General Dwight D. Eisenhower once asked Winston Churchill to review a draft of one of Eisenhower’s speeches. Churchill’s critique? “Too many passives and too many zeds.” When asked to explain, Churchill replied, “Too many Latinate polysyllabics like ‘systematize,’ ‘prioritize,’ and ‘finalize.’” Then, to emphasize the power of simple, straightforward verbs, Churchill lambasted the General’s use of passive voice: “And then the passives. What if I had said, instead of ‘We shall fight on the beaches,’ ‘Hostilities will be engaged with our adversary on the coastal perimeter’?”
We should take Churchill’s advice. Not only was he a legendary orator, he was also accomplished writer with five books under his belt by age 26, more than 40 volumes to his credit, and the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature “ … for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.”
Too often, academic writing just plain stinks, as Harvard professor Steven Pinker points out in his aptly-named essay “Why Academics Stink at Writing” published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Pinker bemoans academese and analyzes why scholars so often use academic jargon that is “turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand.”
As an example of bloated verbosity, Pinker cites a methods section from a research article: “Participants read assertions whose veracity was either affirmed or denied by the subsequent presentation of an assessment word.” Translation? “Participants read sentences, each followed by the word true or false.”
To be fair, academics are hardly the only specialists guilty of the linguistic equivalent of an eighteen car pile-up on the interstate. Bureaucrats, among others, are famous for jargon-laden gobbledygook. Nevertheless, as “a profession that trades in words and dedicates itself to the transmission of knowledge,” we can do better.
Some academics claim that academese is essential for publication and a necessity if one is to be taken seriously. Scholar Helen Sword disagrees. After analyzing more than 1,000 peer-reviewed articles from a variety of academic disciplines, Sword argues in her book Stylish Academic Writing that bloated academic jargon is not a prerequisite for publication.
One of Sword’s writing tips: avoid nominalizations, nouns created by adding suffixes to other parts of speech. For example, thanks to nominalization, a relatively simple word like “establish” turns into “establishment” and then continues to mutate until it turns into the Godzilla of all nominalizations—“antidisestablishmentarianism.” Nominalizations, or “zombie nouns,” as Sword calls them in her TED-Ed video, suck the life out of prose. Horace’s Ars Poetica, like an ancient Roman version of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, urges likewise. Horace cautions poets to avoid “sesquipedalia verba”—words “a foot and a half long.” As Churchill puts it, “Short words are best and the old words when short are best of all.”
Simplicity does not equal simplistic. An iPad is not stupid because it is easy to use. As Einstein said, “If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well.” In the end, as writers we would do well to ask ourselves, “Who has to read this?” If the answer is “No one,” then we’d better think long and hard about our rhetorical choices.
Academic writing should be more than a verbal tranquilizer dart. Boring is not a virtue. More than ever, information is about a survival-of-the-fittest fight for eyeballs and readers. Almost 4.8 million academic papers have been uploaded to Academia.edu, a website for sharing scholarly research. In 2013, Twitter averaged about 5700 tweets per second. The competition is stiff. How will we compete? Taking a tip or two from Churchill is a good place to start.