A friend recently showed me a hilarious article
by Dennis Dutton about the ghastly writing now common in professional journals. Dutton argues that rather than concentrating our worries on the declining level of writing and reading comprehension among students, we should be asking why academia is now flooded with needlessly technical or ridiculously esoteric language. Must articles attain some absurd level of incomprehensibility in order to find respect among peer reviewers? While we used to prize clarity and concision, it too often seems that authors must exclude a certain percentage even of the highly literate to claim academic legitimacy. This practice poses serious problems for students attempting to decipher their readings. Perhaps most worrisome, however, is what we end up learning unintentionally: the high praise that follows feeble jargon and affected sentence structures.
After reading numerous papers on any subject, students are bound — by what now seems like convention — to adopt similar writing styles. Desperate to be published, some authors rely on pretense and thus continually push their bastardization of language onto students across the academic world. This practice is neither logical nor efficient.
I am not talking about the use of technical language when it is needed: there will never be a simpler phrase for gel electrophoresis or a way to explain special relativity without using language unique to physics. I am not asking people to abstain from Greco-Latinate derivatives; part of the beauty of language is in the variety of tones it can convey with specific but unassuming diction. I do not expect anyone to avoid subject-specific terms if they are the clearest and most efficient way to communicate an idea. If you found a poet’s use of metonymy brilliant or their writing cathartic, then say it. But if you find yourself writing utilize instead of use, take a second to ask yourself why. Maybe you found yourself so inspired by an editorial that you decided to write a satire on the proliferating utilization of jargon in erudite populations. Or you might be trying to substitute style for substance.
Anyone smart enough to write a sentence too complex to understand should be smart enough to simplify it.
I am guilty of inflating my diction as well. The first draft of this article used inundated instead of flooded and depreciating instead of declining — hypocritical, I know. After a while, sounding unnatural just comes naturally, but correcting this problem only takes remembering one more thing when proofreading. I hope that with a deliberate effort, we will again rank clarity as the supreme virtue in good writing. Using longer words does not define you as smart, knowing when to use them does.
Cole Tanigawa-Lau is copy chief. Email him at email@example.com.
Original article published on September 22, 2013.