The language of academia can be a daunting thing. Every field has its terminology, its jargon, its buzzwords and catchphrases. These stand like the sentinel at the gate to enter the club of a particular discipline. If you don't know the password, stay out.
I'm sure I'm not the only one who tends to find this frustrating. In this 1999 article from the Wall Street Journal, Dennis Dutton discusses the "language crimes" of academia. Fed up, he helped start the Bad Writing Contest. The task was to pull out a sentence from an actual piece of academic literature and submit it to the judges. I love this excerpt from Dutton's article, which gives the 1998 winner of the contest and his commentary on it:
“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”
To ask what this means is to miss the point. This sentence beats readers into submission and instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind. Actual communication has nothing to do with it.
Amen to Dutton's assessment. Now, I'm sure there are people who genuinely understand that sentence, and even I can sort of make out what it's saying, but egads, does it make you want to keep reading in any way? I'd say writing clear prose on a difficult topic is the more difficult task, and perhaps even a sign of greater intelligence. I saw my share of this stuff in college, and professors whose lectures sound like this snippet don't do much to inspire the enthusiasm of students. Luckily I didn't meet many.
It's not just academia though. I've heard of another bad writing contest, the long-running Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (also see the official website), named after the man who originally penned that oh-so-classic phrase, "It was a dark and stormy night." The best purple prose wins the prize, but in this case they judge original submissions. That is, entrants try to come up with the worst opening sentence to a novel possible. Here's the 2007 winner:
Gerald began--but was interrupted by a piercing whistle which cost him ten percent of his hearing permanently, as it did everyone else in a ten-mile radius of the eruption, not that it mattered much because for them "permanently" meant the next ten minutes or so until buried by searing lava or suffocated by choking ash--to pee.Finally, I must say this all reminds me of a (humorous) book I read in middle school which included convoluted versions of everyday sentences. I still remember one of them clearly: "My gastronomical satiety admonishes me that I have arrived at a state of deglutition consistent with dietetic integrity." (That is, "I'm full.") Touché!
Jim Gleeson, Madison, WI