Academic Language

The ability to write in clear language is not encouraged in third-level institutions

In the past few years, two friends asked me to proof-read their Masters theses.  This wasn’t because of any great wisdom on my part but simply because I suffer from an affliction: typographical and grammatical errors jump off the page and hit me between the eyes.  I can’t help it.

This isn’t to say that I’d be without an opinion on the subject of the thesis — I just wouldn’t know anything about it, and already I can hear people saying That never stopped you before.  True, but let’s stick to the point.

I read through the things, correcting misspelllings, adding commas, removing semicolons in the usual proof-reading way, but as I trudged my way along, a niggling little voice kept speaking to me, tempting me, urging me to intervene.


Because, although both friends are bright, lively human beings, the language in their theses was heavy, ponderous, deliberate and quite different from the personalities of the people who wrote the things.

I had to ask.  Why are you writing this shite?

I have to.


The supervisor says I have to do it this way.  It sounds more formal.

No it doesn’t.  It sounds like puffed-up shite.  You can do better than this.

I know, but they’ll throw it back at me.  I’ll have to do it again.

Christ, what is this — primary school?

Pretty much.

Do you know what the Fowler brothers said in 1906?  It stands as true today as it did 105 years ago.

ANY one who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid.

There you have it.  Direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid.  The polar opposite of much academic and official writing where the objective seems to be confusion rather than communication.

The Fowlers came up with a series of guides, which they put in descending order of importance, as follows:

Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.

Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.

Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.

Prefer the short word to the long.

Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.


I thought the Fowlers also said Prefer the active voice to the passive, but it must have been somebody else.  Either way, I’d put it at the top of the list.

There is a sort of snobbery, often found among academics, against the simple Saxon word in favour of the Latinism.  As Fowler remarked, words like these, which are common and are not vulgar, which are good enough for the highest and not too good for the lowest, are the staple of literature.

It was true in 1906 and it’s still true today.

There are many more things you might say about writing style, some of which can be taught and some not, but I only mention this because I was on the subject of academic writing. These are not rigid rules, but simply advice to help achieve an effective writing style.  You can always break the rules, provided you know them first. because sometimes there’s only the right word and the wrong.

I don’t suggest for even a nanosecond that all academic writing is bloodless and insipid, but I do suspect that  something has happened since universities started giving doctorates to functional illiterates.  There was a time when the very least one might expect of an academic was a thorough grounding in basics such as grammar and writing style, but since the distinctions became blurred between education and training, that has been lost.

Consequently, we now find people supervising post-graduate courses who might never have read a single book, apart from texts on their own specialised area, and certainly never a novel or a poem.

Such people are dangerous because they fear to be found out.  They know they are functionally illiterate, and therefore must take refuge in nonsense.  They must communicate with each other in a new language of obfuscation where nobody asks what anything means provided it all fits inside the approved linguistic box.

Let me give you a small example.  One of the friends I mentioned called the thesis A Study of [insert whatever is relevant to you]  in the Community.

That wasn’t acceptable to the supervisors who insisted that the thesis be renamed to A Study of [insert whatever is relevant to you]  in the Community Setting.


What did that word add to the meaning?

Nothing at all, but in the minds of the unlettered gobshites overseeing the work, it lent it some sort of spurious gravitas.


Because they lack both the knowledge and the confidence to be relaxed about the way English should be written.  The best English is nothing more than a way of getting an idea out of one head and into another as painlessly and efficiently as possible but unfortunately, the very people who should understand that very basic concept seem to be the least informed.


Also: Post-Modernism Generator




28 thoughts on “Academic Language

  1. Ah, Bock, there has not been too much health upon me, since.
    Apart from this: You and the esteemed amongst your commenters – at least for me – are commanding far too good an English to compete with (in a dispute).
    In other words: I do regret that once I was too lazy when it came to learn vocabularies.
    Comfort I am taking, though, from what they are saying: Binn béal ‘na chomhnuidhe. – The mouth that speaks not is sweet to hear.
    The peace of the night.

  2. So very true in what you say, Bock, (and you too, Sean @ no 2, if I may be excused for saying so), and I fear it’s only going to get worse.
    The best way forward for me and mine is to foster a love of reading as they go through school. I thank whatever for Ms Rowling and Mr Potter for what they have done to the world. Any child reading is a child on a good path.
    Fostering that love has now become our responsibility because the government managers and accountants have stripped the schools back to results.
    Thanks, Bock, by the way, for the introduction to the Fowlers. Never too l ate to learn.

  3. Good post Bock. The amount of effort that is wasted translating from ordinary english to “proper written english” on this side of the pond is huge, and its not just academia. I really like the yanks style when it comes to this – they write like they speak.

  4. I suffer from the same affliction where spelling and grammatical errors just jump out at me. I don’t even need to be reading the text in any way closely. There they are, staring me in the face.

    By the way, there’s an extra full stop after the word ‘first’ in the paragraph beginning “There are many more things you might say …”. There’s a few extra spaces scattered throughout the text too.

  5. @ essodee

    It depends on whether it’s in a public or private context. Americans are refreshing in private, but the advent of political correctness in the public sphere has made them incredibly careful when communicating either in speech or in writing. It has also resulted in ever increasing levels of hyperbole and waffle. In my business dealings with them I find the only adjective I can use to describe most of their communication is ‘constipated’ By the way, I speak as a supporter of ‘political correctness’ in principle, at least in the sense of using non-discriminatory language

    @ Bock
    Great post; I’m sure you’re also aware of ‘The Complete Plain Words’ and ‘Elements of Style’. For me, one of the best (and most entertaining) resources for understanding how to write clear, concise prose are the essays of George Orwell (he wasn’t a bad novelist either)

    Academia, like any other profession or trade, revels in its own jargon. Add the influence of Michel Foucault and his followers and you can see the present results ….

  6. @ Enamel Head
    In the main, the (teaching) world of academia consists of people with high IQs, big egos (they are glorified teachers, after all) but with very little influence. So everything is subverted into their work (‘research’) and jostling for power within their (tiny) departments, with its attendant petty jealousies. They are (and should be) respected for their learning, but their egos take some getting used to … when I worked more closely with academics than I do now, this was my experience, no matter what their discipline or national origin

    Unfortunately, bad writing is not just contained to the world of academia ….

    @ Bock
    I believe that Gowers and the rest were at the heart of the movement in post-war Britain to simplify governmental communication. Much of this effort was initiated by Churchill (no mean writer himself, as his Nobel Prize for Literature will attest). He believed in all the principles of clear, concise writing, and took great pleasure in pointing out the absurdities of following grammatical rules for their own sake …. he invented the “up with this we will not put” construction to show who the rule of never ending a sentence with a preposition could not always be adhered to …

  7. “Prefer the active voice to the passive” Bock, “Why are you writing this shite?” :)
    I’ve no iota what the passive voice is.
    Is that like submissive and dominant or something..

  8. “Prefer the active voice to the passive” was Mr Orwell, I believe, in his “Politics and the English Language”, which mentions much the same points as Gowers.

  9. FME — It’s a pity you call something shite simply because you don’t understand it. I recommend reading over the grammar your teachers should have taught you in school.

  10. I think officials use the passive voice largely as a kind of evasion, – opinions don’t read as being really nailed to the mast in the passive voice. Its standard practice, probably the first thing taught when you get in the door.

    FME, the above is active voice, in passive voice it would read: ” It is thought that officials use the passive voice largely as a kind of evasion…….”

    See, I’m not really giving my opinion, but I am really. A bit mealy-mouthed isn’t it?

    Reads a bit pompously too, one thinks.

  11. An enlightening post BOCK. I use the ‘Elements’, but I’m kinda lazy that way. I’m learning. I must study more. Never heard of Gowers before but I’ll take a look at his stuff too.

  12. Thanks Essodee.
    Concept familar. :)

    I agree with you in terms of the style of language used in the U.S.
    Reminded me of an old post on here about gun control and the second amendment interpretation.
    This U.S. judgement was linked to on that post –
    and I found it to be very clear and comprehensible for legal writing. No Latin in sight!

  13. FME, that judgement is a very good example of the kind of thing I’m talking about. Over here, the judge would probably think in that kind of language, and then translate it into legalese in his writen judgement, so that the average punter would have to pay (dearly) to get translated back to english. Its all about keeping the plebs in their place.

  14. @ John m

    What’s wrong with being a functioning alcoholic if you ‘function’ normally?

    As for the second accusation, fair enough, he did some pretty cnutish things, but then that’s part of the definition of the much abused term – ‘leadership’ -of sometimes not giving a fcuk. What’ll you’ll find with Churchill are traits common to most great leaders – clarity, personal courage, conviction (which sometimes leads to incorrect decisions), charisma and vision. If you haven’t done so, read a biography of the man (especially covering his early years) and then make up your mind.

  15. I agree wholeheartedly that university departments stifle anything too colloquial or colourful. We must SOUND academic at least, old chaps. Deviating slightly off-topic, I would love to see a blog post on why everyone is scared to actually use the English language in everyday parlance these days. One of the brilliant things about it is that it has such an amazing wealth of words, all with their subtle nuances which can be applied so perfectly and forensically. WHy can’t I use the word “eviscerate” in a sentence, for example, without being publicly stoned? :D Okay, on the flip side, there is nothing worse than needless verbosity, or worse yet, malapropisms left right and centre, but what would be so terrible about embracing our lovely language a bit more? It’s a pleasure to read a well-written blog as this one which does exactly that without ever feeling ponderous or subservient. Word. :D

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