Academic writing: Too many commas, sentences too complex

If you people thought I used too many commas and my sentences were too convoluted before, I’ve been reading books by war historian John Keegan lately and, as my writing is influenced by who I’m reading and, if I end up writing like him, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Why are the writings of academics so convoluted? I don’t have the attention span to read a sentence as long as Keegan writes and I find myself rereading it several times to keep track of the subject. “That happened to Monty? No, I guess it happened to his father and I think this other thing happened to somebody Keegan used to know.”

My excuse is that I don’t have an editor. Keegan and the others do and they still tend to the inarticulate. Doesn’t anybody say, “John, baby, I know you’re brilliant but don’t you think this could be three separate sentences and one of them belongs in a completely different book?”

I’ve never read a sentence by John Keegan. Could you give an example or two?

Unfortunately, not at this time. The exerpts on Amazon, while sometimes convoluted, are too coherent to make good examples.

Most academic prose is written to serve as an eternal monument to the shining intellect of the author first, and to inform the reader second. An academic author doesn’t communicate ideas simply, because only simple ideas can be communicated in simple ways, and the last thing an academic wants to be associated with is a simple idea.

The worst of it comes when you combine a highfalutin style with the recent trend toward overt salesmanship and careerism in academia. It’s like reading a used car ad written by Derrida.

If you want an antidote, get a copy of The Complete Plain Words by Gowers. It’s a little terse, but it’ll taste like a clean glass of cold water after you’ve downed a bucket of syrup.

Keegan isn’t so bad. He’s only averagely incomprehensible. You haven’t truly felt pain until you’ve gone head to head with the Patron Saint of Academic Indecipherability. I’m speaking of course, of Frederic Jameson.

The worst thing about him is that he inspires others to mimic his style. Heck, even his wikipedia entry is kind of thick going. Enjoy an except:

Postmodernists claimed that the complex differentiation between “spheres” or fields of life (such as the political, the social, the cultural, the commercial, etc.) and between distinct classes and rôles within each field, had been overcome by the crisis of foundationalism and the consequent relativization of truth-claims. Jameson argued, against this, that these phenomena had or could have been understood successfully within a modernist framework; postmodern failure to achieve this understanding implied an abrupt break in the dialectical refinement of thought.

I’m having a hard time finding an except of Jameson’s to share, but it’s like the above, multiplied by a billion.

You know, you could have cut off that quote after the word “Postmodernists” and still had the same effect.

That’s where my eyes began to glaze over. But really, it wasn’t so bad since I know or can guess at the definitions of most of those words. That’s something I can say for Keegan: I share his vocabulary.

I’ll look up a particularly egregious example in The Face of Battle. It was an early one and his later stuff isn’t nearly so messy. I guess that a side effect of working as an editor instead of as an academic is that your own flaws become more obvious.

The guilty symbol in most academic writing is the semicolon. Even when used properly, it’s strongest effect is to allow the writer to compose insanely long sentences that compact far too many concepts into one unit of writing. If writers, academic or otherwise, would restrict their use of the semicolon and break down their subject matter into small, distinct pieces of information, the writing would flow much better for the reader.

Now, if you really want to give yourself a headache, try slogging through any books of historical analysis by Marxist scholars–say, something from an “Annales school” historian like Georges Duby. Those guys were the bane of my undergraduate existence.

Not MARXISTS! Aaaaaaarrrrrggh!

No, one of the keys to personal happiness is to not pay any attention at all to Marxists, unless she is really cute and you are pretty sure you have a shot because she is, you know, a Marxist. But leave before she wakes up and starts talking again.

I love semicolons; they make me happy.

I think that reading and writing online have had a significant impact on the way we read. I know that if I am writing on the computer, as opposed to longhand, my style will be very different. I will often go back and edit on paper in order to achieve the effect I want, and that will often mean joining up longer sentences and using sub-clauses.

Things that are written and edited online will generally have much shorter sentences, and shorter paragraphs than writing which is edited on paper. I assume there is some kind of visual effect in operation … I’m too lazy to look it up, but someone has probably written a paper about it. I know that when I’m editing papers for online publication, I’ll do different things with the text depending on if I expect people to download and print, or read online.

If you read, for example, Charles Dickens, or any of the Victorian writers, even articles written for journals and newspapers, you’ll see much longer and more complex sentences than anything likely to be written today. But Dickens was a popular writer, the John Grisham of his day … so he was using language that ordinary people would be comfortable in reading.

A fair bit of the ability to read is not about understanding the words and grammatical patterns, it’s about the ability to concentrate. I don’t think we realise how much of our learning to read, is actually about learning how to stay with a sentence and narrative, it’s as much about memory as it is language. We no longer have the practice our great-grandparents did, in reading complex sentences, so we struggle a bit now.

Also, a lot of academic language is technical … it uses theorectical models and understandings which require some background in the field. Many academic texts are written for a peer audience, which it is assumed will have a command of that technical background.

Sometimes that means just plain bad and lazy writing, but sometimes it means a discourse which depends on being able to use specialist terminology to make an argument.

I find it odd that although most people can cook, few people would expect to pick up an advanced text on physics and understand it without support, but because most people can read, they expect that cultural and literary theory should be immediately accessible.

That being said, having spent the better part of two years editing academic texts for publication, I admit that many academics are actually pretty poor writers, and would probably have some difficulty getting the point across in a shopping list.

You mean as in

I must agree, to a point. A difference between Dickens, who could write a sentence that could stretch from the Earth to the Moon, and modern writers is that he wrote for an audience listening to someone reading aloud. Then a listener could be sung into an alpha state by the sonority, both sound and flow, of the text. Pedants lack the luxury of hoping their readers are lulled asleep.

As for any difference between writing online for a serious publication and writing for a message board, I have never written anything serious for the former but I have written a couple Staff Reports and I force myself into a different style than Iuse for a post here, using shorter, less convoluted sentences. I could say that I’m “writing for my audience” but I am assuming that audience is not used to reading the crap I post here.

You found my book! :smiley:

But really, while I do use too many periods, I am not Keegan.

In A Mencken Chrestomathy, H.L. Mencken has a section on Professor Thorstein Veblen, whom Mencken calls “a geyser of pish-posh.”

He cites this paragraph from Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class:

“In an increasing proportion as time goes on, the anthropomorphic cult, with its code of devout observances, suffers a progressive disintegration through the stress of economic exigencies and the decay of the system of status. As this disintegration proceeds, there come to be associated and blended with the devout attitude certain other motives and impulses that are not always of an anthropomorphic origin, nor traceable to the habit of personal subservience. Not all of these subsidiary impulses that blend with the bait of devoutness in the later devotional life are altogether congruous with the devout attitude or with the anthropomorphic apprehension of sequence of phenomena. Their origin being not the same, their action upon the scheme of devout life is also not in the same direction. In many ways they traverse the underlying norm of subservience or vicarious life to which the code of devout observances and the ecclesiastical and sacerdotal institutions are to be traced as their substantial basis. Through the presence of these alien motives the social and industrial regime of status gradually disintegrates, and the canon of personal subservience loses the support derived from an unbroken tradition. Extraneous habits and proclivities encroach upon the field of action occupied by this canon, and it presently comes about that the ecclesiastical and sacerdotal structures are partially converted to other uses, in some measure alien to the purpose of the scheme of devout life as it stood in the days of the most vigorous and characteristic development of the priesthood.”
I laugh every time I read it.

Veblen or Mencken? Both were trying to be funny, but Mencken was a pro at making everyone laugh and Veblen was too dry for the hoi polloi to appreciate. “Hoi polloi,” here, meaning, “anybody who could follow him long enough to realize there was a barbed joke hidden in the briar patch of his verbosity.” Mencken can make you guffaw while the best Veblen could hope for was a chortled, “I say!”

A good academic sentence works like one of Rube Goldberg’s machines, except that in place of water wheels, trained beagles, helium balloons and boxing gloves, there are abstractions, allusions, assumptions, comparisons, and concepts nested within concepts, all pushing and pulling on one another in various ways.

I loved my senior thesis (undergrad) advisor. He absolutely detests snobbish writing and prefers that you write shorter sentences that are clearer. Paraphrased, his philosophy is: “Simple, concise writing does not mean your ideas are simple. Likewise, tortured and convoluted writing does not make your ideas complex and impressive.”

When reading some academic-speak I wanted to grab the sentences, turn them inside out, shake loose half the commas and sprinkle liberally with periods. It’s like a contest to see how many clauses you can cram in one sentence, and of course you must start the sentance with a clause every time and separate the subject and verb by forty words. Added bonus if you can conceal a entirely separate sentence within another with nothing more than a dozen commas to help keep things straight.

Or to put it simply:

Omit unnecessary words.

As an added bonus, they also drop dozens of long, convoluted words (if I ever see hermeneutic again it will be too soon) that really don’t need to be there. Often, they add nothing to the sentence and may have nothing to do with its actual purpose.

Granted, Americans and even Frenchmen got nothing on the Germans in this.