Trite Academic Words

Graduate students and professors, being human, are subject to trends.  In the seventies they wore bell-bottoms.  In the eighties they did aerobics.  In the nineties they might even have bought that CD of Gregorian chants everyone pretended to enjoy (you know who you are).  And just like clothes, exercise, and music, a particular set of words is currently en vogue among scholars.  In this posting, we’ll talk about worn-out words–terms so overused that they’ll make your readers want to take an eraser to the dictionary.

Social Sciences

Elide: How about plain old omit?  Suppress?  Exclude?  I would also like to point out that this is sometimes misused as a synonym for “elude” or “evade,” when in fact in its literal sense it refers to the act of crossing something out.

Toward: This perfectly serviceable adjective is sometimes used in titles to indicate that the paper or book is groping toward some sweeping change to the field.  Used exclusively by grand masters and grandiose younglings, this is best left to the former.

Unpack: Alternatives include dissect, unravel, explicate, even the phrase “more closely examine.”

Parse: See “unpack.”


Anything with parentheses: For example, “(re)imagining.”  There is absolutely nothing that will make you look pretentious more quickly than this.  Did someone make a rule against repetition when I wasn’t looking?  Would using “imagining and reimagining” really be so bad?  The down-to-earth alternative has kind of a ring to it, in my opinion, and what’s more, just think how much easier it would be to read aloud at a conference.

Dilate: Sometimes encountered in works of philosophy, as in, “In this section, I will dilate upon how Wittgenstein was a complete idiot.”  I suggest examine, discuss, or explore.

Problematize: In an informal survey of academics who also happen to be my friends, this word was particularly unpopular.  The difficulty is that there doesn’t seem to be a single good synonym that doesn’t have that whiff of jargon to it as well.  Complicate?  Undermine?  The best alternate I can come up with is “question,” but your input in the comments section would be extremely welcome.

Two Bugaboos: Comprise and Impact

Here are two mistakes that frequently find their way into academic prose: misusing the words “comprise” and “impact.”  I suppose that the former is tempting because it sounds a little smarter than your average verb–an important thing to grad students (though not necessarily, these same students should note, to experienced academic authors).  My theory is that folks like the latter because it sounds a little jazzy (and let’s face it, scholarly writing has few opportunities for jazz).  We appreciate your efforts, but please, find a better way.

The bad news is that these two words are hard to use correctly.  Frankly, I would advise skipping them altogether and opting for more serviceable synonyms.  Here’s why.

Comprise: The parts do not comprise the whole.  The whole comprises the parts.  The confusion here probably stems from the word’s resemblance to “compose,” which has the opposite meaning.  However, comprise should more properly be considered a synonym of “consist of.”  For example, the Bible comprises sixty-six books.

Impact: Step away from the verb.  I repeat.  Step away from the verb.  Or, as more elegantly stated in The Chicago Manual of Style, “impact used as a verb is widely considered a solecism” (5.220, 16th ed.).  Use “affect” instead.

These may be minor issues, but eliminating such mistakes will gratify your editors and impress your  fellow (careful) writers.

Further and Farther: What’s the Difference?

Before I became an editor, whether to use “farther” or “further” was the sort of question I would never have looked up for fear that it would have an annoying, complicated answer requiring a thorough knowledge of things like nominal adjectives or gerunds.  Now it’s my job to look these questions up, and I’m happy to say that this is one issue that is gratifyingly easy to resolve.  Farther refers to literal distance.  Further refers to figurative distance.  You see?  That wasn’t so bad.

For those who enjoy tracking down more information, this rule is enshrined in both Strunk and White (fourth ed., p. 46) and The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed., p. 281).

Which Which is Which and That That is That

Cover of "The Elements of Style, Fourth E...

Cover of The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition

For me, the most interesting revelation in Lynne Truss’s curmudgeonly classic Eats, Shoots and Leaves was that British writers and editors are far less meticulous than Americans int he same professions.  “How could that be?” my college-age self wondered.  “Don’t the British supposedly sublimate their fascist tendencies into primness?  And isn’t grammar the prime example of oppressive correctness?”  Since then, I’ve become and editor, and I’ve lost all doubt: British writers fling about grammar and punctuation with an insouciance that makes me sweat.  In other words, “an Englishwoman lecturing Americans on semicolons is a little like an American lecturing the French on sauces,” according to a review of Truss’s book in The New Yorker. *

A writer trained in the United Kingdom (or one of its colonies) is likely to use “that” and “which” interchangeably.  Employing these words differently is a classic point of careful American usage, enshrined in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, among other places.  I thought it might be worth revisiting the issue, since the distinction between to two comes as a surprise to many writers.  Because I often find it easier to understand examples than grammatical jargon, I thought it might make sense to start with some instances of the words in motion.

The puppy, which is misbehaving, has been sent to obedience school.

The puppy that is misbehaving has been sent to obedience school.

The sock, which is purple, was under the couch.

The sock that is purple was under the couch.

Ok, so what is going on here?  The idea is that that is “restrictive” and which is “nonrestrictive.”  This means that that specifies a particular kind of sock or puppy.  The misbehaving puppy has been sent to obedience school, but the angelic puppy gets to stay home.  The purple sock was under the couch, but the argyle ones were in the laundry basket.  Which doesn’t specify much of anything; really, it just introduces some explanatory information.  Which is unlikely to be the correct choice for constructing a formally written sentence–that is far more commonly used.

It might sound a little odd, but this grammar rule brings back fond family memories for me.  My father taught it to me when I was in college with the examples “the lawnmower that is broken in in the garage” and “the lawnmower, which is broken, is in the garage.”  Later, when I got my own copy of Strunk and White, I was impressed to find that he was quoting the book directly.  Now, whenever I’m not sure whether to use that or which, you can find me mumbling to myself about lawnmowers and thinking of my father.

*On the other hand, a writer in The New Yorker complaining about irritating issues of style is a tad rich, too.  I mean, come on, guys.  Coöperation?  Just because it’s logical doesn’t make it right.

Book Review: Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman

Cover of "The Professor and the Madman: A...

Ah, the stylish facial hair of ages past.

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.  By Simon Winchester.  New York: Harper Perennial, 1998.

If Jane Eyre and the OED could have a bookish little baby, The Professor and the Madman might be the result.  Simon Winchester tells the tale of how Dr. W. C. Minor, a schizophrenic confined to Broadmoor Hospital for murder, became one of the greatest contributors to the OED.  Smoothly, even slickly, written, this book is certainly a page-turner—but the shortcuts on the way to a good yarn weaken it substantially.

Perhaps Winchester’s most interesting revelation about the dictionary is that its distinctive documentation of word development—in which the history of a word is charted by quotations from historical source—was simply too substantial a project for the scholars behind the OED to effect themselves.  Instead, the quotations were searched for and compiled by volunteers from all over the world, not unlike a nineteenth-century Wikipedia.  Enter Dr. Minor.  Convinced that evil Irishmen were sneaking into his room forcing him to commit unspeakable acts at night, this American had run through the streets of London’s slums, chasing down and killing an innocent brewery worker.  After that, let’s just say he had a lot of time on his hands.

Ostensibly, The Professor and the Madman retraces the friendship between Minor and Professor James Murray, the remarkable self-taught editor of the dictionary.  In reality, Winchester concentrates on Minor’s sordid life.  (He was obsessed with prostitutes!  He branded a deserter during the Civil War!  He cut off his own penis!)  Given the material, the choice is understandable, but as the interesting-but-ignored tangents stacked up, I began to feel cheated.  For example, there were a number of prominent female contributors to the OED.  That’s a surprise; can we hear more about them?  What about Fredrick Furnivall, one of the early editors of the volume, who was a brilliant scholar, political radical, captain of a rowing team for working-class women, and famed jerk?  Winchester mentions Dr. Fitzedward Hall, the OED’s other most prolific contributor, only in passing.  Hall, like Minor, was also American, also had a fascinating backstory of early experiences in South Asia, and also . . . was crazy!  Who passes that up?  Why is this book not called The Madman and the Madman?

My frustration with the author’s nonpursuit of these meaty tangents was multiplied by his tendency to fill the book in with fictional fluff.  He begins with a story that he doesn’t reveal as apocryphal until two-thirds of the way through.  He theorizes about Minor’s feelings and thoughts regarding the soldier he was forced to brand during the Civil War.  He even has the temerity to speculate—without any evidence whatsoever—that Minor slept with his victim’s wife and cut off his own penis out of guilt.  Spare us the imaginary drama.  Give us the real drama!

Informed by my perspective of grouchy liberalism, I have an additional objection to The Professor and the Madman.  The closing paragraph of the book begins with the line, “There is some occasional carping that the [OED] reflects an elitist, male, British, Victorian tone.  Yet even in the admission that, like so many achievements of the era, it did reflect a set of attitudes not wholly harmonic with those prevalent at the end of the twentieth century, none seem to suggest that any other dictionary has ever come close, or will come close, to the achievement that it offers.”  Hear that, feminism?  Subaltern studies?  Scholars and activists on the issues of race and class?  You’re just carping!  Actually you should be thanking white Western men for all they’ve done for you!  Winchester misses the point here: oppressed people don’t spend much time worrying about the relative quality of the tools of their oppression.

The Professor and the Madman might leave you wishing that people who wrote popular history actually paid attention to how best to write history, but perhaps that’s too much to ask.  In the end, this is an exciting, absorbing book—beach reading for intellectuals.  It’s gossipy, but disguised with a historian’s gloss.  Buy it for the sexy librarian in your life.

Mastering Footnotes: Where to Put the Numbers

Screenshot footnote

A note number in its natural habitat. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve noted some confusion among clients about how to handle note numbers (the technical term for the superscript number appearing in the body of a manuscript).  I thought some general clearing-up might be a very useful gift to the world.  Well, a mildly useful gift to a limited number of people.  But still.

First off, you can’t just stick them any old place.  You should always aim to place note numbers at the end of the sentence or a clause.  Merge two footnotes if you have to.  If, for clarity’s sake, it’s necessary to put a footnote next to a specific term, then do so, but use this approach sparingly (CMoS, 16th ed., 14.21).

Second, note numbers come after, not before, punctuation.  The only exception is the dash, or, again, isolated cases that help clarify (14.21).

Third, Word is your friend.  Use it how it was meant to be used.  Allow it to set up your footnotes or endnotes for you.  Why do some people go through and put the little numbers in themselves?  Why do they then go on to type out the endnotes in a list form at the end?  No one knows, because this way lies only sadness and confusion.  Keep in mind that Word, unlike you, can automatically link up the notes with the note numbers.  Think of the advantages and embrace the technology, my friends!

Look Smart at Graduate Student Parties: Obscure but Correct Word Pronunciations

Oh crap, is that how you pronounce that word?

The worst part of being within earshot of smart people is having to sound smart yourself.  Intimidate all around you with these technically correct but still confusing word pronunciations!  Merriam-Webster’s online edition is a good guide here, thanks to its recordings of the preferred pronunciations.

Dour: Meaning “sullen and gloomy,” by all rights this ought to pronounced in a way that rhymes with “sour,” right?  And you can . . . if you want to use the second, and therefore less preferred, pronunciation.  The first is “door”—not as in the method of ingress, but rather, rhyming with “moor.”

Divisive: Let the plebeians use the most logical pronunciation—the one that makes it sound like “divide.”  “Duh-VISS-ive” is also correct, and sure to sound more snobbish.

Derisive: The most common pronunciation is “duh-RY-siv,” but you can also opt for “duh-RY-ziv,” “duh-RIH-ziv” (the i in “rih” as in the i in “city”), and “duh-RIH-siv.”  As the weirdest, but still technically correct, I suggest duh-RIH-ziv.

Minuscule: The alternate version of this word is “mi-NUS-kyool,” a fact so little known as to cause immediate consultation of mental dictionaries.

Primer: Preferred pronunciation is “PRIM-er” (as in, “Priscilla is primmer than Gertrude”).  Secondary, though more commonly heard, pronunciation is “PRY-mer.”  If anyone questions you on this one, you can bust out a fascinating fact: “PRY-mer” is actually the preferred way in the United Kingdom—they don’t use “PRIM-er” at all.
Have you got any similar surprising pronunciations up your sleeve?  Please, feel free to share (in the comments section for the blog if you must, but preferably, over cocktails).