“Why Academics Stink at Writing,” an essay by Harvard professor Steven Pinker in the Chronicle of Higher Education (September 26, 2014).
I found this essay both extremely helpful and extremely annoying. Pinker’s examples are terrific. His explanations for why academics write so badly are really fun to read, kind of like Freud’s ideas. My understanding of language and science are different from his, but I knew that before I started reading and so that was fine. What annoyed me is how knowing he comes off—and how unaware he seems to be of the authoritarianism in his own writing. I think this is a major reason academics stink at writing, but he ignored it.
Here’s a piece of Pinker’s essay I especially like:
“English grammar is an enabler of the bad habit of writing in unnecessary abstractions because it includes a dangerous tool for creating abstract terms. A process called nominalization takes a perfectly spry verb and embalms it into a lifeless noun by adding a suffix like –ance, –ment, or –ation. Instead of affirming an idea, you effect its affirmation; rather than postponing something, you implement a postponement. Helen Sword calls them “zombie nouns” because they lumber across the scene without a conscious agent directing their motion. They can turn prose into a night of the living dead.”