Writing Clearly and Comprehensibly

The eroticization of post-capitalist hegemony is, and yet is not,
the discourse of pedagogical institutions.i

I used the University of Chicago’s academic sentence generator to create this wonderful sentence.  This website, courtesy of U Chicago’s Writing Program, is an entertaining joke with a serious message. At some point in his or her academic career, every college student becomes intimately acquainted with a disturbing fact: some academic writing looks and sounds like senseless blather.

I can understand the protestations of some scholars who argue that they require technical language to express technical ideas, but I cannot imagine an argument that would convince me that the obscurant and cumbersome trajectory of academic writing is helpful for readers/students or for the English language.

In 1946, in his seminal essay, “Politics and the English Langue,” George Orwell wrote:

[W]ritten English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly.

One of Orwell’s examples:

Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes egregious collocations of vocables as the Basic put up with for tolerate, or put at a loss for bewilder .  — Professor Lancelot Hogben (Interglossa)

Orwell warned:

The first [common mistake] is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose.

He named dead metaphors and unnecessary jargon as chief among the linguistic culprits.

In 1998, feminist philosopher Judith Butler won the journal Philosophy and Literature’s Bad Writing Award for the following sentence:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Cathy Birkenstein of the University of Illinois argues that Butler’s obscurantism and technical language should not always be subject to “normative standards of accessibility,” because her dense writing is valuable precisely because of its playful use of language and its “polemical dexterity.”ii

I would argue that any value we might somehow assign to incomprehensible writing is more than mitigated by its adverse effects: the watering down of our language, the lack of simplicity and precision, the loss of meaning. Of course, this is an opinion post, and academic writing is unlikely to take a turn in the direction I’d like it to take. But here are some practical tips might help you keep Orwell from turning in his grave:

1) Avoid jargon if possible. Do not restrict the scope and/or comprehension of your audience by using technical language, unless there are no other fitting words to use.
2) Unless you have an exceedingly compelling stylistic or structural reason to include long, convoluted sentences, avoid them, because they make your writing less crisp.
3) Move on to a new sentence rather than stretching out the one you’re writing.
4) Avoid vagueness. Language is a great place to hide. If you are working through a complicated and/or controversial idea, don’t use complex, unspecific wording to avoid taking a clear position. Do not mistake vagueness for nuance.
5) Avoid stale/dead/cliché imagery and metaphor. If a metaphor is not immediately evocative, it does not fulfill this purpose.

The bottom line: the University of Chicago’s academic sentence generator underscores an unfortunate reality in academic writing, which we can combat if we consciously make sure that each sentence we write is unambiguous, meaningful, and alive.

-By Benjamin Soloway ’13

iWrite Your Own Academic Sentence,” University of Chicago Writing Program (May 3, 2011)
ii Cathy Birkenstein, “We Got the Wrong Gal: Rethinking the ‘Bad’ Academic Writing of Judith Butler,” in College English, Vol. 72, No. 2, 2010.

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