wrong'.

    Academia is tough, yo. Playing to win is risky. Sometimes people play to not-lose.

    *Sometimes looks like 'I don't know why I'm talking' (which is related to 'I did a lot of work, look') or 'I don't actually understand this well enough to explain it to my granny or go off-script, but I memorised the shit out of all the relevant stuff and now I perform tasks'.
    posted by you must supply a verb at 11:31 AM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


    Look at a giant block of unreadable academic glurge and realize this: It's likely that nobody told the writer that it sucked. And if somebody did, they didn't or couldn't demand a rewrite, for any number of reasons.

    CPB, that's almost the exact opposite of how academic writing works.

    Most published work probably begins as a conference paper of some sort, where you have an idea and write something up and then make a presentation at the conference. The presentation might vary between eight and twenty minutes. After the presentation, one or two people get up to say everything that's wrong with your work, including sometimes that it's written badly, is unclear, etc. This isn't necessarily to be a dick; even when there's a paper you like it's still your job as a discussant to find things that can stand improvement.

    You submit your paper to a journal, and they send it off to a few peer-reviewers. The fate of your paper is completely in the reviewers' hands. They can and do tell you that your paper sucks, and even that it's badly written. They can and do demand rewrites, at which point you can (1) do what they said to do, or some subset of that that the editor points out, (2) withdraw your submission, or (3) offer very good reasons why you won't do what you were asked to do. I can't speak for other disciplines, but in my own the probability of getting a paper flat-out accepted (and not sent back for revision) by a good journal is well under 1 percent.

    After a revised version is provisionally accepted, it's handed to the editor, who can do any number of things. He or she can do a close line-reading and offer specific advice, and can reverse their decision if you don't comply. Or sometimes they just say "Cut a third of the paper." Sometimes copy-editing is done by a full-time professional where you can safely assume that the decision-making editor has their back. Anyhow, after the reviewers tell you that your work sucks and needs to be revised, the editor does the same thing from scratch.

    Anyway, the big point is that the long process of academic publishing is almost entirely a string of people telling you that your work sucks.
    posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:53 AM on October 1, 2014 [12 favorites]


    I really wish we could stop calling prescriptivist rules 'grammar.' They're not grammar, they're style guides. Some are OK, some are ridiculous, but they are not and never will be grammar. (Yes, I do see the irony of using a prescriptivist definition of grammar.)

    And I think he's taking a little too broadly populist perspective. He writes for general audiences, sure, but not all academics do, and IMO, they shouldn't feel like they have to. Not all academic work is going to be accessible to people without that background, no matter how clearly it's written. You still need context to understand the significance.
    posted by ernielundquist at 12:20 PM on October 1, 2014 [7 favorites]


    This is true though 'if I don't show my work, people will think I didn't do anything/don't know what I'm talking about'. I used to do these great presentations that showed my 'story' really well with interesting pictures and a minimum of jargon. Then I saw someone do an excellent presentation on high level ecology/biology statistics that made her work look so straightforward that she didn't get the job. Her work was cutting edge for our field and she was an amazing presenter and teacher and it really seemed her work was devalued because she communicated it so well. The other candidates were doing pretty easy work, threw up lots of Greek letters and jargon, and came off as more knowledgeable (at least to the people making the hiring decision*). So now I make sure to include equations, explain them briefly and unclearly (in an 'obviously you are familiar with my work' way), and make sure that my listeners know that I can do the 'difficult' parts of science. It's a performance of Science. Which is what journal articles are too. Popular articles are an admittedly different issue.

    *Obviously, there could be a little sexism at work here too where explaining things well, aka teaching, is undervalued, especially in women.
    posted by hydrobatidae at 1:49 PM on October 1, 2014 [12 favorites]


    Again, he absolutely says that hedging is important, but not as a matter of habit. If you're going to hedge a statement, be precise about why you are hedging.

    Okay, so in that case he's burning a straw man - I don't think he provides any evidence at all that they are doing it as a matter of habit and not as a way of signaling areas of uncertainty. This is the part I think he gets most wrong in his analysis:

    A classic writer, in contrast, counts on the common sense and ordinary charity of his readers, just as in everyday conversation we know when a speaker means in general or all else being equal. If someone tells you that Liz wants to move out of Seattle because it’s a rainy city, you don’t interpret him as claiming that it rains there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, just because he didn’t qualify his statement with relatively rainy or somewhat rainy.

    This is not even close to true for scientists! It might be true in his field but it's false in my field. People do read what we say very literally, and things are frequently blown out of proportion, and we have to be much more cautious about what we say and how we say it as a result. I work in forest climate science, and if I gave a presentation or wrote a paper where I mentioned that Seattle is "rainy", I would definitely have people saying "but it isn't always rainy! and this other place is rainier! and how are you defining rainy, and over what time period? It wasn't rainy in the Pleistocene! It isn't rainy in August!" And they'd be right! I wouldn't be able to say anything useful about the climate in Seattle without being more precise than "rainy," and they'd be correct that I was eliding important factors (seasonality, spatiotemporal scale) by glossing over them like that.

    The media makes this much worse - if I'm sloppy talking to the media, they might well walk away from the conversation with the wrong idea and write something totally inaccurate that misrepresents my work (not that this doesn't happen anyway...).

    Incidentally, I also took serious issue with this:

    Thoughtless writers think they’re doing the reader a favor by guiding her through the text with previews, summaries, and signposts. In reality, meta­discourse is there to help the writer, not the reader, since she has to put more work into understanding the signposts than she saves in seeing what they point to, like directions for a shortcut that take longer to figure out than the time the shortcut would save.

    I could not possibly disagree more. I'm teaching statistics to undergrads right now and they are LOST without the signposts - I have to tell them what I'm going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what I told them or else they don't get what I'm saying at all. As a reader, I also really appreciate the signposts; they allow me to see the structure of the information they're presenting ahead of time, and then when I'm reading I can concentrate on seeing how those chunks fit into the framework they've established. To me, the signposts are super helpful and allow me to better evaluate whether he writer is actually doing what they think they're doing.

    Maybe I would agree more if he had constrained his critique to academic writing in the humanities, but the stuff he suggests wouldn't work very well in my field. The "relying on the charity and common sense of my audience" bit is especially rich - if it was common sense, I wouldn't have to do all this research and write a paper about it!
    posted by dialetheia at 1:58 PM on October 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


    The thing is, there are three completely different and unrelated issues at play here, and Pinker isn't doing a great job of distinguishing among them.

    1) Academic writing which is difficult for laypeople to understand because it is intended for other academics in the field. It assumes that terms with precise meanings that are in common use in the field will be understood and doesn't waste verbiage defining them or using lengthy alternatives. This is not actually a problem, and it is not the job of the person writing them to make them comprehensible to laypeople because they are not the audience. They can be made more widely accessible if necessary through the work of science writers, journalists, or popularizers (... who are often terrible, but that is not the issue at hand here since that is not academic writing.)

    2) Academic writing which is difficult to understand because the primary author isn't that good at expressing thoughts clearly. This happens, and can be a problem, but there are workable solutions. It can be mitigated somewhat by the often collaborative nature of academic writing and publishing, although that depends very much on the team and the dynamic. A better and longer-term solution is the teaching of writing for all fields where it is relevant, at all levels, during the educational process.

    3) Academic writing which is deliberately obscurantist in order to sound more complex than it actually is. This is an annoying and unnecessary practice which particularly plagues certain fields. I can't think of any solution other than to reward clarity (with better grades during education and easier publication afterwards) and punish obscurantism, but sometimes the reverse happens when those who are fond of the practice reach influential levels.
    posted by kyrademon at 2:13 PM on October 1, 2014 [5 favorites]


    Herodios, the thing is that from a precise, scientific and academic standpoint those statements don't say remotely the same thing.

    "This office has become cognizant of the necessity of eliminating unnecessary vegetation surrounding the periphery of the facility" includes information on location 'periphery of the facility' but does not specify the nature of the vegetation - it could be that weeds need to be pulled from the garden, for instance.

    "It's time to mow the lawn" tells you that it is grass that needs eliminating, that it should be done by cutting it to a certain height, and that the time to do it is now. However it doesn't specify the location as exactly. It actually contains more information than the previous statement, because it is jargon. It's just Western homeowner jargon rather than scientific jargon.

    The phrase "Mow the lawn" is a useful to briefly refer to a somewhat complex task. We live in a culture where a lot of people grow a patch of fairly uniform grass and use fairly similar machinery to cut it to a uniform height. But it is jargon. Someone from a culture where they didn't have lawns and certainly didn't mow them would be totally lost. And to give an analogy, in science writing, you're often in a situation where only a few people even know what 'lawns' are and even fewer know how to 'mow' them.

    Now I'll grant that "This office has become cognizant of the necessity of eliminating unnecessary vegetation surrounding the periphery of the facility." is a little stilted, and could be shortened to "This office needs unnecessary vegetation surrounding the periphery of the facility eliminated." And were I a better writer, I could probably find a less awkward way of phrasing it so that the action 'eliminated' doesn't come at the end of a bunch of intervening words. But still, there is good reason to be using words with a lot of specificity - which tend to be the large ones less in everyday use.

    Everyday words tend to have fuzzy and broad meanings because that's useful in everyday conversation. It's a liability in academic science.
    posted by Zalzidrax at 2:16 PM on October 1, 2014 [5 favorites]


    (And it also doesn't help that Pinker's suggestions for "solutions" are often ridiculous and wrong-headed.)
    posted by kyrademon at 2:18 PM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]


    CPB, that's almost the exact opposite of how academic writing works. ... You submit your paper to a journal, and they send it off to a few peer-reviewers. The fate of your paper is completely in the reviewers' hands. They can and do tell you that your paper sucks, and even that it's badly written. ... Anyway, the big point is that the long process of academic publishing is almost entirely a string of people telling you that your work sucks.

    And yet we have this thread. Hmm. I guess we're all wrong here and there's nothing to talk about.
    posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:38 PM on October 1, 2014


    I always tell my students to use signposts (I call them scaffolding) - they're necessary to build the edifice but at the end of the writing process you can probably take them down, or replace them with more graceful segues. So for sure they help the writer, along the lines of "The previous section showed that x was dependent on y. The next section shows that y causes z with reference to the work of Zizek". Or whatever. It helps with clarity of thought. It's not literature, but there's no reason it can't be clear and fluid.

    By the way, this piece from American Scientist called "The Science of Scientific Writing" is really excellent.
    posted by Rumple at 3:50 PM on October 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


    Maybe I would agree more if he had constrained his critique to academic writing in the humanities

    Oh signposting is absolutely vital in the humanities as well, particularly in interdisciplinary fields where you can't assume the reader has the same theoretical background that you do. I'm most familiar with media studies, which can contain everything from policy studies, representation, political economy/industry analysis, and even architecture gets an increasingly significant look in.

    For instance, I was refereeing a paper earlier this year and struggled through the first read until the very end when their argument was clearly articulated for the first time and all the earlier parts which were there for reasons that weren't exactly clear fell into place. Was actually a relatively (hah!) significant paper, or would be once the author explained at the outset what they were arguing and why it was important.
    posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 6:35 PM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


    OK, this has apparently gotten up my nose. Long rebuttal is long.

    Herodios, the thing is that from a precise, scientific and academic standpoint those statements don't say remotely the same thing.
    ...
    Everyday words tend to have fuzzy and broad meanings because that's useful in everyday conversation. It's a liability in academic science.

    The everyday words here are "It's time to mow the lawn."

    Assuming the intent of the writing has anything to do with precision, science or whatever the hell an "academic standpoint" is:

    - If "It's time to mow the lawn" is actually the intended meaning, it's clearer and more accurate than the long version.

    - If the long version is the intended thought, inaccurately paraphrased by "It's time to mow the lawn", that's certainly a problem.

    But for that long version to be clear, all the ambiguous usage like "vegetation", "the perimeter", and "the facility" will have to be nailed down. And once that's been done, a short, *accurate* paraphrase - on the same order as "it's time to mow the lawn" - will *still* be clearer and just as accurate. Unless the goal is not actually to communicate clearly.

    I don't entirely follow what you mean by "academic science" , but the kind of scientific writing I'm familiar with, when it's intended to be clear, uses everyday words as a matter of course unless technical jargon will be clearer. And Herodias' example is not technical jargon; it's just officious noise.

    Academic and bureaucratic writing intended to intimidate or mislead are *rife* with this kind of self-indulgent pomposity, deliberately intimidating officialese, and other kinds of obnoxious bullshit.
    posted by ProxybyMunchausen at 8:08 PM on October 1, 2014


    Herodios, the thing is that from a precise, scientific and academic standpoint those statements don't say remotely the same thing.

    Well no actually that is not the thing at all. You have in fact completely missed what the the thing is, most likely by not reading TFA. There is nothing remotely precise, scientific, nor academic about the first writing sample, nor about the context in which it was found.

    Although the first linked article is entitled "Why academic writing stinks", the five subsequent links address professional writing in general -- not academic writing exclusively. The "High cost of the American windbag" article, likewise is not about academic writing.

    I think it's obvious that neither of the statements would appear in academic writing. I think it would be obvious to someone who had read the article that Joseph is holding up an inter-office memo of the kind you might have seen in a government office in the 1970s as an example of the bloated writing style that you might see in any context.

    Of course the two samples don't mean lexically the same thing -- that is the point.

    What the writer is attempting to do is request some action by -- one assumes -- the maintenance department. We don't know for sure what he wants, because he didn't state it with clarity and economy -- which is the point of Joesph's article.

    Instead, the anonymous writer tells us about his state of mind, his awareness, his cognizance . So he's run off the rails from jump street.

    But to attempt to follow his train of thought, what is he cognizant of -- weeds? high grass? No, of a (questionable) necessity.

    A necessity of what? Mowing the lawn? Cutting the grass? Trimming the weeds? Maybe it's just that he feels that the landscapers planted too many boxwoods! And who says it's necessary?

    No, for him it's all about eliminating (that could mean a lot of things) unnecessary (who says?) vegetation (who calls landscaping plants 'vegetation'?) and not just around the facility, but around the periphery of the facility -- a great leap forward.

    And in the process, refers to himself in the royal third person "This Office" like some bureaucratic Commissar.

    "It's time to mow the lawn" . . . actually contains more information than the previous statement

    Yes, and a consummation devoutly to be wished.

    The phrase "Mow the lawn" is . . . jargon.

    No. If mowing the lawn is what the writer actually wants, that is exactly the way to ask for it. If not, this business of cognizance, necessity, elimination, and periphery do not help.

    Someone from a culture where they didn't have lawns and certainly didn't mow them would be totally lost.

    You're just looking for trouble now.

    to give an analogy, in science writing, you're often in a situation where only a few people even know what 'lawns' are and even fewer know how to 'mow' them.

    That is not an analogy and you really didn't read the article at all, did you.

    Now I'll grant that "This office has become cognizant of the necessity of eliminating unnecessary vegetation surrounding the periphery of the facility." is a little stilted, and could be shortened to "This office needs unnecessary vegetation surrounding the periphery of the facility eliminated."

    You have rearranged the sentence but not solved the problem, which is failure to communicate a need with clarity and economy; which is the point of TFA.

    But still, there is good reason to be using words with a lot of specificity - which tend to be the large ones less in everyday use.

    That seems bizarrely obtuse. The problem with the construction you are defending is that it lacks clarity -- specificity, if you prefer. The "large words less in everyday use" do not serve to clarify here -- rather the opposite.

    See also: What ProxybyMunchhausen just said.
     
    posted by Herodios at 8:12 PM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]


    OK, I take back the part about the long rebuttal. And I retrospectively spell your name right, Herodios.

    No really, I do. Just said so, right up there, see? You don't think I'd lie to you, do you?

    Maybe if you squint a little that will help.
    posted by ProxybyMunchausen at 9:28 PM on October 1, 2014


    I am amused by the attempts to even defend "This office has become cognizant of the necessity of eliminating unnecessary vegetation surrounding the periphery of the facility", especially the ones which begin from the assumption that this sentence must have meant something other than "it's time to mow the lawn". This reasoning is exactly backwards: the problem is that, in the example, the simpler sentence really is what the original should have been. The daffy phrasing covers up the fact that, for example, it really is the lawn, and not some other form of vegetation, which needs to be mowed.
    posted by Sticherbeast at 7:36 AM on October 2, 2014


    Not sure how relevant it is, but in the original example linked by Herodios, "This office has become cognizant of the necessity of eliminating unnecessay vegetation surrounding the periphery of the facility" is not supposed to mean "it's time to mow the lawn." It's supposed to mean "please kill the weeds around the building."
    posted by klausness at 7:15 AM on October 8, 2014 [2 favorites]


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