Academic English

David Foster Wallace: (emphasis mine)

In other words, it is when a scholar’s vanity/insecurity leads him to write primarily to communicate and reinforce his own status as an Intellectual that his English is deformed by pleonasm and pretentious diction (whose function is to signal the writer’s erudition) and by opaque abstraction (whose function is to keep anybody from pinning the writer down to a definite assertion that can maybe be refuted or shown to be silly). The latter characteristic, a level of obscurity that often makes it just about impossible to figure out what an [Academic English] sentence is really saying, so closely resembles political and corporate doublespeak (“revenue enhancement,” “downsizing,” pre-owned,” “proactive resource-allocation restructuring”) that it’s tempting to think AE’s real purpose is concealment and its real motivation fear.

From “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage” published in Harper’s Magazine, 2001. And that’s not the only good bit. A monstrously tremendous essay.


George Orwell on bad English

An article I was reading in the New Yorker on past Presidents’ Inaugural speeches referenced an essay by George Orwell called “Politics and the English Language”, in which he discusses one variety of bad writing.

You know when criticism is good when you recognise yourself in the examples being criticised. Call it a knack for knowing your own failings. But the article itself is rather long; I’d like to share some of the better quotes.

From the end of the essay, the origin of some oft-heard advice:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Some argue that these rules lead to overly simplified writing, but I’d say first that only people that understand the rules are allowed to break them. A description of one who does not understand these rules:

The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.

I’m certainly not one to talk. It’s far too easy to bang out a few (too many) words and be happy that someone, somewhere might be reading them. Or use those words as a crutch to remember some vaguely related point.

His translation of Ecclesiastes to “modern English” is brilliant. From:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth.


Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

I sure can see some of my own writing echoed in that example. It’s a great example, because the translation does sound lucid and intelligent.

And finally:

[M]odern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing, is that it is easy.

George, you are damn right.


Harvey (1950)

Just watched Harvey. What a wonderful movie. Puts me in mind of The Man in the White Suit, not for story or anything like that but for the feeling and the extraordinary acting and the uplifting philosophy shining from the whole thing.

They just don’t make movies like that these days, or not ones that I see anyway.

Elwood P. Dowd:

Harvey and I sit in the bars… have a drink or two… play the juke box. And soon the faces of all the other people they turn toward mine and they smile. And they’re saying, “We don’t know your name, mister, but you’re a very nice fella.” Harvey and I warm ourselves in all these golden moments. We’ve entered as strangers — soon we have friends. And they come over… and they sit with us… and they drink with us… and they talk to us. They tell about the big terrible things they’ve done and the big wonderful things they’ll do. Their hopes, and their regrets, and their loves, and their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. And then I introduce them to Harvey… and he’s bigger and grander than anything they offer me. And when they leave, they leave impressed. The same people seldom come back; but that’s envy, my dear. There’s a little bit of envy in the best of us.

(Quote thanks to IMDB.)