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Saturday, September 27, 2014

Pinker on academic style


Pinker cites one of my favorite books on writing, Clear and Simple as the Truth.


Vance Maverick said...

I want to not be irritated by Pinker, because on a lot of language matters I think he's on the right side. But he can still be glib and unfair.

The methods section of an experimental paper explains, "Participants read assertions whose veracity was either affirmed or denied by the subsequent presentation of an assessment word." After some detective work, I determined that it meant, "Participants read sentences, each followed by the word true or false." The original academese was not as concise, accurate, or scientific as the plain English translation. So why did my colleague feel compelled to pile up the polysyllables?

This is a version of a joke we can find in Orwell on plain language, but let's pause a moment to note that the simplification leaves out significant information from the original (for example, that the sentences were assertions). Now perhaps it would be better to break up the meaning of the original into several sentences, but that's a different criticism from "piling on the polysyllables".

Jonathan said...

I get irritated with him on other issues, but I think he is right about this particular sentence. Assertions is more accurate than sentences, but is this omission significant? A question, or some other kind of non-assertive sentence, cannot be true or false. At least the rephrasing tells me what happened without further investigation.