My colleague Steven Pinker has a nice piece up at the Chronicle of Higher Education on “Why Academics Stink at Writing”, accompanying the recent release of his new book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, which I’m awaiting my pre-ordered copy of. The last sentence of the Chronicle piece summarizes well:

In writing badly, we are wasting each other’s time, sowing confusion and error, and turning our profession into a laughingstock.

The essay provides a diagnosis of many of the common symptoms of fetid academic writing. He lists metadiscourse, professional narcissism, apologizing, shudder quotes, hedging, metaconcepts and nominalizations. It’s not breaking new ground, but these problems well deserve review.

I fall afoul of these myself, of course. (Nasty truth: I’ve used “inter alia” all too often, inter alia.) But one issue I disagree with Pinker on is the particular style of metadiscourse he condemns that provides a roadmap of a paper. Here’s an example from a recent paper of mine.

After some preliminaries (Section 2), we present a set of known results relating context-free languages, tree homomorphisms, tree automata, and tree transducers to extend them for the tree-adjoining languages (Section 3), presenting these in terms of restricted kinds of functional programs over trees, using a simple grammatical notation for describing the programs. We review the definition of tree-substitution and tree-adjoining grammars (Section 4) and synchronous versions thereof (Section 5). We prove the equivalence between STSG and a variety of bimorphism (Section 6).

This certainly smacks of the first metadiscourse example Pinker provides:

“The preceding discussion introduced the problem of academese, summarized the principle theories, and suggested a new analysis based on a theory of Turner and Thomas. The rest of this article is organized as follows. The first section consists of a review of the major shortcomings of academic prose. …”

Who needs that sort of signposting in a 6,000-word essay? But in the context of a 50-page article, giving a kind of table of contents such as this doesn’t seem out of line. Much of the metadiscourse that Pinker excoriates is unneeded, but appropriate advance signposting can ease the job of the reader considerably. Sometimes, as in the other examples Pinker gives, “meta­discourse is there to help the writer, not the reader, since she has to put more work into understanding the signposts than she saves in seeing what they point to.” But anything that helps the reader to understand the high-level structure of an object as complex as a long article seems like a good thing to me.

The penultimate sentence of Pinker’s piece places poor academic writing in context:

Our indifference to how we share the fruits of our intellectual labors is a betrayal of our calling to enhance the spread of knowledge.

That sentiment applies equally well – arguably more so – to the venues where we publish. By placing our articles in journals that lock up access tightly we are also betraying our calling. And it doesn’t matter how good the writing is if it can’t be read in the first place.

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