Arcane and disabling

April 4, 1997

Complex, academic writing prevents communication and is anathema to employers, argues Ann Lewis

Universities are partly responsible for our jargon-ridden society as they churn out graduates hooked on the reward system for writing in complex rather than plain English.

My evidence to support this claim comes from my own experience as a mature student doing a BA honours degree course. I came from a journalistic background with my first editor's advice on writing style still ringing in my ears: "If your granny can't read and understand it, you're writing it wrong!" I understood that there was a difference in the target audience and that this basic tenet had to be adapted to fit my course. But finding a meeting point was difficult and my philosophy soon brought me nose to nose with some teaching staff.

I hatched a plot with a fellow student to test whether a particular lecturer was awarding lower marks to me. We jointly wrote an essay, making exactly the same points, using the same sources and drawing the same conclusions. The only difference was the language we used. I wrote in my chosen plain English style. Her essay, identical, save for its complicated and academic language, was marked 75 per cent, my own grossed 62 per cent. So the penalty for writing in plain English was 13 per cent. It is easy to see why students might learn very quickly to produce jargon-ridden essays.

Noam Chomsky says that we can apply the rules of any linguistic system correctly without knowing the meaning of the words involved. This theory of linguistics would appear to add weight to my belief that students should be discouraged from writing in complex and academic styles. Students might simply be regurgitating their lecture notes, cobbled together with a few pat phrases from textbooks to construct an essay which makes points they could not explain in plain English.

The evidence may be anecdotal but I have talked to enough people to realise my experience was not an isolated one. This practice may encourage graduates to form bad habits which stay with them when they leave the self-contained world of academia. From within their chosen profession they continue to write in unnecessarily complicated language. The reports and letters they pen as lawyers, architects, engineers and doctors earn them not marks, but something much more valuable; a feeling of superiority. They learn a language exclusive to their own professions: legalese or medicalese. This further isolates them into elites while their clients pay handsomely for the privilege of being patronised.

I asked a lecturer at the Open University whether she felt it necessary for undergraduates to write in academic language to demonstrate understanding of a subject. She said that while students occasionally need to use technical or academically-precise words, there is no reason why most work cannot be written in plain English. She strongly denied that students using ordinary language were less able than those whose essays were full of academic words.

The OU has done much to teach its students in plain English. This comes as no surprise from an institution primarily set up to help people, often from working-class backgrounds, to gain access to higher education. But why are the other seats of learning so reluctant to join the OU in its quest? Perhaps they regard OU degrees as a lesser achievement, who knows?

A dig through our drivel mountain revealed the following gems from the cloistered world of academia. These words were penned by one academic trying to say that men are sometimes nasty to women: "Cultural ways of dealing with overwhelming forces of sexuality reflect variations in projections in both the causes of sexual chaos and the control of that chaos on to women."

Another, a criminologist who obviously stumbled across an important truth, decided not to let anyone else in on the secret: "I Yet given the dualism in discursive representations of subjectivity and the dualism in strategies of disposal (penal-welfare, custodial-assistantial), the partial abandonment of due process (i.e. the attempted transformation of function of the court) also abandons some of the safeguards in the adversarial determination of guilt."

One sociologist described being in the wrong place at the wrong time as "the happening elsewhere syndrome"!

The Dearing committee report is expected to recommend that all degree courses introduce courses which reflect the core skills needed for employment. A recent study showed United States employers put great emphasis on their staff being able to communicate. I imagine employers anywhere in the world would have similar priorities. Communication skills will no doubt be high on the list of Dearing's recommendations, along with other "transferable skills" such as numeracy, ability to work in groups and a knowledge of information technology. Perhaps this will counteract the worst of the influences of academic writing when graduates get jobs.

Though it could be argued that communication between academics can be as complex as they choose as this harms no one, unless this is challenged the sickness will spread. The hope is that the future will yield a breed of academics who having been encouraged to use non-academic language at undergraduate level, abandon it altogether as a sign of an out-dated, arcane and superfluous piece of pompous nonsense.

Ann Lewis works for the Plain English Campaign.

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