Q: What are things to be avoided in academic writing?

[A2A] Are you seated? Then we’ll begin.

Here are some the major hazards that I tell my clients to look out for and avoid:

  • Overly verbose and latinate language
  • Non-idiomatic language
  • Ambiguous wording
  • Spiral writing
  • Mowing the lawn twice
  • Lost subject or object

In detail:

Overly verbose and latinate language

Some people think that academic writing means using long, latinate words. This was, indeed, the case in Victorian times—which is why in the Sherlock Holmes stories you’ll see a character saying things such as:

Our prisoner’s furious resistance did not apparently indicate any ferocity in his disposition towards ourselves.

But in the early twentieth century, good writers began to realise that plain English was far better for communicating ideas. George Orwell’s guiding principle was:

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific term or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Winston Churchill—a master of effective communication—was a strong believer in plain English:

Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words when short are best of all.

Overly verbose language obscures what you’re trying to convey. This may be an advantage if you’re trying to hide the fact that you don’t actually have anything original to say. The following passage, from a sample nonsensical paper generated by SciGen—the Automatic CS Paper Generator—is a good illustration of this:

The evaluation of massive multiplayer online role-playing games has analyzed the partition table, and current trends suggest that the visualization of rasterization will soon emerge [4]. In fact, few end-users would disagree with the investigation of IPv6, which embodies the unfortunate principles of relational cryptography. Despite the fact that such a hypothesis at first glance seems unexpected, it is supported by related work in the field. As a result, the UNIVAC computer and the study of access points are always at odds with the refinement of 802.11b.

But if you do have something important to communicate, plain language allows the complexity and value of your ideas to be shine through. As Einstein (who was not a writer, as such, but knew the value of good explanation of complex material), pointed out:

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.

So next time you’re tempted to write something such as—

I could scarcely reconcile myself to the incongruity of finding my property welcome where I would be excluded.

consider using simpler, good old Anglo-Saxon terms, such as:

I found it hard to believe that, while certain items of mine were welcome, I myself was excluded.

or, instead of this:

Apparently, the answer to this question is negative.


Apparently not.

It’s not that you should avoid latinate words altogether—they are often unavoidable—but use Anglo-Saxon alternatives whenever possible. This will make your text punchier and allow you to reap the benefits of the native rhythms of English (as Donald Trump used to great effect in his own election campaign—see The importance of rhythm (or why Trump won the elections)).

Non-idiomatic language

Idiomatic language is an extension of the Plain English idea: by using idioms, or common expressions, you package up your ideas into easily understood chunks that readers can more instantly understand.

For example, if you were to write:

[…] and a variety of other motives

there’s nothing grammatically wrong with it, but it’s an unfamiliar expression that the native reader must pause and process. Whereas if you were to write—

[…] and a host of other reasons

—it’s instantly understood by the native reader, who can then move on to the next sentence without breaking their stride.

Non-idiomatic language is a common hallmark of what I call ‘translatese’—wording that may correctly convey the meaning of the original text, but is not truly ‘English’. I give further examples on my website for the benefit of my Hebrew-speaking clients.

Ambiguous wording

English is full of minor traps that can confuse the intended meaning of a sentence. In most cases, it happens as a result of dual meaning of word. For example, in the sentence:

If markets are efficient, prices accurately reflect firm value

—the reader cannot be sure if the reference is the value of a company (firm as a noun), or that the value itself is firm (adjective)—i.e., stable, enduring.

There are many words with two or more meanings (e.g. order, receiver, needy, spirits, date), or which change in meaning in the transition from verb to noun or adjective or vice versa (e.g. address; attribute; content; generation), or even from singular to plural (e.g. spectacle/spectacles; chip/chips; pro/pros)—so special care must be taken when using these in a sentence.

The same applies to the use of the possessive ‘s. For example, in the sentence:

In Study 1, only the cumulative group’s damage is presented

—it is unclear whether the damage is caused by the cumulative group, or cumulative damage done to the group, so it is better reworded:

In Study 1, only the cumulative harm to the group is presented

A good test is to imagine yourself reading the text out loud at a conference. Thus, if you write:

One antidote to the judges’ cognitive biases is expert testimonies

—while in writing it is clear from the position of the apostophe that the reference is to judges in plural, if you were to read this sentence out loud at a conference, listeners wouldn’t be able to tell if it’s singular or plural, so it’s better to reword it as follows:

One antidote to the cognitive biases of judges is expert testimonies

Spiral writing

Sometimes, verbosity is due to to the writer tying themselves up in knots, quite unnecessarily, in effort to sound more learned—e.g.:

Therefore the women are taking decisions about reducing the number of children in their families in relation to the number of children in the families that they came from.

In situations like that, sit back, breathe, and imagine yourself explaining it to a colleague over coffee:

Therefore, the women decide to have fewer children than their parents did.

Mowing the lawn twice

This is a old bugbear of mine.

If, like me, you have a fair-sized lawn to mow outside your house, you quickly appreciate the value of not mowing the same area twice—to save time and energy:

And yet in academic writing, some people feel the need to mow twice all the time—i.e., repeat the subject or object of the sentence in consecutive sentences, or sometimes within the same sentence. For example, in the passage:

The painting Family Portrait is typical of this evolution. The painting depicts the four women in a typical family scene.

— repetition of the words the painting is entirely superfluous. It is a safe bet that the reader has a memory longer than that of a goldfish* (in fact, assuming any else is faintly insulting)—and so you can safely use the word it in the second sentence and the reader will understand that you’re referring to the subject of the previous sentence:

The painting Family Portrait is typical of this evolution. It depicts the four women in a typical family scene.

Similarly, when the object stated earlier in the same sentence (or in a previous sentence), is clear. Thus, instead of:

When a problem arises with the individual in this society, it often becomes the collective’s problem and unites the group together in an effort to grapple with the problem faced by the individual.

just say:

When a problem arises with the individual in this society, it often becomes the collective’s problem and unites the group together in an effort to resolve it.

Lost subject, or object

One of my favourite podcasts is a technology programme on CBC Radio called Spark. Its introductory theme, however, is calculated to drive any grammar pedant (such as myself) up the wall. A succession of human and robotic voices alert you to the fact that—

The future is coming…

The future is coming…

The future is coming…

followed by the reassuring words of the presenter:

Arrive intact.

The intention is clear: by listening to the programme, you will be better prepared for the future. But as a sentence, it makes no sense: if the future is coming, then the future is the subject of the sentence, and is akin to a train that is about to enter the station where you are waiting. But Arrive intact suggests that you are a passenger on that train—i.e., suddenly, you are the subject.

The presenters of the programme came up with this intro by themselves, so they’re too proud to change it (I know—I’ve written to them), but in academic writing, you should steer well clear of losing, or bait-and-switching, the subject or object of your sentence. Thus, in the sentence:

Female drivers are not allowed to use such devices in California, where they are banned

—the subject (female drivers) is switched without notice (they) in the second half of the sentence, suggesting that female drivers are banned in California, not the devices.

Programmers learn the hard way not to make this mistake. A chef once asked his [progammer] wife to do him a favour:

‘Sweetheart, go to the store, and buy me a whole chicken, and a pack of cigarettes—and if they have eggs, buy me six.’

Half an hour later, she returned with a chicken and six packs of cigarettes. Her husband was flummoxed:

‘Why did you buy me six packs of cigarettes?’ he asked, angrily.

She shrugged: ‘They had eggs,’ she explained.

Moral of the story: don’t lose the subject or the object of your sentences.

Follow these six basic principles, and you should do reasonably well.

Good luck!

*Even goldfish have been found to be capable for remembering for several days—not seconds, as previously believed.

3 thoughts on “Q: What are things to be avoided in academic writing?

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