METM21 Online Chronicles: John Bates

Research writing in English: a stylistic conundrum

In 2006, METM presenter Anthony Pym had the first word on the quality of research writing. Almost a decade later, Karen Shashok chipped in at METM15, closely followed by the late Susan DiGiacomo in 2016. This year, John Bates picked up where they left off.

What’s all the fuss about? Despite constant recommendations from style guides that research writing should be clear, concise and precise, much of the prose published in peer-reviewed journals is anything but.

Where are the problem areas and how do we fix them?

John reported that, in their pursuit of prestige, academics feel pressured to “sound academic” rather than to express themselves clearly, concisely and precisely. Their texts feature longer and more Latinate words than non-academic ones, often with no added value.

They also use technical terms whose meanings are not quite as precise as authors might think. For example, “complex” can refer to text that is lexically and grammatically varied (a positive feature) or to text that is difficult to understand (a negative feature). Style guides often blithely advise writers to make their texts “complex” (or not) and leave it to their audiences to interpret the term. John also wryly pointed out that one person’s technical term is another person’s jargon.

Second, he highlighted the problems caused by ambiguous noun phrases, particularly those using noun modifiers. If “infant perception” is perception by infants, isn’t it logical that “object perception” be construed as perception by objects? And what are “group stereotypes”: stereotypes groups have of others or stereotypes others have of groups?

John also advised writers to keep subjects and verbs at the start of sentences. He argued that, generally speaking, “there should be more sentence after the verb than before it”. The reason? Too much information before the subject can place considerable stress on the reader’s short-term working memory.

His last suggestion to infuse clarity, concision and precision into academic writing was to align grammatical subjects with “characters” and verbs with actions. In academic writing, the characters are the nouns that express the concepts, people or things you are writing about. Readers understand texts more easily when grammatical subjects are (usually) characters and when verbs express those characters’ actions.

Further reading

Criticism of academic writing as pompous and convoluted isn’t new. The following authors have written at length on the quality of research writing in English:

  • Michael Billig (Learn to Write Badly. How to Succeed in the Social Sciences)
  • Steven Pinker (“Why academics stink at writing”)
  • Helen Sword (Stylish Academic Writing)

John concluded by reminding us that if authors do not make their writing clear, concise and precise, then editors and translators can and should. We ought not embrace the status quo, but instead challenge it with our knowledge and desire “to make the texts entrusted to us complex but not complicated. If you know what I mean”.

This METM21 Online presentation was chronicled by Rebecca Reddin.

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