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How To Avoid Sounding Like an Idiot

Avoiding the Pet Peeves of People Who Read Your Stuff (III)

Signs of Suspect Sources

Scholarly journals, whether published on paper or electronically, are created with the intent of making accurate knowledge publicly available. Writers are expected to present facts that can be demonstrated and to defend their arguments. The audience is made up of other specialists on the same thing, who are not likely to be very tolerant of inaccuracy or misleading arguments. Inaccuracies creep into scholarly journals because of mistakes, fashionable idiocies in scholarly thinking, or totalitarian governments that force scholars to toe a party line on some subjects. But in principle inaccuracies are avoided.

Other sources, however, may have other goals. Popular magazines aim to entertain, and may sacrifice accuracy for a breezy style. Propaganda magazines aim to persuade the reader to love the agency issuing the magazine. Blogposts play loose with the facts because it is a nuisance to check stuff before sounding off about it. Textbooks leave out irregularities to be sure students master at least the big picture. And so on.

Here are four of my pet peeves:

  1. The word "feudal" is used by Chinese Communist writers merely as a derogatory label for pre-Communist society. It has nothing to do with feudalism as a social system built on rights in feud and is essentially meaningless.

    Similarly, it is a point of Communist doctrine that late prehistoric society was both matriarchal and matrilineal. There is, to my knowledge, no convincing evidence whatever that Chinese society was ever matrilineal, or that any society was ever actually matriarchal.

  2. References to everybody thinking the same thing usually reflect what an author wants them to think, not what they really think, and such references can accidentally suggest a good deal of pretentiousness on the part of the writer. Beware of expressions like the following examples. The last one here (from a prominent British news magazine) verges on truly offensive in its tone of snooty superiority.
  3. Laws are not customs. Reform of laws does not constitute effective reform of popular practice. The fact that it is illegal to kill people in the United States does not mean that there are no murders, and no termpaper has ever maintained that it does. But termpapers routinely do assume that reformed laws of inheritance in Nigeria, say, show that inheritance instantly changed to conform to whatever the new law was. The relationship between law and practice is complex and cannot be assumed.

  4. Propaganda magazines are not scholarly journals. Some propaganda magazines can be informative. But they must be approached thoughtfully. When the Pyongyang Bugle writes that a certain law was passed on a certain date, there is every reason to believe that it was. But when the Pyongyang Bugle writes that the North Korean masses have rejected the obsolete practice of joy at weddings in order to save their joy for reading the works of their Beloved Leader, you should be suspicious. Above all, simply quoting such a statement from such a source in your termpaper does not establish it as a fact. Instead it tags you as an uncritical thinker.

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Signs of Fashionable Thoughtlessness

The term "jargon" has come to designate, among other things, the bureau-babble of the thoughtlessly fashionable managerial consultant. We live in a world of

Some of these expressions are destined to become lexicalized, that is to turn into garden-variety English, spoken by ordinary mortals and not confined to the bureau-geeks. That may be happening with the formerly goody-goody euphemisms "senior citizen" and "significant other." (In China it happened with the saccharine expression "little friends" to refer to elementary school pupils, so clearly anything is possible.) And some bureaucratese expressions, although never becoming general parlance, can become specialized terms for very specific institutions or practices (such as "social security," "affirmative action," or "enhanced interrogation").

In most contexts, however, newly fashionable expressions in general, and bureaucratic ones in particular, are used by people who want to say something high-sounding but don't have anything original to say. In that context, such terms seem intended mostly to symbolize the position of the speaker or writer among "the insiders." If you have a tendency to fall into the seductive cadences of newly fashionable turns of phrase, consider what (and whether) you are really communicating anything beyond your group loyalty!

Never refer to your own research as "in depth"; if you are not a world authority, "depth" is a transparently pretentious claim.

For depressing satires on thoughtless gibberish from various fields, click here.

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Writing Definitions

It is a bad idea to use words you cannot define, since it means you don't know what you are talking about. This deficiency can become painfully obvious if a reader is inspired to challenge a word that is central to your argument or description. ("You say his motivation was religious. What does that actually mean? What is a 'religious motivation' anyway?")

Indeed, being able to define words is so central to human knowledge that many professors think a good exam question is to ask a student to define a concept, sometimes with an example. (They are right. Such questions are good. They are easy to write and quick to grade, and it is easy to argue that they successfully separate the sheep-students from the goat-students. Unfortunately, some very competent and insightful students do badly because they are unpracticed in developing adequate definitions.)

A definition, be it in an essay, on an exam, or in a dictionary, sets a word or phrase to be defined equal to a word or phrase constituting its definition. In principle, the definition can grammatically replace the thing being defined:

There are two common ways in which exam-paper definitions go tragically wrong. Here are two real-life examples (complete with spelling errors):

  1. Free Association Instead of Definition:
    to run = they had to run cause their were no wheeled vehicles
    [But what did they actually do? Haul timber?!]
  2. Phrase Starting With "When":
    Virilocality is when the bride becomes a member of her husband's household.
    [But what is it? A time?! A rule? A condition? A ritual? A process?]

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Awkward Embedding

In English many structures enclose others:

He wrapped the gift up in green paper.

However a large number of structures embedded inside each other rapidly become ugly, silly, or hard to understand. The solution, not always easy, is to move at least some of the embedded material outside of the "containers":

The problem of awkwardly complicated sentences clearly goes beyond embedding as such. In general, if one part of a sentence is especially complex, it is more reader-friendly to avoid sticking it in the middle:

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More cautionary notes about ways people subvert their credibility through their prose go here as soon as I read some more exams, termpapers, theses, dissertations, committee reports, bureaucratic memos, editorials, quotations from politicians, or first drafts by my colleagues or (blush!) myself.

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