the dictionary is (sometimes) your friend – starting the PhD

If you are doing a PhD it’s a good idea to buy, or find online, a good reliable dictionary. 

Not only doctoral researchers a good dictionary. Most of us use a dictionary rather more than we let on. Just yesterday I reached for my dictionary – it’s rather a hefty tome – to check the spelling of a word. And as I opened it up, I realised that I no longer have to continually look words up when I’m reading. I do still regularly use it as a synonym finder, largely to disrupt writing patterns where I just use the same word over and over. But I used a dictionary a lot – and I mean a lot – when I started my own PhD. 

I wrote a blog post about dictionaries in 2014. The post was about the importance of building a vocabulary through the doctorate and beyond. I wrote about my own early experiences of reading texts where people used words that I had never heard of. I kept a list of these new words – and for some time I learnt one a day. You’ll be relieved to know that I stopped doing that a long time ago and I wouldn’t advise anyone else to do it. 

In that old blog post I was concerned with the importance of word choice. This is some of what I wrote – 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.

 I went on to connect the word choices we make with the exercise of academic power. The ways in which we write simultaneously create acceptance within academia, while also potentially alienating other “outside” readers. This post was not a simplistic plea to avoid using “jargon” and to “write clearly”, but rather a pointer to the importance of thinking about who we are writing for. Academic readers who are in the same field as we are expect to see discipline specific concepts and words. Non-specialist readers need explanations for key terms. Writing clearly actually means we have to make different writing choices for different readers. Word use is related to our audience. 

But the words that I often had to look up early in my doctorate generally weren’t disciplinary in nature. They were often verbs or nouns that just aren’t in everyday use. I was a reader whose reading experiences hadn’t included those words. And the dictionary wasn’t always completely helpful. It often took a combination of seeing what the dictionary said as well as looking at the specific use of the word in a sentence – I had to interpret what the author was trying to say. Using the context of the writing and the clue provided by the dictionary, I could usually work out the specific and intended meaning if I had both clues. (But oh my, did this slow me down.)

I’ve not kept a lot of those words in my own writing lexicon. While I could still trot out a fairly dense bit of academic prose if the situation ever arose (REF perhaps), my goal is not to deliberately write obscurely. I am definitely of the if there is a choice of appropriate words here then I’Ill choose the one that is most familiar position. However, I can still read a densely written text where there are less familiar words used.  But I do find myself asking why, when there is a choice of terms, writers want to choose the more obscure. 

One answer to that wondering lies in another blog post. It dates from 2017. And it’s about Howard Becker (in his book Writing for Social Scientists) and why newer academic writers try to sound “classy”. In that post – and here again – is his comment. 

Relatively new academics, Becker says know plain English but don’t want to use it to express their hard-earned knowledge. Remember the student who said, “Gee, Howie, if you say it that way it sounds like something anyone could say.” If you want to convince yourself that the time and effort spent getting your degree are worth it, that you are changing in some way that will change your life, then you want to look different from everyone else, not the same. That accounts for a truly crazy cycle in which students repeat the worst stylistic excesses the journals contain, learn that those very excesses are what makes their work different from what every damn fool knows and says, write more articles like those they learned from, submit them to journals whose editors publish them because nothing better is available (and because academic journals cannot afford expensive copy editing) and thus provide the raw material for another generation to learn bad habits from. (p. 41)

Becker’s advice is to avoid the excesses of academic language. Use the terms you must in order to meet the expectations of your audience, but be choosy about whose writing you emulate. 

I couldn’t agree more. There is a terrible temptation to try to “academic up” your writing when you first start. That’s very understandable. its about becoming identity work. Becoming doctor.

However, getting unhelpful feedback which says you don’t sound academic doesn’t help anyone at the start of their doctorate. This kind of feedback doesn’t usually mean that you need to choose more arcane language. It usually means be less opiniated/less polemical, and be measured about the case you are making. More evidence, more careful analysis. If you ever get told that you don’t write academically, do ask what that means and ask for examples of what academic writing looks like and ask for a conversation where you can compare what you do with the example. Don’t reach for the dictionary!

But because not everybody you will read has got Becker’s message about not having to “sound academic”, you may still need a dictionary to decipher some of the writing you encounter. A dictionary can help in these circumstances, although you may still have do a bit of detective work to make complete sense of what you are reading. Bur do remember that while the dictionary can be your companion during the doctorate and beyond, it is not a guide to building your own lexicon. Your specific academic writing vocabulary comes from your discipline – and from considering your readers. 

Photo by Rob Hobson on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing voice, dictionary, Howard Becker, starting the PhD and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to the dictionary is (sometimes) your friend – starting the PhD

  1. Jane s says:

    Dear Pat: Much of what you have said here rings a loud bell – and not wholly in regard to academia. While I sha’n’t enumerate the horrors that surface, even at the BBC, English is too often abused. (Do not even mention a reasonable command of grammar, punctuation, or the use of the Oxford comma. …)

    You said recently that ‘language is your closest ally,’ but there appears to be a prescribed straitjacket for ‘academic’ academic writing. However, the top guys in my own field are those who speak and write very clearly indeed – the two being different uses of English. While I, too, used to collect and compile lists, many an archaic / uncommon / obsolete word was amended before the thesis went in. Although some made for alliteration, or featured a pleasing onomatopoeia, it seems there is no place for such devices in “serious” writing?

    PS: As to dictionaries and thesauri, I don’t recommend computer-age online versions. However, my compact ‘Oxford Dictionary for Writers & Editors’ is well-thumbed.


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