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Sociolinguistic Implications of Academic Writing

Author(s): Eugene A. Nida


Source: Language in Society, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Sep., 1992), pp. 477-485
Published by: Cambridge University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4168371
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Language in Society

2I,

477-485.

Printed in the United States of America

Sociolinguisticimplicationsof academicwriting
EUGENE

A. NIDA

American Bible Society


1865 Broadway
New York, NY 10023
ABSTRACT

The language of academic journals tends to become so technical that


only specialists are able to understandthe unnecessarilycomplex features
of vocabulary, syntax, discourse, and format. This seems particularly
unfortunate at a time when the results of present-day scholarship in linguistic and cultural anthropology need to be as widely accessible as possible. An examination of problems in two articles in Language and one
in the American Anthropologist points out the nature of the difficulties
and some of the solutions. (Sociolinguistics, academic dialects, writing,
jargons, English)

Academic writing, as the way in which scholars write about their research and
findings, differs significantly from one author to another in difficulty of vocabulary, complexity of syntax, and organization of content. Such writing
is often called "technical writing" or "scientific writing," and the three principal levels of difficulty may be usefully illustrated by the language registers
employed in (i) the technical journals of learned societies, (2) Scientific
American, and (3) Natural History, published by the Museum of Natural
History of New York City.
The concern of this article is the academic language of most technical journals, which are crucial for thousands of graduate students, especially in the
developing countries of the world. These people desperately need meaningful access to the kinds of information that is indispensable if such societies
are to "catch up" in such broad areas as health, nutrition, energy, ecology,
communication, and sociology, as well as in such restricted fields as metallurgy, robotics, astrophysics, nuclear physics, cytology, radiology, and aerodynamics. Almost go percent of scientific publications come out first in
English, but many people who need such information have only limited competence in the English language. They may have English dictionaries, but
these are often out of date, especially in the areas of technical vocabulary.
Furthermore, the real problems in comprehending academic writing are pri?

1992

Cambridge University Press 0047-4045/92 $5.00 + .00

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marily not a matter of individual words, but of the combinations of words


and the complexities of the syntax and discourse structure.
Native speakers of English also have serious difficulties with technical writing, even in areas in which they have presumablyspecialized. Too many graduate students simply skim articles and get only general impressions. They
often learn some of the technical terms so they can get by in seminars because
they can appear to understand the content of articles, when in reality they
cannot make use of the information. It has never been digested and turned
into usable mental energy.
Technical language is not, however, a unique feature of modern industrial
societies. Kikongo-speaking medicine men in Zaire customarily use rare expressions that their neighbors do not understand. This is essentially no different from the specialized register of language one hears at conventions of
the American Medical Association or finds in the New England Journal of
Medicine. Technical language has the important advantage of being a kind
of cognitive shorthand, in which semantically specialized terms can cover a
wide range of entities or events. Also, the condensation of information made
possible by formulas often adds an important spatial dimension to complex
relations.
Technical language may also serve as a symbol of social solidarity and a
sign of belonging. In fact, applicants for certain positions are often tested
on their knowledge of the vocabulary typical of expertise in a particular
field. Such language can, however, become a form of elitism and a way in
which insecure people try to build status. This use of language seems particularly prominent in the writing of beginners in any field, or perhaps the
awkward style and esoteric language is only the side effect of writing a Ph.D.
dissertation.
The purpose of this article is to help students and teachers (especially those
overseas in non-English-speaking countries) to better understand some of the
problems and to recognize certain possible solutions. For this reason, a random selection was made of recent issues of Language and American Anthropologist, as linguistics and anthropology seem to lie midway between the
so-called hard sciences and the humanities. Technical writing in these two disciplines should therefore seem to be somewhat typical of what can be expected in a relatively wide range of technical writing. In both cases, lead
articles were selected because these are usually aimed at a relatively broad audience and are supposed to have greater relevance for more readers. The two
closely related articles in Language are "Semantic Parameters of Split Intransitivity," by Robert D. Van Valin, Jr. (I990), and "The Origin of NP Split
Ergativity," by Andrew Garrett (I990). The article in American Anthropologist is "Twice-Born, Once Conceived: Meaning Construction and Cultural

Cognition,"by BraddShore (i99I).


All three of these articles are extremely important. The two articles in Lan478

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guage deal with so-called ergative structures, which occur in many languages
and which are often regarded as structurally awkward and semantically arbitrary. The first article sets up semantic criteria for explaining the seemingly
illogical choices made by speakers in marking the subject of intransitive
verbs, and the second presents an historical explanation for the development
of such structuresin quite different types of languages. Even experienced linguists often fail to understand or appreciate ergative case relations, in which
for the most part the grammatical object of transitive verbs and the subject
of intransitive verbs have the same markers, whereas the subject of transitive verbs is marked in a different manner.
The article in American Anthropologist is likewise very relevant for understanding the way in which meanings are constructed by speech communities. It contains a number of crucial insights for all the behavioral sciences
as well as for the humanities, and it proposes a solid basis for developing a
theory of cognition.
In order to illustrate some of the problems of technical writing in learned
journals, a number of different features are discussed, as they occur in Language and in American Anthropologist. The major classes of difficulties include vocabulary, attributive phrases, series of prepositional phrases, highly
generic expressions, adverbials, redundancy, parenthetical expressions, and
sentence length.
A certain number of technical terms are inevitable in academic writing, especially if these are crucial for distinguishing otherwise misleading ideas or
are central to some new insights or principles. But in the articles in Language,
the following illustrative terms are not integral to the text: macrarolehood,

cliticization,passivization,morphologized,and unaccusative.Why not speak


of playing a majorrole, the use of clitics, changingto a passiveformation,
indicatedin the morphology,and cases other than the accusative?
For most readers, however, these unusual and unnecessarily complex word
formations are not as troublesome as the use of ordinary words having very
unusual meanings. For example, the term argument is increasingly being used
by linguists to speak about grammatical cases. But for most readers this requires a double take almost every time the term occurs in such an unusual
meaning. Similarly, the verb realize normally refers to a mental operation;
but in the statement a clitic which realizes quantified NP's, it would seem to

make more sense to say a clitic whichmarksnounphraseshavingquantifiers, because that is precisely the role of the clitic in question.
One might very well expect that in an article about human behavior many
fewer rare terms would appear, but the treatment of cognitive processes in
the American Anthropologist has an oversupply of high-level vocabulary, for
example, intersubjectivity, superorganic, transpersonal, comparandum, particularism, atheoretical, incommensurability, essentialist, and phenomenologically. The term intersubjectivityis used simply to speak about the sharing
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of concepts by different people in the same culture, superorganic refers to


what is beyond normal sensory and mental processes, and transpersonalrepresents merely something involving a number of persons. The Latin gerundive formation in comparandum seems poorly designed if one really wishes
to communicate meaningfully. A well-read person can normally figure out
from the contexts the meanings of such polysyllabic terms, but this takes extra mental effort, and to find all but one of these on a single page is surely
a case of verbal overloading. It would seem much more efficient to employ
readily understandable phrases rather than depend on such rarely used derivative formations.
Isolated rare words, however, are not as serious a problem as phrases consisting of unusual combinations of words. In such phrases, the difficulties
of understanding increase componentially. Consider, for example, the following phrases in the Language articles: inchoative verb serialization, twoplace stative predicates, impersonal passivization, split intransitivity,
semantic parameters of ergative case-marking systems, and reanalysis of an
unproductive neuter instrumental marker in null-subject transitive clauses.
Unless a reader is a specialist in ergative formations, phrases such as these
will certainly slow down comprehension and force a reader to judge whether
the extra effort is really worthwhile. In place of inchoative verb serialization
it would be quite easy to speak of a series of verbs meaning 'to begin', and
in place of two-place stative predicates, why not use stative verbs governing
two different case relations? Impersonal passivization is simply a matter of
passive constructions with impersonal subjects. The phrase split intransitivity is a much more complex semantic construction because so many elements
are left implicit. It means only that in intransitiveergative constructions, subjiect expressions are split into two or more classes.
A right-hand extension of a related series of words or phrases (e.g., a key
dimension of the human mind in its natural habitat: on the midway of social life) is usually much easier to understandthan a left-hand extension (e.g.,
culturally orchestrated experiential schemata). In the case of right-hand extensions, one can mark off meaningful segments one at a time, whereas in
left-hand series it is necessary to retain everything until the final head word
occurs. But even right-hand extensions can create decoding difficulties if a
series is too long (e.g., pointing to the utility of ergative case-marking in languages with no other morphological distinction between A and O functions).
Five prepositional phrases in a single series is really too much.
The article in American Anthropologist includes a similar series of phrases
that require careful decoding: subversive reifications, collective representations as transpersonal,culturallymediated meaning construction, socially mediated cultural manifestations, and organismic schematizing. In place of
subversive reifications it would seem much better to spell out precisely what
is involved, namely the subversive effects of treatingpeople merely as things.
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The phrase collectiverepresentationsas transpersonalactually involves reare simply the meaningsgiven


dundancy in that the collectiverepresentations
to experienceby the society as a whole, and these are obviously transpersonal. Culturallymediatedmeaningconstructioncan be more readily described as theprocessby whicha societyassignsmeaningto experience.And
the phrase socially mediatedculturalmanifestationsseems like a very heavy
generic way to talk about ritual dances.
One feature of academic writing that prevents ready comprehension is the
use of adverbs that do not signal quantities, qualities, or degree. For examderivationalandfuncis morphologically
ple, in the statement The "ergative"
refers to the fact
derivational
morphologically
the
phrase
tionallysyntactic,
of
is
by
a
derivational
the
case
marked
that
ergative
feature a word. But the
phrasefunctionallysyntacticis not semantically parallel. It means simply that
the ergativeformationfunctions on the syntacticlevel. Adverbial derivatives
are a convenient device to avoid spelling out specific relations, but they often require a mental retake to understand what is involved. Note, for example, the following expressions: inanimates inflect ergatively, organized
accusatively, occur cross-linguistically.
All parentheses tend to break the continuity of reading, and in this sense
they are disruptive and force a reader to go onto a discourse siding for a short
time, and getting back on the main line is not always easy. If the parentheses merely explain a preceding expression, there are few problems, but some
writers use parentheses to toss in contrary opinions, irrelevant additions, alternative ways of saying the same thing, and cute innuendoes. The length of
parentheses is not as crucial a factor as their lack of cohesion. When they
start a reader thinking in quite a different direction, they can be grossly disruptive. Unfortunately, some scholars seem to be so intellectually insecure
that they try to hedge their bets by using parentheses to throw in possible alternative explanations.
Long sentences are not as serious an issue as semantically complex ones.
But when semantic complexity and length are combined, the deciphering of
the meaning can be a difficult process. Such long statements scare off all but
the most intellectually avid readers. Note the following sentence in the anthropological article:
Specific trends include (a) the progressive dependence over the last million
years on symbolically mediated adaptations; (b) the need for reliable mechanisms of social coordination and communication for small groups of primates adapting to changeable habitats; (c) the contradiction implicit in the
fact that increasing social interdependence was paralleled by increasing
cognitive capacity for autonomous mental representations of experience
and the transformation of idiosyncratic temperaments into full-blown personality differences; (d) the extension of memory beyond the individual or481

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ganism to a social repositoryof experience("traditions");and (e) the


the creincreasingcapacityfor what we mightcall "institutionalization":
ation of novel responsesto situationsand the objectificationof these creations as external institutions, characterizedby stable intersubjective
significance. (io)

One may arguethat this long sentenceis reallya seriesof five sentences
combinedby semicolons,but the mereformattingof sucha sentenceis likely
to frightenawaymanypotentialreaders.And even if they do understandall
the words and the relationsbetweenwords, they are likely to miss the significantlayeringof the sequence,in whicheach successivephraserepresents
a developmentalstagein humanhistoryand an increasinglycomplexpattern
of sensoryinput and cognitiveoutput.
One of the seriousobstaclesto readercomprehensionis the tendencyof
some writersto employa greatmanyabbreviations.Standardabbreviations,
such as e.g., i.e., ibid., and cf., pose no problem,but the firstillustrativearticle in Language has close to 40 abbreviations,for example, UH (Unaccusative Hypothesis),ReiG (RelationalGrammar),GB (Government-Binding
theory),RRG (Role and ReferenceGrammar),LS (LogicalStructure),A/Everbs(verbstakingavereor essereauxiliariesin Italian).But some abbreviations are not specificallydefinedand are presumablyusedonly on the basis
of a previousauthor'susage.This meansthat the articlepresupposesthat all
readersare relativelywell acquaintedwith the relevantliterature.Fourteen
abbreviationsare listed in an initial footnote, but to read this articleefficiently, a person must be eitherwell acquaintedwith the subjectmatteras
treatedby variousauthorsor be able to assimilatequicklyand to constantly
bear in mind a long seriesof letter symbols.
A numberof featuresof academicwritingand publicationsare not directly
relatedto the processof comprehension,but do affect reader'sattitudestowarda scholarlytext. In some instances,bibliographicalreferencesin a text
seem morelike name-droppingthan legitimatemeansof callingattentionto
otherimportantcontributionsto the subjectin question.Readersare too often remindedof some arbitraryassignmentsin undergraduatecourses in
which professorsrequiredas many footnotes as typed pages and twice the
numberof bibliographicalitemsas footnotes. An articlethat has morethan
25 percentof the space occupiedby footnotes almost alwaysdrivespotential readersaway.
Some editorshavetriedto overcomethe scarefactorin footnotesby having them collectedat the end of the article,wherethey may be psychologicallylessthreatening.Butif a footnoteis trulyrelevant,it needsto be as close
as possibleto the place whereit is applicable,and this usuallymeansthat it
should be incorporatedinto the text itself. Footnotes designedonly or primarilyto makean articleappearscholarlyshouldbe red-penciledby editors.
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Summaries often cover too much of the content, and they do so in such
highly generic language that many readers find such summaries very formidable. As a result they are inclined to give up on the article. Note the following summary of the article in American Anthropologist:
Cultural cognition is the product of two different sorts of meaning: (a) the
(objective) semiotic organization of cultural texts or models, and (b) the
(subjective) processes of meaning construction through which cultural symbols become available to consciousness as "experience." This article proposes a way to bridge these two kinds of meaning by considering how
cultural knowledge is grounded in sensory experience. Several cognitive
processes (schematization, synesthesia, secondary intersubjectivity)are proposed for linking the objectively available schemata found in cultural practices and the processes of meaning construction by which individuals
appropriate symbols to consciousness. The nature of the relation between
public symbols and individual experience is discussed in relation to a number of current issues in post-structuralist culture theory. (9)
Summaries should not only indicate what an article is about, but they
should also say something about the relevance of what is being discussed.
Only in this way can readers have sufficient information to guide them in
identifying content and determining the significance of the treatment.
Appendices are helpful in some instances, but in most cases the contents
are better treated in another article. Unless appendices consist primarily of
statistical data or charts requiring special formats or paper, they should be
incorporated into a text. In many instances, appendices are only fillers and
in some instances only a place to hide dubious data. Editors are fully justified in having such material composed in smaller type.
Small type is also an excellent way for editors to indicate that some parts
of an article may be much less valuable to readers. This is especially helpful in instances in which writers have bitten off much more than they can
chew but would be bitterly resentful if any part of their text was to be axed.
The use of mathematicallike formulas seems to be increasing in some journals dealing with human behavior, language, and literature. Formulas are excellent devices for condensing a great deal of information and showing
certain interrelations in graphic form. But the use of such formulas and the
incorporation of statistical evidence does not necessarily make the contents
of an article any more true or intelligible, even though it may make the article seem more impressive. At one university in the eastern part of the United
States, the faculty insisted that a dissertation dealing with semantic correspondences between two languages had to be treated statistically or it could
not meet the university's standards for scholarly endeavor. There was absolutely no way in which statistical evidence could validate judgments about
semantic correspondences, fuzzy boundaries, and overlapping sets, especially
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as there were no possible means for employing measurable parameters. Finally, however, the student found a way to test naive reader reactions to sets
of corresponding meanings in a manner that seemed sufficiently "scientific"
but that in reality was only deceptive window dressing. The results did look
impressive, even though they did not make sense.
The sociolinguistic implications of typical academic writing are enormous.
In the first place, increasing specialization of learning results in more diverse
academic dialects. Scholarly societies are rapidly breaking up into subdisciplines, and at meetings of learned societies there are relatively few joint sessions but a rapidly growing number of special-interest groups. Journals are
multiplying at an enormous rate throughout the scholarly world. And as one
can readily see from journal articles, there is a rapidly growing academic jargon in each of the subdisciplines. Specialized activities and ideas inevitably
give rise to a proliferation of in-group dialects, as symbols of belonging and
as means of internal communication.
The educated public is generally ready to accept the fact that scientists
must use technical terms in talking about chemistry, physics, biology, and
astronomy, but they often react quite negatively to seemingly unnecessary
technical vocabulary when talking about language. They cannot understand
why the language used to talk about language is so complex and difficult to
comprehend. In fact, two highly placed officials in foundations funding research in areas of human behavior have insisted that there is no point in making grants to scholars who apparently cannot talk about language except by
means of words that are almost unintelligible to most well-informed speakers of that language. Some linguists have, of course, been able to write clearly
and effectively about complex language phenomena, for example, Leonard
Bloomfield, Edward Sapir, George A. Miller, Dwight Bolinger, Roman
Jakobson, Paul Friedrich, Dell Hymes, William Labov, and many others.
The same is also true in the area of anthropology, in which many writers can
deal with highly complex patterns of behavior in exquisitely clear ways.
Specialization, however, almost inevitably leads to a degree of elitism,
which in turn is often lacking in a sense of social responsibility. Some specialists regard their work as a matter of pure theory with little or no relation
to social usefulness, the typical rationale for the ivory tower complex. Some
technology companies have to hire special staff to write up scientific findings in such a way that nonspecialists can understand, and some companies
have even required scientists to take courses in how to write intelligibly. But
difficult academic writing is not restricted to English. It is a worldwide phenomenon and seems to get increasingly worse.
Part of the difficulty may be due to the lack of interdisciplinary contacts,
in which meaningful conversation requires setting aside the semantically condensed terminology for the sake of talking with rather than past others. Is
it also possible that a focus on mastering a technology has forced people to
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regard education as acquiring information and skills rather than critical judgment? Do we seek knowledge or wisdom? Are we willing to be beneficiaries
of a society without being willing to reciprocate in making our findings as
widely acceptable as possible?
The publication of scholarly research represents a vicious circle. The researchers inevitably develop a professional dialect, and when they write, they
normally have in mind the in-group who use the same dialect and who will
be the ultimate judges of the validity of the findings. Journals tend to be increasingly specialized in language and content, and some editors feel that
highly technical language enhances the reputation of their publications. Some
of those who purchase such journals may also enjoy the elitism of in-group
identification by being able to understand the specialized vocabulary. Accordingly, there seems to be no way of breaking into this circle apart from
a radical shift in social sensitivity on the part of publishers, editors, and
scholars, but the motivation for such a change seems increasingly remote.
Perhaps scholars should learn to write on at least two different levels: technical and semipopular. And if they do begin to do so, they will soon discover
that the process of intralanguage translating (because that is essentially what
would be involved) will significantly enhance their basic insights and clarify
what they wish to communicate. There is no better way to brush away the
cobwebs of fuzzy thinking than to restate a complex proposition in simpler
language.
REFERENCES
Garrett, A. (I990). The origin of NP split ergativity. Language 66:261-96.
Shore, B. (I99I). Twice-born, once conceived: Meaning construction and cultural cognition.
American Anthropologist 93:9-27.
Van Valin, R.D., Jr. (iggo). Semantic parameters of split intransitivity. Language 66:22i-6o.

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