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Sunday, November 23, 2014

"This is a book which complains about bad writing in the Social Sciences."

That, not unexpectedly, is the first sentence in a book about bad writing in the social sciences. (H/t to Leslie.) It is itself an example of execrable writing, although the author was probably proud of it, since he avoids the passive voice and is clear in his ideas.

What is hideous about it is its utter tone-deafness. It sounds robotic and unidiomatic, and the third person verb weirdly places the authorial voice off to one side. It is his book after all! The author is probably the victim of Orwellian advice about avoiding extra words and forms of the verb to be.

The rest of the first paragraph is just as bad. He switches from "the author" to "I" to "somebody," to "anybody," back to "the author" with no rhyme nor reason:
The author is not someone who is offering criticisms as an outsider looking in upon a strange world. I am an insider, a social scientist, and I am publically criticising my fellows for their ways of writing. Anyone, who does this, can expect to have their motives questioned. Readers may wonder whether the author is embittered, having seen younger colleagues overtake him in the race for academic honours...
The "anyone" with singular "their" is ok, I guess. Pullum and Liberman have convinced me so. Still, it seems infelicitous in this context, with all the other shifting going on.

What is lacking in such writing, very simply, is the "ear." If he had read the paragraph aloud to himself the "author" would have been struck by the awkwardness of "ways of writing"; he would have eliminated the commas around the phrase "who does this." He might have been struck by the stark contrast between a too-pithy opening and a wordy, redundant restatement of it a sentence later: "I am publically criticizing my fellows for their ways of writing." Fellows sounds off to me, but that might be a Britishism.

The concern with false motives is distracting. First, the hypothetical reader thinks that it is written from the perspective of an outsider. Once that concern is dispelled, the reader will think that it is an embittered insider. I guess this is another British strategy of self-effacing humor that I don't appreciate. Why not go directly to the point?

***

The ear, then, is the writer's inner guide to rhythm, tone, perspective. It might be the grammatical ear of the native speaker, the prosodic ear of the poet or master prose stylist.

My revision?
Writing in the Social Sciences is notoriously bad. The aim of this book is to diagnose this malady and suggest some possible remedies. My perspective is that of a veteran insider in the field...

3 comments:

Vance Maverick said...

Ugh. I would have complained about "publically" too, but apparently it's a long-attested variant.

In this version, the first sentence is even more stilted: "This is a book which complains about poor writing in the social sciences." Almost enough to suggest a wink at the reader -- but it's not sustained, any more than the provocation of the title, "Learn to Write Badly".

Jonathan said...

I think I just quoted it wrong. I went back and looked. I guess I read it and tried to reproduce it from memory in the morning.

profacero said...

Muy bien!

Developing the ear: you have to read good writing. People do not do this any more.