When nouns are ‘doing words’

by Gautam Raja

Whether bathroom policies at universities, racial attacks on buses, or police shootings, we live in a time where contexts of delicate issues are discussed and exposed in a way that was either impossible or overly long-drawn without the internet.

Within hours of triggering events we are able to read in depth on issues of gender, race, or culture. While most commentary is nuanced, enlightening and well-written, it’s common to have some of these ideas lost in a labyrinth of verbiage known as “academese”.

I’ve always been intimidated by academese. Its confidence trick requires readers who are either insecure enough or humble enough to assume that if they don’t understand something (or have to read a paragraph four times) it’s their fault. I’m usually insecure enough, having taken on the burden of wanting to be intelligent in all contexts that don’t include numbers.

Even when I write, if my confidence falters, I find I reach more often for academese and its keystone, the nominalisation. Turning verbs into nouns is a great way to play confidence tricks. Instead of, “the actor climbed the ladder”, the actor could “utilise a ladder for the exploration of verticality”.

A recent discussion on a copyeditors’ list confirmed what my gut has long known—that academese is simply bad, pompous writing. To watch these editors fearlessly tear down pedestals was an editing and writing lesson: don’t be cowed. One list member shared a note on the word ‘privilege’ by the American novelist David Foster Wallace, written for The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, 2012. It begins, “Even though some dictionaries OK it, the verb to privilege is currently used only in a particular English subdialect that might be called academese.”

Wallace provides a “ghastly” example sentence about the privileging of “univocal discourse”. “Contemporary academese,” his note continues, “originated in literary and social theory but has now metastasized throughout much of the humanities.”

Note the use of a verb associated with the spread of cancer. Wallace mentions two other words used the same way, situate and interrogate. So, for example, “to situate cultural bias”, or “to interrogate gendered attitudes”. He goes on to say these and any such phrases should exist only in “a university course taught by a professor so thoroughly cloistered, insecure, or stupid as to believe that academese constitutes intelligent writing. A required course, one that you can’t switch out of. In any other situation, run very fast the other way.”

Not mentioned as a fault of these professors is laziness. This bloated, intestinal writing might sound like hard work, but it’s far harder to take complex ideas and make them accessible and readable. Nominalisations and long noun phrases click together easily to build swathes of imposing text that utilise the auto-sanctioned ambiguity of abstraction’s faux-representationality for the conferring of dubious yet unquestioned agency. See?

In the years since the Thesaurus was published, the privileging (and more) of abstract nouns has metastasised into daily discourse—the social media posts and “10 ways to” articles. The internet has broadcast voices previously too oppressed and alone to be reliably heard, and yet, many of these stories are told by, or through, or because of, an academic. The style is instantly recognisable and isolates the people who most need to hear these tales; these different ways of looking at the world. Whether it’s because they are marginalised, persecuted or misunderstood, some people need great courage merely to tell their stories. It’s vital that their editor (internal or external) is as brave, and finds ways of presenting it that won’t send Wallace, and most of us, running very fast the other way.

First published in Gulf News, April 26, 2016