When I began my PhD, my partner bought me a dictionary. A very big dictionary. I wasn’t quite sure that I needed it, since I was after all an English major and I read prolifically. However I did use it. I used it a lot. What’s more, I very quickly added to the dictionary two other reference books – Rodale’s The Synonym Finder, also a very big book, and the somewhat more slender The Guardian Stylebook (now available online). These three still sit next to my computer and I still use them.
I needed the dictionary. I soon discovered, when I started reading, that there were words used by academic writers that I just didn’t know. What was abulia? (the pathological refusal to make decisions, very handy when describing some managers…) What was to imbricate? (to overlap like tiles, quite helpful when thinking about policies…) How about an opuscule? (probably more obviously this is a very small work, but I needed to check just to make sure. I’m often tempted to use that when reviewing…).
At the start, the list of new words seemed endless. Almost everyday I came across a term I hadn’t seen before. While I could mostly work out the meaning from the context (prediction is an important aspect of learning to read at any level), very often I wasn’t exactly right. I hadn’t quite got the meaning. At one point I started making a note of new words, and vowed to learn one a day so that I wouldn’t be constantly shuffling through the dictionary to find the meaning of a word I’d looked for before. I didn’t succeed in this, but I do now know more words than I did before I started the doctorate.
I go to The Guardian Style Guide when I’m not entirely sure about usage. The authors are unequivocal in their advice and are reassuring in cases where I could waste time dithering. In best Guardian style they admonish pedants; for example, “School children used to be told (by English teachers unduly influenced by Latin) that it was ungrammatical to end sentences with a preposition, a fallacy satirised by Churchill’s ‘This is the sort of English up with which I will not put’ and HW Fowler’s ‘What did you bring me that book to be read to out of for?’ “ (p 127). The style guide is quite helpful to quote at those editors who seem to think that the split infinitive is a sin on a par with drunk driving – “It is perfectly acceptable to sensibly split infinitives, and stubbornly to resist doing so can sound awkward and make for ambiguity; ‘the workers are declared strongly to favour a strike’ raises the question of whether the declaration, or the favouring, is strong“ (p. 147). And the guide comes down on my side on several of my pet hates, ruling for instance that ‘bored’ should be followed by ‘with’ or ‘by’, but not ‘of’ (p. 33) (*small cheer, punches air*).
The Rodale I use all the time. I found I couldn’t do without it when I started churning out the texts. The Rodale really is a writer’s friend. I suspect that, like me, most academic writers get into lexical ruts and use the same words over and over again. We find ourselves writing about a particular thing and end up searching desperately for a new word to use for – ‘said’, or ‘practice’, or ‘investigate’, or ‘literature’, or ‘content’ or… well, the list goes on. Word repetition can be a stylistic choice in any writing, including the academic, but quite often it’s inadvertent. It’s something we see when revising, or we realise with a start when we are dumping that first draft onto the page that we are sounding terribly same-y. The Rodale is a great help in reminders about alternatives.
But finding the right words is important for more reasons than just avoiding repetition. Using cliches and very overused terms can actually prevent academic writers from conveying the richness and diversity of place, people and experience. Tired terminology can put readers off, as they don’t know exactly what we mean – we could be anybody, writing about anything.
What’s more, being more conscious about word choice helps academic writers, just like any other writers, develop their own style, and their distinctive ‘voice’. Word choice is not all that matters, but it is important.
Word choice is also key to how accessible, or otherwise, readers find our writing. Lots of abstract nouny-ness and excessive wordiness, as both Helen Sword and Michael Billig point out, can make for a tough read as well as sloppy scholarship. I’ve recently been re-reading Luke Lassiter’s book on collaborative ethnography, and he nicely sums this up:
As ethnographers we often describe our experience, cast our single-voiced texts, or use our narrative devices in ways intended to increase the authenticity of our ethnographic accounts and augment our authority as authors. We deploy particular words, construct our sentences in particular ways, and implement often esoteric difficult-to-understand (and thus difficult-to-critique) interpretations in order to keep ourselves at a certain authoritative distance from our readers, who today, more often than not, include our consultants. (p.120)
Here, Lassiter suggests that our word, and wider writing choices are highly political and can simultaneously create advantage for us within the academy, while also perpetuating the distance between researchers, researched and wider publics. Writing other-wise is important to me, if not to everyone.
So, words are critical in academic writing. Who’d have thought all those many years ago that writing style, voice and academic power – as well as accuracy, accessibility and readability – was implicit in the gift of a dictionary?