Ordinary Language in Academic Writing

“I am deeply committed to the use of ordinary language in my work. Esoteric jargons, however, do not come about because those in the know are snobs. Specialized languages make certain conversations possible because the speakers have refined their definitions and can then share and work with them. The problem is that the circle of speakers is closed unto itself, and the expertise of one field is not available to those in another, not to mention to laypersons who comprehend nothing. I believe that to some degree, at least, genuine talk among disciplines is possible and that distinct discourses can be unified through a lucid exposition of ideas.”

From Living, Thinking, Looking by Siri Hustvedt

This quote beautifully articulates the reason that we urge our authors to trim any specialized language not absolutely essential to their work. Although the more specialized languages of individual fields enable those within a discipline to encapsulate complex ideas into short-hand terms, they can also lead to isolation. Many of the authors we work with have hopes that their work will attract a readership beyond their own immediate fields. Our job as editors is to recognize the specialized language that is essential to the manuscript and to point out instances in which more accessible language may be substituted to communicate the same point to a broader audience. 

Predatory Publishers

Recently we were contacted by an academic author in Pakistan who asked us to edit an article that he had written for an English language scientific journal.  Several red flags waved right away. For example, there did not seem to be any kind of peer review process reflected in the letter from the journal’s editor to the author.  A bit more research confirmed our suspicions.  Noted in the very small print on the journal submission guidelines webpage was the information that there would be a publication charge of at least $500.00 per article. Our author in Pakistan seemed to believe that his work was to be published in a legitimate scientific journal, but to us this journal seemed more intent upon fundraising than on academic rigor. 

This story came to mind on Sunday when I read a fascinating New York Times article on predatory open-access scholarly publishers in the sciences. By now, I would guess that most academics in the humanities and social sciences also receive regular solicitations from questionable conference organizers, journal editors or book publishers. My own first encounter came in the form of a conference invitation, in 2008. The conference title exuded authority, the website impressed, the meeting place enticed, so I applied. I received my acceptance letter, along with the usual conference information. Then I looked at the registration price: US$500! I immediately sent a letter of withdrawal and complaint. Over the next two months I received entreaties from the conference organizers, begging me not to withdraw. They were willing to make any concession but one: the $500.  I have since received other requests to publish from a number of suspect publishers, some slick and others simply comic.

 The article really only touches the tip of the iceberg. (For two more interesting pieces on this topic, see here and here.) This phenomenon is most prevalent in the science and technology fields, where the move towards open access journals has blurred the line between legitimate providers and hucksters, but the problem is prevalent for the rest of academia as well. This all becomes even more complicated when we look at the problem from a global scale. With pressure to publish in English growing acutely high in universities worldwide, academic writers all over the world are now beginning to search for venues in which to publish. Linguistic, institutional and cultural differences make it difficult for all but a scant few to publish in the most prestigious journals and presses, but the pressure to publish in English persists. Is it any wonder that our Pakistani scholar would be willing to pay out of his own pocket for a publication that offers the veneer of legitimacy? 


Armloads of Semicolons

I have been enjoying the Draft series of online New York Times essays that focus on the art and craft of writing. I highly recommend the recently posted “Semicolons: A Love Story.” The author, Ben Dolnick, beautifully captures (and demonstrates) the quirky role of the semicolon in stringing together the sometimes disparate elements of a long, complex sentence. Here is a brief snippet, but it gives you an idea of the tone of the essay:

To use a semicolon properly can be an act of faith. It’s a way of saying to the reader, who is already holding one bag of groceries, here, I know it’s a lot, but can you take another? And then (in the case of William James) another? And another? And one more? Which sounds, of course, dreadful, and like just the sort of discourtesy a writer ought strenuously to avoid. But the truth is that there can be something wonderful in being festooned in carefully balanced bags; there’s a kind of exquisite tension, a feeling of delicious responsibility, in being so loaded up that you seem to have half a grocery store suspended from your body.


Punk or Fogey

I enjoy reading Bridging the Unbridgeable, a linguistics blog out of Leiden University that focuses on the use of usage (or style) guides. As its authors point out:

Usage guides are a controversial topic among linguists because of their function to present a norm of correctness to whoever wishes to consult them. Linguistics as a discipline, however, is concerned with describing rather than prescribing usage. Nevertheless, usage guides are extremely popular with the general public, and even increasingly so despite centuries of prescriptivism

When I first started out as a copyeditor, I remember being obsessed with rules. I believed that there was one correct way to use language, grammar, and punctuation in every instance, and I did not fully understand that language is an ever-changing, ever-evolving process. I see this mindset in young proofreaders and copyeditors today. Over time, however, I have come to understand that while general rules are useful and allow for better communication, internal consistency in a document trumps dogmatism. In some cases, the general rule can be ignored when the reason for deviation is sound and communication is enhanced rather than constricted by the change.

Bridging the Unbridgeable unearthed a terrific quote from Kingsley Amis’s style guide The King’s English that clearly identifies, in a particularly British, class-conscious manner, the two extremes of language users:

Berks are careless, coarse, crass, gross and of what anybody would agree is a lower social class than one’s own. They speak in a slipshod way with dropped Hs, intruded glottal stops and many mistakes in grammar. Left to them the English language would die of impurity, like late Latin.

Wankers are prissy, fussy, priggish, prim and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one’s own. They speak in an over-precise way with much pedantic insistence on letters not generally sounded, especially Hs. Left to them the language would die of purity, like medieval Latin.

Martin Amis, writing in the Guardian, suggests that his father’s dated terms, Berks and Wankers, can be replaced with something like Punks and Fogeys (but even those terms now sound a bit dated to my ear). Call the struggle what you will, I have found that in my role as an editor walking a middle path helps me best support writers that I work with and keeps me continually open to the possibility of surprising or interesting language variation within structured guidelines.


Dictionary of American Regional English

My academic editing work has led me to develop a great fascination with English language usage, particularly the ways that words and phrases can differ regionally. For example, many years ago, I noticed that friends of mine from Idaho and Montana commonly used the word anymore in a positive construction, such as: Anymore, I only eat organic vegetables. This use of the word (as a synonym for currently) always sounded strange to my ears, as I grew up on the West Coast and heard the word anymore used only in its standard, negative context, as in the sentence: We do not eat red meat anymore. Over the past few years, I have noticed the word anymore pop up more frequently in print and in dialogue in its positive sense. In fact, researching this, I read that the positive use of the word is also common in Ireland and throughout the Midwest as well as in Idaho and Montana.  

 I thought of this today when I came across a review by Michael Adams on the Humanities website about the Dictionary of American Regional English (or DARE). The fifth volume of DARE will be released in the fall of this year, and the entire set is a fascinating, comprehensive (60,000 words and phrases) record of American language as it differs across regions and even across towns. In the mid-1960s, 80 fieldworkers set out in vans (or “word wagons”) to interview residents of 1,000 carefully selected American communities. They asked each subject to respond to an exhaustive questionnaire that contained over 1,600 questions about the words that people used in their daily lives. I imagine that I could find out a great deal more about the word anymore if I had that dictionary in hand.

 I am impressed by the extent of research that went into the project, which has now spanned over 50 years. I am a dictionary junkie (yes, I do have a favorite, my Chambers Scots Dictionary), and now I have another set of books to add to my wish list.


Henry James on War and Language

Henry James told the New York Times in 1915, ‘The war has used up words; they have weakened, they have deteriorated like motorcar tires; they have, like millions of other things, been more overstrained and knocked about and voided of the happy semblance during the last six months than in all the long ages before, and we are now confronted with a depreciation of all our terms.’ While writing A Farewell to Arms in the late 1920s, Ernest Hemingway copied out part of the interview, wrote above it ‘on the debasement of words by war,’ and assigned to his main character the observation, ‘Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.'”

 From: Lapham’s Quarterly: A Magazine of History and Ideas Tues, March 27, 2012


Mr. Fowler

Thanks for visiting us here. We hope that this Academic Editorial blog will provide a forum for our small group of editors to post favorite language and writing links, quotes, ideas, and musings. We are in different parts of the world right now: Ellen is based in Santa Barbara, California, and Charles and I are in Hong Kong, so we share these things with each other as well as you, dear reader.

I will start with a quote from the wonderful H.W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, first published in 1926:

Terribly. The other day (said I) I read a love scene in a story that went like this: ‘Am I beautiful?’ she asked him. ‘Terribly’ he said. And then he asked her ‘Do you love me?’ ‘ Horribly’ she said. Why (I was then asked) don’t you go home and write something humorous. Don’t you want to? ‘Frightfully’ I replied. (James Thurber).

It is strange that people with such a fondness for understatement as the British should have felt the need to keep changing the adverbs by which they hope to convince listeners of the intensity of their feelings, until, by a process of exhaustion, they have arrived at such absurdities as these, to which might be added dreadfully and fearfully. The early ones of the series, such as consumedly, excessively, mightily, prodigiously, and vastly, however hyperbolical, were reasonable enough to use of pleasurable emotions. The downward path began with awfully, a word now so worn with use as to be reduced to the level of very.

For those of you who may not be familiar with Fowler, his style guide was the standard reference for a generation (or two) of British and American citizens, writers, and editors. Many of his pronouncements continue to be as timely as the one quoted above. Several editors came along and updated the guide, apparently losing some of Fowler’s original voice, but a new edition, which returns to Fowler’s original text, was published by Oxford University Press in November of 2009. For those of you who might enjoy this type of thing, I will link the interview with the new editor, David Crystal, which I found fascinating.