Academic Language

 Posted by on August 15, 2011  Add comments
Aug 152011

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




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