Clunky writing is proof positive of lazy thinking

June 2, 2006

Academic writers have no excuse for failing to communicate their ideas clearly, argues Michael Bulley.

I've been sacked as an academic proofreader. At least, I haven't been sent anything to proofread in the past six months. No misplaced comma escaped my eye, no dodgy quotation went unchecked. I think I was dropped because I dared to suggest to the publishers that some of their authors were to the English language what fly-tipping is to the countryside.

Occasionally, for the sake of public health, I suggested alternatives to some of the more gruesome sentences. That probably didn't go down well: proofreaders are the bottom of the heap and should know their place.

Let me give you an example. One academic author wanted to say that sometimes you have to do something new. Of course, this hardly needed saying, but he had to fill up the page. He wrote: "Problematic situations in which it is impossible to implement inherited repertoires of action may create reflective distance from inherited schemata and encourage or permit their transformation or substitution with other schemata available in an actor's environment." I should stress that this was typical of the book. I still shudder at the recollection of one particular sentence in which the main verb was separated from its subject by 49 words, two dashes, two sets of brackets and four instances of the word "rationalisation".

When I wondered why so many professors and lecturers were poor writers. my publisher told me that such people were "not natural communicators" and that, in any case, an academic press was not there to produce well-written books but to disseminate research. These are feeble excuses. Perhaps not everyone can write well but anyone brainy enough to hold a university post can learn to do so clearly. A complex style, full of abstraction and footnotes, is the consequence of a misguided desire to appear scholarly.

The regrettable publication of such works makes it harder to find the clear thinking. The best academic works have always been written plainly and simply.

Of the books I was sent, only one was written in an agreeable style. It was about ecclesiastical practices in early Renaissance Florence. Not my cup of tea, but so refreshing was the clear English after the previous works I had dealt with that I practically purred as I learnt more and more about psalm manuscripts. Another book I had to read was about aphasia, the inability to produce coherent sentences. Sadly, the author herself had little feeling for sentence construction. She seemed unaware, for example, like many academics, that repetition can often be avoided by using words such as "it"

and "their". So we had lots of sentences such as: "If we look at the performance on the active verbs, it looks as though the performance is affected..."

The last book I received - and my comments on this volume probably got me the boot - was by an internationally famous author. Ironically, the topic was language itself and the author the leading figure in a school of thought whose practitioners have followed his contorted style. It is odd that a theory about language has flourished when its proponents reveal, by the way they express themselves, that they are insensitive to their own topic. This particular author not only cannot, or maybe does not want to, write normal English, but in my opinion often shows, by the examples he analyses, that he does not understand it either. As for his style, here is a typical chunk: "To what extent does language approximate an optimal solution to conditions that it must satisfy to be usable at all, given extralinguistic structural architecture?"

What should we think of all this? And does it matter? Is it a harmless curiosity, like doctors' illegible handwriting or is it more serious? I think it does matter.

Lazy writing is usually the result of lazy thinking. It helps no one if that tradition is passed from teacher to student. If academic books have any serious purpose, that is, if they affect our culture, then the quality of the language in them will partly determine how they do. That is why publishers should see themselves as having a responsibility towards language. I do not mind if professors and lecturers want to write books but it would be no bad thing if their natural publishers, the academic presses, imposed stricter standards for style. For authors, it should be a matter of pride and politeness. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson: if you think people should read what you have written, you have an obligation to make it agreeable to read.

Michael Bulley does freelance language work in France and writes quite stylish articles on linguistic and philosophical topics.

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