Writers: We Are Not Amused

Queen Victoria of Briton

Queen Victoria of Briton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Warning: I venture almost exclusively into the realm of personal taste with this post.

Upon occasion, my authors do something that drives me crazy.  I’m sorry, guys.  I still respect you.  You’re still smart.  Your ideas are still good.  I promise.  But I do need a moment to complain about the times when you make yourself sound both stuffy and inaccurate.  How?  With the simple expedient of using “we” instead of “I” in academic papers.

Here’s a reality check: you are not the pope, so you cannot speak for the church.  You are not a newspaper editor, so you cannot speak for your newspaper.  And everyone who reads your paper will see that you are the only author, so you cannot speak for your coauthors.  The jig is up!  You are alone!  Stop being coy.  Take pride in your argument.  Take responsibility for it too.  Use “I”!

Let’s move on from a reality check to some tough love.  There is an actual term to describe your usage.  It is “the majestic we.”*  Do you really want to use a device that makes you sound like when you’re writing you pretend that you’re Queen Victoria?  If you actually do that, then there may be deeper problems at play here than your prose stylings.  Seek help, or quit graduate school.  If not, make friends with the “Find and Replace” function in Word and embrace the first person singular.

*There’s also a forensic (i.e., debating) term for this, since there’s a forensic term for virtually every sort of utterance you can make: nosism, from the Latin “nos.”  But that’s a topic for a different day.


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.

My Kingdom for a Synonym!

We’ve all got words that our minds just seem to get stuck on, for no apparent reason and with no apparent cure.  A thousand-word essay that I edited this spring used the word “comprise” three times.  Incorrectly.*  In interpersonal conversation, I lean on “genuinely” to express a strong feeling far too often (example: “I genuinely think that we need to buy more toilet paper”).  The poor dope in the Kids in the Hall sketch above uses “ascertain,” then jumps to “delineate.”  What are your unfortunate obsessions?

*The whole comprises the parts.  The parts do not comprise the whole.

Why Even Editors Need Editors

Perhaps the most annoying mistakes are the ones we ourselves are prone to.  Oddly, using “hear” in the place of “here” is one of my unconsciousness’s favorites.  My fingers seem to like to type “Tjeresa” instead of “Theresa,” which is a problem when that’s your name!  And, sin of sins, I’ve committed “your” instead of “you’re,” and vice versa—in professional correspondence, so less.  Horrors!

What are your guilty secrets?