writing in my own words?

John Field recently wrote, in his The Learning Professor blog, an interesting post about academic writing. He was particularly referring to the tendency for editors and researchers to ‘clean up’ quotations from research participants. Indeed, sometimes participants themselves felt the need to do this editing work. He said:

The decision to include hesitations, slang, swearwords and dialect … crops up when you try to publish your results. I have yet to get a paper accepted that includes the words and sentences that the research participants actually used. Invariably, referees insist that direct quotations are turned into what we usually think of as standard English. Some referees get quite indignant about the use of dialect (‘How can I be expected to understand this stuff?’ was one comment), while others gently remind you of the journal’s international readership. So the quotations are duly turned into standard English.

This verbal ‘cleaning up’ is, Field suggested , a way of removing the particularities of ‘voice’. Evidence of location, class, gender, and race are removed in order to make the text ‘readable’. Writing so that everyone sounds the same, speaking in a grammatical and uninterrupted flow, untarnished by local vernacular, Field argued, was tantamount to denying the specificities of the people who were speaking and it acted as a form of symbolic violence.

Now this post prompted me to think beyond the specifics of quoting, and consider how academic writing more generally demands a kind of stylistic uniformity. I sometimes inadvertently stumble into this when I write in Australian English. No, I don’t mean I say “mate” or “stone the crows” or “Buckleys and none” … It’s when I use a word that is pretty common in Australia but apparently nowhere else. And yes, there are a few expressions that are in use in Australia and not in the UK.

One example of this is the verb ‘to sheet home’. It’s a handy term drawn from sailing, from the time when clippers on the wool and wheat run to and from the UK would set a big square of sail so that they could run with the wind, taking the most direct route home. (I’m particularly fond of this expression as there are generations of sailors on one side of my family.) In Australia, the notion of sheeting home is usually in the context of responsibility or blame – as in “responsibility for poor achievement on literacy tests is usually sheeted home to schools”.

Another example of an Australian word is the verb ‘to spruik’. This means to speak out in public in order to sell something, or persuade someone to come and look at something. So market stall owners who call out about the quality and prices of their goods are spruikers, they are spruiking. This is a handy verb to use in academic writing – I might say for example that Michael Gove is a spruiker for academies.

And of course there’s ‘larrikin’, a word originally meaning a hooligan, but now used affectionately to describe someone who doesn’t have much truck with social niceties, and who often acts without much regard for authority. Germaine Greer for example might be said to have a larrikin streak. And ‘wowser‘ is a useful word too, it means a teetotal killjoy who hates to see anyone else having any fun. I challenge you to put wowser in a sentence starting with your least favorite politician.

So the point is that these Oz words, and others like them, are just part of my vocabulary. If I have to remove them from a paper or book chapter in the name of readability, then something of me is also removed. Maybe that is no loss, but maybe it is.

It’s interesting that the rhetorical term for the insertion of ‘nonstandard’ or ‘foreign’ words into speech is barbarism. Barbarism is seen as an unnecessary interruption that disrupts the flow of speech, an insertion of ‘otherness’ which alienates the audience. It is associated in rhetoric with cacozelia, the habit of inserting ‘foreign’ words in order to appear learned or of using terms that are intended to disgust listeners. Both barbarism and cacozelia are seen as Bad Things. That they exist suggests that there is a long history of sanitizing speech, of ridding it of words which are seen as jarring and unacceptable simply because they do not fit the norm.

Interestingly, in academic writing the norms are not just conventions, shared implicit assumptions of reviewers, editors, and writers. They are actually built into some of the regulatory academic writing systems that we impose on ourselves.

One common and widespread practice of flattening out of lexicon and expressions occurs through referencing/citation systems. A good example is APA. APA is notoriously pedantic. APA won’t for example accept split infinitives, even though these are widely acceptable – just not in any journal that uses APA. As The Guardian Style Guide says “It is perfectly acceptable to sensibly split infinitives and stubbornly to resist doing so can sound awkward and make for ambiguity (p. 147). APA also rejects anything that looks like it could be slang – I’ve had to change ‘doled out’ (it’s Middle English) and ‘getting a grip on’ (comes from Old English) in a paper just to satisfy an APA obsessed copy editor. I won’t now write for some journals because they use APA. I find this pedantry a stylistic step too far, an editing of my academic writing that is unacceptable.

So… As John Field points out, and as my examples of Australianisms and APA suggest, there are aspects of academic writing that are potentially damaging to the everyday ways of making meaning that we use, and that are used by the people with whom we research. It seems there are plenty of opportunities in the academy for censoring, flattening and symbolic violence via processes of editing. That’s something that worries John Field, and it worries me too.

So…. Barbarism? No worries!

See ozwords if you’re interested in Oz-isms.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in APA, barbarism, language, voice, words and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to writing in my own words?

  1. ATL says:

    Just learned about your blog; is excellent!
    As an ESL student this insistence on “standardization” bothers me.
    Sometimes it seems that wherever one turns, this rubric of ‘international’ (even ‘transnational’) is used with an interest in reproducing sameness rather than to embrace difference.
    Little is symbolic about this violence. For a writer, scholar or not, this is what violence actually is.


  2. grad student says:

    As a ‘late entry’ scholar to the academy you have given me great hope in your comment about ‘larrikin’ and Germaine Greer! I have difficulty with social norms etc. I grow impatient with people who are not patient and I see a standard of academic writing– a universality of language that are referring to. Over the last three years of my doctoral study I have struggled to write ‘in my own words’ as suggested and then to have them edited out. I continue to struggle and my writing has improved but I do feel it is a ‘sanitized’ version in the end. So I shall remain the ‘larrikin’ that you describe and enjoy the hat.
    thanks for some brightness as I write my comps!


  3. maelorin says:

    My research crosses disciplinary boundaries, technology, law, and public policy, and each has quite distinct linguistic and cultural norms. The practicalities of presenting my work to *an* academic audience for the purpose of compiling a thesis that can be examined run ‘at odds’ with those of getting the same work published where the receptive audiences differ …

    This turns out to be less than a ‘balancing’ exercise than one of ‘picking my fights’ – deliberately picking the audience for particular pieces, then working out how to ‘wrap’ them for ‘non-expert’ (aka non-jargon) readers.

    A big part of my work has become repackaging evidence for ‘other’ audiences. This is taking up increasing space in my writing; introducing and (re)contextualising material before I can use it to further my argument. The linguistic and stylistic gear shifts make it harder to demonstrate that I can ‘speak in my own voice’ – though each of these *is* mine.

    I’m trying not to let *how* I have to write obscure *what* I am trying to say through that writing. Sometimes the very reason something is ‘new’ to a discipline is that it’s habitual language gets in the way of expressing certain ideas, or more often, makes it hard to examine why it is hard to examine certain ideas – and do so with any clarity.


  4. I think you mean ‘no wuckas’, Pat, to use an even more Aussie term! (For those not in the know, derived from ‘No worries’ turned to ‘No wucking furries’ turned to ‘No wuckas’.)

    Although on a more serious note, if international readers can’t understand the meaning of a more obscure or culture-specific word or expression we use, isn’t that compromising the point we are trying to make?


    • pat thomson says:

      People usually make sense of words in context so one or two unfamiliar expressions are generally able to be dealt with quite easily. Reading researchers and good teachers know this, copy editors don’t seem to.


      • pat thomson says:

        And interestingly I just noticed a new post on Oxford words blog which was about the way that Latin had entered the English lexicon as part of various occupaitiona. So it’s made me think about which words get adopted and which don’t, and how related to power that all is… Obvious but I hadn’t quite connected it to what is accepted expression and what isn’t.


      • Not to mention which whole languages are adopted in whole geographical regions (Latin again during the empire) or worldwide (English now) as the lingua franca (Latin again!).


  5. pat thomson says:

    Yes. Absolutely.
    I just hadn’t thought about the politics of individual words before, and kind of silly not to have really. But I can see a little further investigation m happening about it!


  6. Mavan says:

    There’s actually nothing in the APA Publication Manual about split infinitives (I just searched through an electronic copy of the 6th edition, the word “infinitive” does not appear). And neither is there anything about slang, other than the advice that double quotation marks should be used “to introduce a word or phrase used as an ironic comment, as slang, or as an invented or coined expression”. My guess is that you just had an over-vigorous copy editor, not one who was slavishly following APA style.


    • pat thomson says:

      There are lots of APA http://www.s about these things – see for example http://my.ilstu.edu/~mshesso/apa_grammar.htm. These may not be completely spelled out in the manual but they ARE the conventions of many US journals in the name of APA. The copy editing was done by the Editor of the journal – he had also written several academic articles about the abuses of APA and actually told us our performance against the mean in various categories including split infinitives and use of what he understood as “slang”!!!


      • mavan says:

        Blimey, what a rude editor! I think I’d have got on my high-horse and asked him to point to the relevant section of the APA Manual. If it’s not in there then it’s not APA style, it’s some mutant version concocted by the journal.

        I enjoy citing Orwell’s 6th rule, “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous”, at copy editors who propose absurd changes.


  7. pat thomson says:

    It’s a widely used reading of what APA means Im afraid, and that particular journal is one of the very top ranked in my field. And I was on my high horse the entire time I can assure you right up to going to press…


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