Thursday, October 17, 2013

Hyped Language, Bad Writing

As a teacher of writing, I usually show students examples of good prose style in the hope that they will learn from the masters what makes a memorable sentence.  I rarely exhibit examples of awful writing.

This week, however, in editing a thesis on the education of nurses, I once again encountered an example of the worst kind of academic prose, the kind of pompous, inflated, jargon-filled sentences that seem designed to impress one's colleagues.  Even English professors, alas, resort to such writing to be current. And their work needs to be exposed as dangerous and fraudulent.

The thesis in question exhibits the type of deadly language that George Orwell memorably deplored in 1946 (his classic essay "Politics and the English Language"). There he noted the linguistic fog that tends to obscure clarity and fresh thinking because writers tend to rely on ready-made phrases, not just in political discourse but in most fields. If only he were still around to see how educators themselves pass on bad writing habits to their students!

How else explain my nursing student's reliance on articles and books that are filled with passive verbs and sentences that seem designed to deaden the brain. Consider:  "A database must be created though the use of multiple sources of evidence by preceptors in their perceptions...."  Can you imagine 112 pages of this?

This piece is all about the perceptions of preceptors (a repeated phrase) and the preparedness of student nurses: simple ideas dressed up in the most tacky style imaginable, a style in which simple verbs (measure) are converted into windy verb phrases (perform a measurement). Why? Because that is the way the experts write, and my poor student is afraid to deviate from the style advocated by her professors and the scholars admired by those professors.

This is the Read, Write, and Regurgitate School of Writing, just as widespread today, if not more so, than when Orwell criticized it. It led me to a dramatic decision today: I will edit no more theses or dissertations.  I do so not for the money, which is negligible, but to be helpful to students, many foreign-born, who need guidance in their use of idioms and grammar.

The type of jargon-filled prose I so strongly oppose has little to do with grammar. It has to do with an inflated type of writing so far removed from the way English is spoken as to constitute a foreign language, a dialect spoken by many--too many--who consider themselves elite. 
What can I do besides refusing to read such stuff? Like chemical pollution, it will always be with us; it won't go away, and any effort to rewrite awful sentences more effectively is met with resistance.

So I must try my best to keep writing clearly and honestly, to read only the best writers, and to encourage those I know to do the same.

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