Argued where? Linked how? Extended when? Why won’t you ANSWER these questions?

“It will be argued here that there are merits in considering the Reformation not merely as a movement that extended forwards into the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but also as one umbilically linked with impulses rooted in the preceding period.”

The Reformation of the Landscape – Alexandra Walsham

I’m looking forward to reading this book, but this sort of academic writing makes me scream. I think some of he stuff that annoys me – the This Study Will stuff for instance – probably has good motivations to do with setting out your stall clearly. It doesn’t feel a particularly natural way to do it though and makes me cringe away from the page.

The adverbial stuff feels more pernicious though, trying to sneak in assumptions behind the verbs doing the logical work of the argument. At the very least they feel redundant. (A model is “firmly embraced” in the previous paragraph. A theoretical model that is, not a clothes one).

Not particularly pernicious tautologies like ‘extended forwards into the late 17th and 18th Centuries’ do something to undermine your trust in the writer, or at least create an unwelcome noise and a feeling that you are listening to the inherited cadences of academia rather than fresh thought. That may well not be true, and the substance of this particular book looks very interesting, but mental alertness is needed in order not to be lulled by the tones of its institutionalised writing styles.

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5 Responses to Argued where? Linked how? Extended when? Why won’t you ANSWER these questions?

    • fitzroycyclonic says:

      That’s marvellous, Stevie. Particularly enjoyed:

      ‘On occasions he combines several of these tropes in dazzling permutations like the negative- implied- forward and the double- backward — “So far I have said nothing in this conclusion about Barthes’s ‘Camera Lucida,’ which in Chapter 4 I interpreted as a consistently antitheatrical text even as I also suggested … ” — before reverting, a paragraph later, to the tense endeavor of the present (i.e., telling us what he’s still got to do): “One further aspect of Barthes’s text remains to be dealt with.”’

      It’s uncannily like essays I used to write under pressure – busy blustering rather than getting on with the matter.

      To be fair this book is nowhere near as bad as that. Although once you’ve started noticing it, even entirely innocuous examples can distract you. I’m just starting sentence now – “There is, then, a danger of underestimating the extent to which…” – and found myself asking whether there really was a danger, what sort of danger it was, how far you needed to underestimate the extent before it became danger. In fact I’m sure she could have just done something with the latter half of the sentence – “…the extent to which Christianity had succeeded in obliterating the remnants of pagan worship of nature by the advent of the thirteenth century.”

      I think a lot of it comes from a lack of realisation that consecutive sentences represent a chain of thought. You don’t usually need to express the dependence that you’ve established through thinking on the page – that’s writing.

      That ‘firmly embraced’ carried on bothering me as well. Just writing ’embraced’ won’t cause your reader to worry that the embrace is reluctant or impartial. Conversely the adverb does I think cause a slight uneasiness about how the writer goes about embracing things.

  1. humanities academic idiom fascinating me more and more. How did this style evolve? A lot of it seems to be hedging, or retaliation-in-first, maybe a product of crowded fields.

    The dead metaphors that drift through academic prose are part of the problem – umbilical cord feeding in to something rooted, kind of a creepy image.

    • fitzroycyclonic says:

      Yeah, that umbilical cord connected to a root thing gave me the heebie-jeebies as well, so much so that I later had a touch of the vapours at the perfectly ok phrase ‘underground vein’.

  2. […] I wrote that brief post expressing some minor irritations with the academic style generally and Alexandra […]

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