Posts Tagged ‘Academic writing’

You don’t? Don’t worry, nor do I! So why post about this concept, which is a topic in linguistics?

Well, I was in my favourite bookshop again today (Blackwells, in Oxford) and for various reasons I was browsing the linguistics shelves. My attention was caught by the length of the single-word title (20 letters). “What could that be?” I thought. “I know, I’ll take a look at the blurb on the back cover. The back cover blurb usually gives one an idea…”

But the blurb on the back cover said this:


Grammaticalization is a well-attested process of linguistic change in which a lexical item becomes a function word, which may be further reduced to a clitic or affix. Proponents of the universality of grammaticalization have usually argued that it is unidirectional and have thus found it a useful tool in linguistic reconstruction. In this book Professor Norde shows that change is reversible on all levels: semantic, morphological, syntactic, and phonological. As a consequence, the alleged unidirectionality of grammaticalization is not a reliable reconstructional tool, even if degrammaticalzation is a rare phenomenon.”

Well, clearly this concept is not one about to give up its secrets to the non-technical reader without a fight. And actually shouldn’t linguistics be the last subject to allow itself to give in to the temptation to pile on the syllables in the study of itself?  I shouldn’t carp – the same is often true, of course, in Management Education, where the legacy of ‘Management Science’ which dominates the highest starred Academic Journals has tight grip, and where the scourge of the “professionalisation” (19 letters) of academia with the consequent publish-or-die mentality that many, of not most, people in universities secretly hanker after can also be detected.

Of course, I know it’s unfair to pick out (and pick on) Muriel Norde’s book. After all, not only is it surely read by others in that field (albeit probably a  narrow one), the fault here could quite easily be mine.  Perhaps the blurb above really does make sense. Perhaps, too, it’s really not supposed to unless you are already in the know (and “being in the know” is a way of establishing a group identity). I guess the point is that it’s only when you take yourself out of your everyday lexical comfort zone that you realise that you, too, could just as easily be guilty of making sure that no-one who doesn’t already understand you can understand you. Academics, and academic writing, should have some kind of safety release-valve, a “deflate” button which the listener or the reader may push to let out the hot air when the levels of pomposity and verbosity get dangerously high. Oversimplifying complex ideas (as happens a lot, for example, in Harvard Business Review) produces dangerous results when readers read it at face value as though it hadn’t had the thinking kicked out of it in the editing process (amazing how the revered word “Harvard” can turn leaden ideas into gold). Equally, overcomplicating complex ideas (either by esoterically hiding one’s own ideas behind an endlessly referenced edifice of everyone else’s, or by joyfully inserting language that you know others will not) can deprive the rest of us of any benefit of that thinking.

We are always in danger of taking ourselves too seriously, I think. Words are important; language is, after all, our principal way of conveying a lot without needing to be  endlessly literal. The possibilities of language to move, to make clear, to offer insight are almost limitless. On the other hand, so is its potential to leave unchanged, to obscure and thus leave one none the wiser.

Writing by academics doesn’t have to be hard work.  I’m currently reading, and very much enjoying, Chris Grey’s “A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap book about Studying Organizations”, part of a refreshing series of titles with a tint of Critical Management Studies in their ideas. It shows that one can be accessible and serious.

I’ll admit my own reading has broadened in the last few years to include a lot of things which before I would never have had the interest, patience or (if I’m honest) wherewithal to have tackled. Good reading begets more good reading – and there truly are some difficult texts that reward one for the effort. I’m still trying to crack Paul Ricoeur, mind!

In addition, I like writing (though I also find it laborious) and I do enjoy the challenge of writing about complex ideas. I know, too, that I still constantly fall well short of those heights and those parts reached by the authors I most admire.

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