ˈjärɡən/

Noun: special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.

I began this post the same way I began many of the academic assignments I wrote in university: by navigating to google.com. The difference this time, however, was that I kind of knew what I was supposed to be writing about.

Academic writing—the eloquent, elevated, facts-filled prose that all your university assignments are written in—is often condemned as the bane of the creative writer’s existence. It is stuffy, unoriginal, and wordy. It is simultaneously limited and limiting, with its page quotas and word counts and strict formatting requirements.

The worst part about academic writing, though, is how much of it involves typing so very much while saying so very little.

Take, for example, the following quote by Karl Marx on his theory of alienated labour: “If the product of labour is externalization, production itself must be active externalization, the externalization of activity, the activity of externalization. The alienation of the object of labour is only the résumé of the alienation, the externalization in the activity of labour itself.”

Uh… What? Where do I even start?

What our buddy Marx is trying to say here is that capitalism separates the worker from his or her products. The more someone works, the closer they get to losing their identity. This is because the worker feels that their labour, which is connected to their entire sense of self, is owned by someone else—the people they work for. This is alienation, and it’s generally pretty bad.

It’s almost as bad as that passage above.

What makes that passage “bad” is not its ideas—for 200 years, academics have argued that Marx makes a valid point. What makes it bad are the lengthy words (averaging 15 letters), the repetition of things we don’t understand, and, most obviously, the glaring jargon that is “production” and “externalization” and “alienation.”

Why the fancy words, academia?

This guy[1] (warning, academic paper!) believes that academic writers use larger words to seem smarter. It’s almost as if a larger vocabulary means you have a larger brain. The purpose of academic writing is to relay information that proves you are intelligent and brilliant and able to make connections between dense theoretical works and new phenomena. Phenomena so new they may not even have words yet. By elevating your ideas so much that “ordinary” words just aren’t enough to capture them, you search for words, too, that are so elevated that ordinary readers just can’t comprehend them. This elevation of writing is so prevalent in academic circles that there’s even a word for the string of words used to refer to a given phenomenon in the context of that paper: operationalization.

In academic writing, operationalization is supposed to be a good thing. It tells readers exactly what you mean when you say XYZ. It shows your teachers you actually do know what you’re talking about because you can explain it in other words.

It also tells your readers that they are not smart enough to be reading your content.

While it can—and often does—make the author look “smarter,” academic writing also makes your writing less accessible. It alienates readers who may be interested in the topic of capitalism, but don’t need to impress their peers with Marxist jargon to describe what capitalism is. It alienates readers who aren’t specialists in the topic, even when these readers are also the author’s peers. It tells them “you aren’t my audience; you aren’t smart enough for me to be writing to you.” It even alienates readers by refusing to address them in the first or second person.

Academic writing is inaccessible writing. While it’s important to recognize the audience you’re writing for, and to write for that audience, it’s also important to make sure your work is actually read and understood and appreciated. In appreciating your extensive vocabulary, even the most academic audiences may fail to appreciate the core purpose of your writing—which may be to share ground-breaking research, revolutionary theories, or critical reports. If your writing is inaccessible, it’s ineffective—and what’s the point of producing writing that has no effect on its readers?

As it turns out, increasing the complexity of a text doesn’t actually cause an essay’s author to seem more intelligent.[2] The best writers are those whose words can reach the most ears (or eyes). That isn’t to say that great writers don’t have extensive vocabularies—they do. It just so happens that those who are seen as the most intelligent are also those who can convey the most information in the simplest, most accessible form.

I guess Polonius had it right when he said “brevity is the soul of wit.” Maybe this is why all of your professors were imposing page limits all along.

[1] Oppenheimer, D. M. (2006), Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: problems with using long words needlessly. Appl. Cognit. Psychol., 20: 139–156. Retrieved from http://www.ucd.ie/artspgs/semantics/ConsequencesErudite.pdf

[2] Ibid.

2 thoughts on “ˈjärɡən/

  • Hi, I came across this post while searching for writing inspiration and thought I should comment. First I want to say that you bring up a really interesting point about readability and the author/reader relationship. The ideas you’re working with here run deep and start to touch on some very big aspects of linguistics and language theory. While I found your post interesting, I can’t say that I agree with it.

    First, if your academic experience in university consisted of nothing but puffing out papers to fill your word count and nothing more, that is unfortunate. Don’t get me wrong: as a former university student (and English major to boot) I definitely used the multiple adjective technique to hit the word count when I ran out of things to say. We’ve all been there. But I think you need to make a distinction between a whole bunch of under prepared seventeen-year-olds trying to sound smart for their professors and real, lifelong academic professionals. Correct me if I’m wrong, but what you are suggesting here is that writers of academic material in all fields should pander to the lowest common denominator and omit all jargon so as to make their work accessible to people from all walks of life.

    I think there are some problems with this idea. First, we need to differentiate between “jargon” and “using big words”. They are not the same thing. Jargon is a set of specialized vocabulary particular to a specific occupation or subject matter. Are you suggesting that doctors, lawyers, engineers, sociologists, anthropologists, biologists, and the hundreds more academic professionals that work in specialized fields completely omit the vocabulary they need to describe their research? How would a lawyer argue a specific point of law without using the specialized vocabulary associated with it? He or she could not stand up in court and say, “Your Honour, basically this law means that the guilty guy over there wasn’t allowed to do what he did so he should go to jail”. The lawyer would instead have to say, “Your Honour, the defendant broke his parole agreement and is therefore in violation of the law”. Jargon is essential to the correct documentation of research and the exploration of precise ideas across all fields of study. Removing it for the sake of a more down to earth academic paper is not an option. As you said, it is important to understand one’s audience when writing. The audience for, say, an anthropology research paper is, first and foremost, other anthropologists. If the findings were to be published more widely it would be appropriate to edit the paper into a format that was easier to understand, but the initial exploration of those precise ideas requires the correct vocabulary in order to draw any valid conclusions.

    As for the “using big words” problem, let’s first look at the example you used. You took a very small quote from Karl Max and used it out of context, which is never a good way to examine language. You did not take into account the time period in which the work in question was written or the fact that it was translated from German. Marx’s use of “big words” here are affected by the translator’s attempt to capture what Marx was saying in the most correct and concise English form. Also, Marx himself was not having a conversation with his buddies over a few beers, nor was he writing a blog post about his political opinions. He was manipulating very complex political philosophies (which already existed and came with a vocabulary set that he would needed to use in order to tie his ideas to those concepts) and expanding on them in order to explore his ideas and prove his arguments. As history tells us, Marx clearly didn’t have a problem creating an impression on others with his ideas, wordy though you think they are.

    I am not at all saying that there aren’t academics who have inflated heads and equally inflated vocabularies. There are of course people in circles of academic writing who try to sound smarter by using bigger words. The issue I have with the notion you put forward is that ALL academics, from the humblest student to the longest tenured professor, are nothing but empty-headed balloons of ego paging through the thesaurus to try and sound smart and impressive and to separate themselves from the rabble beneath them. Less common words often have very precise meanings. English is a wonderful language which allows for an incredible amount of nuance due it its large vocabulary. We have synonyms of Latin, French, Germanic, and Celtic roots to choose from. Each of these synonyms has a different nuance, a different history, and a different impact on the reader. The base of academic credibility is precision. Toning ideas down, making them looser and more colloquial, or eschewing less common words for fear of sounding “too smart”, all of these things water down the essence of the concepts academics manipulate and explore, and in doing so completely erases their credibility.
    The ideas you’re exploring here have a huge range of applications, from the state and form of academic research to the notion of readability in popular literature and publishing. For me, language is all about context. There is a type of language you use while writing blog, a type for talking to your boss, a type of writing an academic paper, a type for texting your friend, a type of making a speech. All of these forms of language are equal in their ability to express the intentions of the speaker. Problems arise only when forms of language are used out of context. You would not write master’s thesis paper using chat speak. You would also not ask your friend to go out on Saturday by writing a five page MLA formatted paper. It’s all about appropriate use of different forms and levels.

    When we see someone wielding a large vocabulary, we should not turn our noses up at them. Why is it the author’s responsibility to pander to our lack of knowledge or experience? Why can’t we see a difficult piece of writing as an opportunity to learn and grow ourselves? The author’s responsibility is to know his or her audience, or be able to identify the audience that best suits their work. If authors of academic papers are focused solely on being understood by every possible demographic, they would not be able to write at all.

    • Hi Susan!

      Thank you for your response to what is the first blog post I’ve ever written. I’m glad you found it interesting and thought-provoking!

      This is a blog for students of a professional writing post-graduate program. I, and everyone else who has contributed to the blog, are writing in the context of providing user-friendly, accessible communication to a generally non-academic audience. The content we produce is targeted for specified users in particular environments, and needs to be written “simply” (i.e., non-academically). so that it is accessible by this specific audience, and easy to translate, so that it can reach other audiences. This, in the context of the program’s environment, means no jargon.

      Jargon, as I’ve contextualized it here, refers to wordiness, with an emphasis on the words being difficult for others to understand.

      Jargon is difficult for professional writers as it can be hard to interpret and even harder to translate. Of course, in certain spheres of professional writing, such as technical writing, terms like “documentation plan” and “usability” and “intuitive hierarchy” can be interpreted as jargon by the reader and not the writer—but only when they are difficult for the reader to understand. Specialist terms aren’t automatically considered jargon, and I wish I had gone into more detail about this in my post! Jargon has to explicitly hinder the reader’s ability to understand or get the most of out the text for it to be considered jargon—this hindrance is what wordiness (and some academic writing) is known for.

      You’re correct in stating that sections of text are sometimes looked at out of context in relation to whole documents and that it’s generally not a good thing. However, it happens very, very often—and these are the readers we are writing to. Users don’t read instruction manuals, for example, cover to cover, and this is why all passages in the documents we produce need to be accessible and understandable and usable in every way possible.

      You’re also correct in stating that the ideas I’ve expressed have “a huge range of applications.” This post’s specific application, based on the blog it’s hosted on, is for professional writers who are producing SEO content and technical drafts (among other pieces) that the everyday, casual reader might encounter. This post isn’t designed to be an insult of academic writing. Its intended purpose was to emphasize usability in text and writing with our audience—a generally non-academic audience—in mind.

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