The Trouble with Academic Prose
Patricia Nelson Limerick
Professor of History, University of Colorado
In ordinary life, when a listener cannot understand what someone has said, this is the usual exchange:
Listener: I cannot understand what you are saying.
Speaker: Let me try to say it more clearly.
But in scholarly writing in the late 20th century, other rules apply. This is the implicit exchange:
Reader: I cannot understand what you are saying.
Academic Writer: Too bad. The problem is that you are an unsophisticated and untrained reader. If you were smarter, you would understand me.
The exchange remains implicit, because no one wants to say, “This doesn’t make any sense,” for fear that the response, “It would, if you were smarter,” might actually be true.
While we waste our time fighting over ideological conformity in the scholarly world, horrible writing remains a far more important problem. For all their differences, most right_wing scholars and most left_wing scholars share a common allegiance to a cult of obscurity. Left, right and center all hide behind the idea that unintelligible prose indicates a sophisticated mind. The politically correct and the politically incorrect come together in the violence they commit against the English language. Continue reading