Mind your language

Why do so many academics write so badly?

13 January 2018

9:00 AM

13 January 2018

9:00 AM

Why do so many academics write so badly? Those who make the study of language their life’s work are as bad as any. I saw two books about English in the 18th century reviewed in the TLS and thought I might buy them, until I read quotations from them that the reviewer had chosen, not by way of mockery, but to explain their arguments.

In Multilingual Subjects, Daniel DeWispelare argues that ‘anglophone translation theorists gravitated towards one specific set of metaphors in order to advocate for protocols of linguistic inclusion and exclusion that would improve anglophone literary aesthetics within the space of global linguistic multiplicity’. I would guess that he means by this something like: ‘In discussing how to choose the right words to make English translation more beautiful in a world of many tongues, critics tended to use one set of metaphors.’


He doesn’t mean ‘in order to advocate for’ but ‘in advocating’. I happen to hate the neologism advocate for. That may be just me, but it is a choice of words (or, if you prefer an outcome of protocols of linguistic inclusion and exclusion) that bodes ill, like mouse droppings in a hotel bedroom. Even the patient reviewer finds him ‘occasionally falling prey to too much jargon’.

It is possible by ‘within the space of global linguistic multiplicity’ he is referring to different forms of English spoken round the world. Who can say? But I am not prepared to translate his whole book into English first so that I can read it.

Janet Sorensen in Strange Vernaculars, says representations of provincial speech ‘with their humorous innovations on genres of antiquarian writing, their mixed lexicons, and linguistic innovations, remind us … that Britain’s provinces were not enclaves untouched by the period’s transformations; they were not, as anachronizing narratives would have it, the products of the “waiting-room of history”.’ Perish the thought. But what’s with the scattering of innovations? And how can you innovate on genres?

For all I know, these are brilliant and painstaking scholars, but the university presses of Pennsylvania and Princeton, which published the two books, would find their reputation shine more brightly if they improved their own ‘anglophone literary aesthetics within the space of global linguistic multiplicity’.

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