Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Seven Deadly Sins in Writing

As Loren Rosson notes on The Busybody, several blogs have been reflecting on the good, the bad and the ugly in academic writing, and it has been a refreshing and interesting thread. Loren has an excellent contribution called The Seven Deadly Sins in Writing, based on a book by Constance Hale called Sin and Syntax. Some of these really ring true to what I like and dislike in academic writing and number 4, "Pretence", "Resorting to pompous, ponderous, or just imponderable nouns" is right on the mark. I would add that there is a tendency in academic prose to prefer a Latin phrase where a perfectly good English one will do, e.g. why say theologia crucis rather than theology of the cross? Or status quaestionis rather than overview of current research (or similar)? The only qualification that needs adding here is that sometimes pericope doesn't mean quite the same thing as "passage".

Of the seven sins, I think the only one I'd question is 7, Euphemism, "Describing offensive behavior with inoffensive terms, or sensitive issues with politically-correct language". I think that sometimes, restraint and even understatement is appropriate in academic discourse, especially when dealing with sensitive subjects. When one treads carefully, one sometimes has a better chance of engaging critically with opposing viewpoints. Where a topic is sensitive, a highly emotional response can detract from intelligent discussion, and so do no good in exposing the problems being studied. I would therefore add an eighth deadly sin in academic writing, or perhaps substitute this one for 7:

8. Polemic: the use of unnecessarily hostile language including overstatement, ridicule, insult and hyperbole. As a general rule, if you are writing in harsh criticism of another scholar, imagine yourself saying it out loud at a conference with the person present in the room, and ask yourself if you are comfortable with your tone.


Loren Rosson III said...

Hi Mark,

Thanks for this. I think your #8 actually complements Hale's #7. As she notes, diplomacy and tact are certainly worth cultivating (your #8) -- just not with euphemisms, please. (See p 26)

I should also note that the second half of the euphemism citation -- "describing offensive behavior with inoffensive terms, or sensitive issues with politically-correct language" -- was my own addition (Hale does criticize misguided political correctness elsewhere, however, as in misuse of pronouns). I think a lot of PC language is part of the problem highlighted by Hale with other examples.

David Mackinder said...

'imagine yourself saying it out loud at a conference with the person present in the room, and ask yourself if you are comfortable with your tone': yes, a very valuable addition -- I was once at a conference where one commentator/questioner, apparently entirely unselfconsciously, referred to the thesis of a paper as 'rubbish' and 'junk'.

Tim Bulkeley said...

On the use of foreign words and phrases (an extension to the "Latin" of the cited text that seems justified since your exception is of Greek origin). I suspect in real life other exceptions must be made. Do you really speak and write about a "sort of literature" or a "kind of writing"? Or do you like most of us say "genre"?

Actually maybe, since explaining the meaning and importance of genre takes so much time in intro classes, we should just settle on "sort of literature" or "kind of writing" ;-)

Judy Redman said...

I also agree that polemic is a problem. Apart from anything else, it may well alienate those people you are trying to win to your side. It is much easier to consider a position different to your own if it is laid out in terms of "I see problems with X because and I find Y more convincing because" than if it is put in terms similar to "only a very sloppy scholar would believe something as stupid as X". The latter means that anyone who is willing to admit to changing from X to Y is admitting that they were/are a very sloppy scholar, which most people simply aren't willing to do! said...

The estate agent's three important characteristics of a property:location, location, location.

Tony Blair's three priorities:"education, education, education."

The writer's three basic rules:clarity, clarity, clarity.

Anonymous said...

Interesting to see how it compares with Orwell's marvellous Politics and the English Language,

He lists the following problems with writing (true for non-political as well as political)

- Dying metaphors
- Operators or verbal false limbs. (usuage with the elimination of simple verbs, and passive voice)
- Pretentious diction.
- Meaningless words

He gives a wonderful translation of a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

bulbul said...


thank you for giving me the best laugh I had had in weeks :o)
Except for the word "innate" which cannot be found in, nor inferred from, the original (whether KJV English or Hebrew), however, the translation isn't half bad. One only has to keep in mind that it's a translation from one STYLE into another STYLE. Let us not confuse style with language. And let us remember that the choice of style depends on the audience. For what it's worth, consider that my #9.