Why academics can’t write

Prospect Magazine

Why academics can’t write

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Attack of the meaningless nouns

Unclear language reflects unclear thinking. Photo credit: Pat Dunachie

A couple or so years ago, the university where I teach introduced a new way for staff to record information about tutorials, grandly calling it the “Co-Tutor Student Management Relationship System.” The name possesses the linguistic features that appeal to managers today: nouns strung together without intervening prepositions, with some of the nouns conveying generally desirable qualities (“relationship,” “system”). Despite its pomposity the name is vague: it doesn’t tell you what sorts of relationships are being systematically managed or who might be doing the managing.

Managers can also favour long words which make simple actions seem rather grand. One example that linguists like to cite is the word “autocondimentation.” The story is that managers in the catering industry devised the word to describe the practice of customers applying sauce to their hamburgers: the long word made the managers appear expert.

According to critical linguists, who have studied official and ideological language, there are good reasons why managers might like such language. By using nouns or verbs in the passive voice, authorities can present their own decisions as if they were objective realities, rather than as actions arbitrarily taken by powerful persons. If you put up a notice saying “Pedestrians are requested not to walk on the grass,” (or better still, “No Access”) you don’t have to say who is requesting (or, rather, commanding) the pedestrians.

Those who work in British universities are aware of the Research Excellence Framework, a group of nouns capable of striking fear into the calmest of academics. By choosing nouns—and nouns alone—our authorities can convey that the so-called “framework” for judging the research of academic staff, has some sort of independent existence (thereby leaving in the linguistic shadows those who devise, run and benefit from all the judging) and that somehow the whole business really does have something to do with a thing called “research excellence.”

When academic linguists have exposed the modern power of big nouns, they have tended to use exactly the same sort of language themselves. Like other social scientists, and like the managers of universities and other big businesses, critical linguists have shown a penchant for big nouns. They write about the language of managers being filled with “nominalization” and “passivization”; and they refer to the coining of new managerial terms, such as “autocondimentation,” as “relexicalization.” Just like the catering managers, the linguists can use big words to bolster their expertise.

Throughout the social sciences, we can find academics parading their big nouns and their noun-stuffed noun-phrases. By giving something an official name, especially a multi-noun name which can be shortened to an acronym, you can present yourself as having discovered something real—something to impress the inspectors from the Research Excellence Framework.

Social scientists commonly justify their use of big words by saying that ordinary language is hopelessly vague and that social scientific terminology, although it might be awkward, is at least precise. However, the opposite is true: ordinary words usually convey much more information than the big words of the social scientists, especially when used to describe ordinary actions.

Social scientists tend to use their big words and noun phrases in imprecise ways. For example, linguists use the term “nominalization” to describe very different ways speakers and writers might turn verbs into nouns. They also use the same word to describe the resulting nouns, rather than the processes involved in using and/or creating such nouns. And no one seems bothered by the different meanings. Instead, linguists carry on using the term as if it describes a “thing” that they have collectively discovered.

There is another reason that social scientists, especially those on the left, have given for using difficult words. The great French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, wrote about the difficulties of using ordinary language to analyse the nature of the social world. Sociologists, according to Bourdieu, need to distance themselves from everyday assumptions which are built into the meanings of ordinary words. Therefore social critics should treat ordinary language with suspicion and develop their own technical terminology.

This view has led some analysts to value difficult writing for its own sake. For instance, Jonathan Culler put together a collection of literary theorists extolling the virtues of difficulty. It was as if ordinary people, using ordinary words, had no chance of understanding the situations in which they found themselves.

Maybe it is time for social scientists to reject this self-interested valuing of difficulty and linguistic innovation. We live in times when those with authority find it advantageous to devise new words and noun-filled phrases. Academics, nowadays, should suspect the confusing power of technical language, including their own, rather than look down upon the clarity of ordinary words.

In his great essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell advised us to avoid big words and passive sentences. Clarity, Orwell wrote, was a matter of politics, not aesthetics, for those who write unclearly will think unclearly. It is always in the interests of the powerful if the rest of us cannot think clearly about who holds power in society and how they execute that power. Now, more than ever, we should take Orwell’s message seriously.

Michael Billig is the author of “Learn to Write Badly: how to succeed in the social sciences” (Cambridge University Press)

  1. August 8, 2013

    Sam Saunders

    In the years within which I was reading a lot of research writing in education I think I could discern two forms of the writing to which this very interesting article refers.

    On the one hand was prose written by those like Michael Eraut and Peter Tomlinson (my research supervisor). In this writing specific terms are introduced and defined and used with a precision that enables complex ides and complex realities to be analyzed and illuminated. New wisdom is thereby given full expression, wisdom that can be shared with some accuracy by a careful reader.

    A superficially similar prose, packed with the tropes and malogisms identified here seemed, to my A-Level ex-teacher’s eye to be form struggling to disguise a lack of full understanding. Here were sentences spun beyond breaking point by the important nouns that signified support from (but slender understanding of) authors like Bourdieu or Foucault.

    To put his simply, a reader must still read for meaning, and respond critically to the possibility that (whatever the form of language) there might be valuable intelligence in the text. Plain speaking can as easily represent bigotry and ignorance as ornate deployment of clichéd neologism can express pompous vacuity.

  2. August 8, 2013

    Nick Hart

    In much the same way that a popular book written in accessible language cannot be ‘literature’, an academic screed cannot be sufficiently ‘rigorous’ unless it is written in language so inpenitaryily arcane that it is completely inaccessible to a non-’expert’.

    • September 12, 2013

      Richmondie

      Impenetrability, that’s what I say! (Humpty Dumpty, via Lewis Carroll)

    • September 14, 2013

      Omar

      For one, hey, cool, that’s the avatar I usually use!
      For two, big words do not literature make. There is plenty of literature out there composed of everyday language–it’s the construction of a novel that makes it literature. Heck, Greg Gaffin of the band Bad Religion peppers his lyrics with ten-cent humdingers, and his work is, well, punk music.

  3. August 8, 2013

    Jack

    I’m sorry, this whole article isn’t clear in itself!

    One: it has too many long nouns and adjectives in it for me to understand half of the sentences.

    Two: there’s so much garbage in it. Your point could have been said in about 1 paragraph. The last one will do.

    That goes for the comments made by Nick and Sam above.

    Thanks.

    • September 13, 2013

      Desiree Dreeuws

      Indeed, this article needs editing.

    • February 27, 2014

      WIldCat

      I am a non native English speaker and I could understand it pretty well. The same can I not say of articles written by philosophers who like to introduce the word “epistemological” between every noun and many other words that are there just to fill in space, As if they were being paid by the number of words they write!

  4. August 8, 2013

    John Doe

    The general point is decent, but there are at least two egregious errors that mar the impression that the writer knows what he’s talking about:

    (1) “Research” is being used as an adjective in “Research Excellence Framework,” just as it is in “research paper.” So, the following is incorrect: ‘Those who work in British universities are aware of the Research Excellence Framework, a group of nouns capable of striking fear into the calmest of academics. By choosing nouns—and nouns alone—our authorities can convey that the so-called “framework” for judging the research of academic staff, has some sort of independent existence (thereby leaving in the linguistic shadows those who devise, run and benefit from all the judging) and that somehow the whole business really does have something to do with a thing called “research excellence.”’

    (2) There is nothing confusing about using “nominalization” to refer to either a process and to the product of that process, just as we do with “building.” So, the following is not only pompous, but uninformedly so: ‘Social scientists tend to use their big words and noun phrases in imprecise ways. For example, linguists use the term “nominalization” to describe very different ways speakers and writers might turn verbs into nouns. They also use the same word to describe the resulting nouns, rather than the processes involved in using and/or creating such nouns. And no one seems bothered by the different meanings. Instead, linguists carry on using the term as if it describes a “thing” that they have collectively discovered.’

    • September 9, 2013

      michal

      are you kidding us? I have looked up three dictionaries. “research” can be a noun. it can also be a verb. but it is NOT an adjective!

      • February 27, 2014

        Axel Kassel

        Re comment ““research” can be a noun. it can also be a verb. but it is NOT an adjective!”:
        Really?
        “She eagerly accepted a research grant.”
        “He was a master of research distortion.”
        “Research findings support my grotesque position.”
        Adjectives. As in “brick wall” or “stone head.”

  5. August 8, 2013

    Terence Hale

    Hi,
    Why academics can’t write. Mr. Billig as a journalist living in a world of tranquil simplicity of words having time you misrepresent scientists. You see things and write about it, we do things and write about it. Admittedly slipping up on a banana skip has produced the most spectacular scientist endeavors but some of the most spectacular journalist revelation have come from the dust bun. Something in between our worlds is a Microsoft installation Manuel.

    • August 12, 2013

      SaLeX

      Mr. Billig is not a journalist. He is a famous professor at Loughbourough University. Not to mention about the book that he seems to have recently published, which is on academic writing. Isn’t this ironic?
      What frustrates me, leaving nominalizations aside, is that the question in the title remains unanswered. There’s no “that’s why academics can’t write …” in this article, unless you admit that the meaning of the title is “why academics can’t write in an intelligible manner”. Because they need a language that is so-and-so … (see Bourdieu). But then, the discussion about nominalization is rather pointless. And the difference between nominalizations such as “autocondimentation” and scientific language (even that of a critical persuasion) is that the letter produces concepts, as opposed to simply labels. Linguistically, they might be considered concepts, but epistemically, they are concepts – building blocks of theories. While “autocondimentation” doesn’t serve such a purpose.
      I’d have expected more from M. Billig.

      • August 12, 2013

        SaLeX

        Correction:
        Linguistically, they might be considered nominalizations, but epistemically, they are concepts – building blocks of theories.

      • September 9, 2013

        Anisa

        He has answered the question in the title, it’s about power, Billig has managed to convey a very complex topic in a very short article.

  6. August 8, 2013

    Tim C

    “The greatest virtue of diction is to be clear without being commonplace” – Aristotle

  7. August 9, 2013

    Tammy

    Oh please, people! Write for easy interpretation. This is supposed to be about COMMUNICATION.

  8. August 9, 2013

    Jeroen Nieboer

    I can’t see why writing about what you do has to be more complicated than writing about what you see. The big difference between journalists and academics is that they write for audiences with different expectations – academics sometimes need to use more words to be specific. That said, many academic papers are needlessly wordy

    Since we’re talking social sciences here, one of my favourite ‘writers on writing’ in my field (economics) is Deirdre McCloskey. Her ‘Economical writing’ papers (and short book) are great.

    I love this quote from the Elements of Style: “Don’t be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.”

  9. August 9, 2013

    RB2

    Very true.

    I spent a year studying Habermas while at university; it took years for my own prose style to recover.

    Some social / political theorists (including H) genuinely use this prose style for reasons of technical accuracy and precision, and their impenetrability is then amplified by translation. Others, I regret, just write in a very obscure way because they actually have little to say beyond hand-waving, waffle and platitude, which would be evident to all if their thoughts were expressed in plain language.

    • August 15, 2013

      Nuria Cruz

      I entirely agree with you.

  10. August 9, 2013

    Anabela

    Being a non-native English speaker I am puzzled by many of such word constructions. i divide writers in two groups:
    1. Those who want to be understood by their readers and embrace a large audience
    2. Those who want to show off their “writing skills” and wouldn’t care less about the reader

    This second group is a vain narcissistic lot totally disrespectful of others. I don’t think they really have anything to tell the reader , they just want admiration from ignorants who attribute them value because they can’t understand what the heck the author is saying. People lacking critical get easily impressed by big words because they don’t understand them and then they are seen as more intelligent that the reader.

  11. August 18, 2013

    tim ellison

    `Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
    Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

  12. August 21, 2013

    Jason

    Great article. Similar arguments are developed by Howie Becker in his ‘Writing for Social Sciences’. Becker shows with some concrete examples how it’s easier to write pretentiously, and then to hide behind obscure formulations and ‘bullshit modifiers’, than it is to write clearly and directly. It could have been Einstein, not sure, who nicely captures the aim of scholarly writing: to express ideas as simply as possible, but no simpler (or something like that).

    Bourdieu is perhaps partly right to suggest that certain everyday language terms and concepts have ‘hangovers’. But then so do esoteric technical terms. Surely the point is always to check and confront such ‘etymological loads’ (sorry if that sounds esoteric) and then to work with apposite language that is suitable to the task. E.g. there are all kinds of problems with Bourdieu’s concept of ‘field’, particularly as this is borrowed from the physical sciences (as akin to a ‘force field’ or limited space) that are discussed by Howard Becker in an interview towards the end of the new edition of Art Worlds.

    I think there’s equally a counter-case to be made: to where possible use concepts and metaphors that have at least some common currency, some existing cognitive value, as this inevitably aids in communicating ideas to an otherwise uninitiated reader.

  13. August 25, 2013

    Terrence O'Keeffe

    There are some points of interest related to Billig’s piece that he overlooked – perhaps for reasons of limited space or economy. One is that fact that for almost a century people in a variety of non-scientific disciplines have suffered from “science envy”. I.e., the physical sciences have been very successful in describing different parts of the material world, in measuring and quantifying them, and in constructing concise theories (expressed in mathematical language) the tie different parts of this world together; after all, a mathematical equation is a way of stating a relationship of between two or more things (or forces) that seem to be superficially different from each other (Einstein’s e=mc2 is probably the simplest, most elegant, most famous of such equations). These kinds of theories (or general physical laws) allow physicists, chemists, etc. to make hypotheses that can be tested and therefore to discover new and interesting things about our world.

    The social sciences have attempted to emulate this, sometimes succeeding, but more often botching the job. In cases where the social sciences have managed to quantify things that appear to most of us to be qualitative rather than quantitative, they often prove to have carried out what I call “the formalization of common sense”; that in itself is something of an achievement. On the other hand the vast explanatory claims of vague “theories” (or Theory!) that have emerged from French 20th century academic philosophy are merely self-validating pronouncements of supposed relationships among different social and psychological phenomena. They immunize themselves from constructive criticism by (1) stating that talk (or writing) is always about other talk or writing (discourse) and not about a “real world out there” that must remain opaque and inaccessible to understanding, and (2) they have discovered concealed languages of “power relations” that are the most important thing about all possible relationships in the world, therefore assaulting their ideas is merely a power-grab by or power-defense by their critics. It’s a circular system from which there is no escape. The weaknesses of such ideas as “science” is that they have almost no predictive abilities (unlike new ideas in the physical sciences) and that, to explain their constant failure to describe the world in a plausible way they must resort to all kinds of special pleading and circumstantial exceptions.

    This strange world of social Theory has invaded literary criticism (or “the humanities”) as well as sociology, anthropology, some branches of psychology, art history etc., but, rather than increasing the rigor of those disciplines, it has made them even vaguer and “more mandarin”. The pretentiousness and muddiness of the writing of men and women who are now employed in these pleasant and financially rewarding pastimes (for that is all they are) is a byproduct of the competition with the physical sciences (now often with the omnivorous and expanding branches of biology, rather than with physics and chemistry). “Social theory” is easily parodied, as the Sokal hoax on the silly editors of the silly journal Social Text demonstrated, and its practitioners are as easily victimized by language-abuse as their own readers (college and university students) are.

    When it comes to describing and discussing social and psychological phenomena, the old everyday language of desires, intentions, goals, rewards-punishments, motives (a little cloudier), and individual and group self-interest are far clearer and more useful than the specialized jargon of the social sciences. Most people with a decent education and hindsight about the folly of their youthful enthusiasm for “theories that explain everything” understand this, so the respect for difficult and “higher” language is dwindling rapidly; as it should.

    Here I have avoided the difficulties (in social-theory speak: the epistemic paradoxes) raised by a discussion of the definitions of and distinctions between objectivity and subjectivity. But people interested in this discussion shed more light on it when they use everyday language.

  14. August 28, 2013

    Jason

    Thought your post was, on the whole, bang-on the money Terrence. I think there’s a tendency in my discipline in particular (sociology) for people to accept the equation that lexical sophistication is a proxy for conceptual rigour. There are those who try to ape the natural sciences directly, and those who, as you suggest, pitch the whole politics of writing as one of struggle: competing power investments and discursive contest. There’s definitely something to this idea, but, as you suggest, it can lead to a series of vacuous and circular debates. Sokal and Bricmont did a good job of exposing this tendency in Intellectual Imposters – how insults were hurled at them, and how the substance of their critique was dodged by those defending a particular strand of social theorising with the claim that the critique was part of a more general attempt by physicists to regain ground in the ‘science wars’. I think Sokal and Bricmont have lots to say that is worthwhile, lots that strikes as accurate, but I’m not so convinced we can altogether dispense with theory, and sometimes, with technical terms (they weren’t suggesting that we should). Some of the most worthwhile terms from my field — terms like charisma, anomie, alienation, the self-fulfilling prophecy, unintended consequences, etc. — have become part of everyday language because they have some intuitive value. And sometimes it is necessary to move away from the trappings of every day language to achieve conceptual precision. But it’s that precision and rigour that should always be the aim, and again, where it’s possible to use non-technical language we as social scientists should seek to do so. Part of the problem, in my view, is that much ‘social theory’ is theory without an object: ideas about ideas, books about books, the inter-textuality of which only compounds the problem of becoming trapped within the ‘bubble’ of ‘discourse’. Theory without an object, theory partly or wholly divorced from empirical inquiry, theory as a kind of totemic end in itself is perhaps the real problem here.

  15. September 8, 2013

    pete

    Unlike most academics, I read my first attempt at a comment. Then I deleted it. Then I did the same with my second.
    The answer is simple, but why let them know?

  16. September 12, 2013

    Michael

    I see where Billigs employs a putative normalized rhetoric to mask a Lacanian pretense of heterodox hegemonic normativity, while somehow eliding a discussion of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, so like, ya know…what gives, Billigs?

  17. September 13, 2013

    Alex

    I commend the author for embedding antidisestablishmentarianism in his discursive practice.

  18. September 14, 2013

    Ken Emmond

    Many legal contracts deal with complex issues (or, as the lawyers like to say, complex matters). To clarify, one of the first clauses is often titled “definitions,” in which terms are given their meanings for the purpose of the contract. In theory, “black” could be defined as “white” for the purposes of a given contract. Those who say that it is impossible to use simple language are wrong. All they have to do is borrow this concept from the lawyers (who admittely in other contexts aren’t known for transparent writing), and define their complex words in simple terms near the beginning of their piece. Then they can proceed with language that most of us can understand. It’s called “plain language,” and that’s what all of us should strive for.

  19. February 25, 2014

    padraigcolman

    I try to follow Orwell’s guidance about writing simply. When I am editing academic papers, the academics do not usually react kindly to my efforts to bring out the essential beauty of their ideas. While I accept that it is best to avoid big words and the passive mood, I do resent it when Microsoft Word bullies me about these things.

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