Monday, October 17, 2005

That, Which

The subject of vast confusion.
Christopher Lasch


On at least one point of grammar, American English turns out to be superior to its competitors. The relative pronouns "that" and "which", when they turn up in what the Chicago Manual of Style calls "polished American prose", have clear and well defined uses. "In British English," by contrast, "writers and editors seldom observe the distinction between these two words." (5.202, p. 230)

This is confirmed by Pam Peters' Cambridge Guide to English Usage, where she notes that "which often provides an alternative to that in reference to things," and that in most cases "the choice is purely stylistic". She does point out, however, that even in British English, "the choice may be influenced by the nature of the clause [the pronoun] introduces -- whether it is 'restrictive' or 'non-restrictive.'" (Pp. 576-7) It is the difference between the restrictive and non-restrictive use of these pronouns that I want to emphasize here.

Consider the following example.

(1) In the summer of 1993, Dale Jones and Bill Ewing met for the last time. The meeting, which would prove to be a historic one for Altern Technologies, was held at the Emory Hotel on the banks of the Mississippi.
Here the clause that begins with "which" does not restrict the meaning of the words "the meeting", which has been adequately determined by the previous sentence. Note the commas that set it off from "The meeting" and "was held", which indicate that the sentence could survive the removal of the clause in question. We would then have, "The meeting was held at the Emory Hotel on the banks of the Mississippi." That is, the clause is effectively parenthetical.

Here is an alternative formulation.
(2) The meeting that changed the course of Altern Technologies forever was also the last time Jones and Ewing spoke face to face. It was held at the Emory Hotel as a heavy July rain fell into the Mississippi.
If we try to remove the qualifying clause introduced with "that" we see how much work it is doing. "The meeting was the last time Jones and Ewing spoke face to face," is all we'd be left with. It is unclear what meeting is being talked about in this sentence, though the definite article ("the") tells us that that it is not just any meeting.

Ironically, we use the word "that" to specify which meeting we are talking about, while the word "which" is best used when we are simply providing extra details about a meeting that has already been clearly identified.

So the rule can be summarised as follows. Use "that" when you want to restrict the meaning of the noun it follows and use "which" (preceded by a comma) when you are providing additional information about the noun which does not restrict its meaning. Thus,
(3) The meeting that I told you to attend has been cancelled.
But not,
(4) The meeting which I told you to attend has been cancelled.
Note, however, that this is what British writers and editors care less about. You should certainly not write,
(5) The meeting, which I told you to attend, has been cancelled.
No one recommends this punctuation if what you mean is (3). But you might, of course, find yourself needing so say something like the following.
(6) The meeting, which I told you to attend, was very important. Why did you disobey me?
But note that the words "which I told you to attend" are not intended to restrict which meeting is being talked about. That should already be clear by the time this point is being made.

Note that (6) does not mean the same thing as this:
(7) The meeting that I told you to attend was very important.
The difference here may seem needlessly subtle, but it is the purpose of a grammatical rule to allow you to be as subtle as you need to be for given purposes. (7) means "Remember the meeting I told you attend? It was very important." The one before that, however, means something different: "The meeting was very important and I told you to attend it." While the fact that I told you to attend the meeting restricts the meaning of the words "the meeting" in (7), it states an independent fact (6).

Here is one last example of the correct use of "which".
(8) All the top managers at Altern were immediately summoned. The meeting, which was to be held the following Thursday, was soon cancelled, however, because Dale Jones was unable to attend.
Finally, note that American usage does not contradict British usage on this point. American usage is always correct under British rules. British usage is more liberal, allowing "which" to replace "that" in (3), giving us (4), while American usage does not. While (4) sounds odd to a "polished" American reader, (3) only sounds less pretentious to a British one. I recommend learning the American rule because it amounts to easily distinguished rules for "that" and "which" when used as relative pronouns. It is less likely to lead to confusions in other cases.

For Peters rightly calls "that" the "workhorse of the English language." It can, for example, also be used as a demonstrative, e.g., "I went to the party. That was a mistake." (Note the difference punctuation makes: "I went to the party that was a mistake.") And as an adverb: "I didn't think there'd be that many people there." But more on that later.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Abstract Expressionism: the art of the nutshell

I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space--were it not that I have bad dreams.

Hamlet


Writing an abstract can be a nightmare. Many academics complain about the absurdity either of summarising a paper they have not yet written or of summarising a paper of 5000 or 8000 words in 300 or 500. Either way, they say, it is an impossible task to 'get the idea across' without employing the expressive resources of a full paper.

I hear this often, so I want here to defend the abstract as an academic genre; indeed, I want to sing its praises as an essential tool, not just of the communication of research results, but as an integrated part of the research process. At bottom, contempt for the abstract reduces to contempt for the act of writing itself; it is a denigration of the power of words as such.

Stéphane Mallarmé famously noted that poems are not made of ideas but of words*. He thereby drew attention to the concreteness of a poem, to the very limited difference that a poet makes to the physical environment, to what is going on right there on the page. The important thing to notice is that no writer, no matter how masterful, ever succeeds in expressing an idea directly. What we do, first and foremost, is to arrange words on pages. The amount of pages and words conditions the degree of concreteness that is available to us.

This point bears repeating. The more words you have at your disposal, the more concrete your writing becomes. That is why an "abstract" is so famously short. Some people believe that the abstractness of an academic dissertation results from its length. In fact, however, every page of text, every word (more or less), makes the ideas there more concrete.

Suppose you've got a paper that presents recent empirical evidence that the age of Alfred Chandler's "visible hand" is passing in Bolivia. This paper will, at first pass, be "about" something we can call "Bolivian management practices". If we were to isolate some key words we would say: Bolivia, management practices, Alfred Chandler, Richard Langlois, the visible hand. We can go on from there. Let's give ourselves one-hundred words.

This paper examines current management trends in Bolivia. The Bolivian economy followed international trends after WWII, experiencing its own version of "the managerial revolution", and adopting a largely Chandlerian framework. Like the rest of the world, however, the country is now entering "the new economy" of growing markets. This paper presents empirical evidence to support the suggestion of Richard Langlois that as transportation costs fall and wages increase, the "visible hand" (characterized by the dominance of large, vertically integrated firms) will vanish, leaving smaller, more specialized firms with the competitive advantage.
Given another four-hundred words, we might expand a bit on the Bolivian managerial revolution(s). We could certainly say more about what kinds of firms we have studied. And we can elaborate a little on the views of Richard Langlois and the idea of the "new economy".

Style guidelines often seem to favour these sorts of studies over what is sometimes called "postmodern" writing. I want to show, however, that all this goes just as easily for more "deconstructive" genres. Editors, grammarians and writing instructors ought to be much less despairing about this kind of writing. They ought not, in any case, to despair automatically.

So suppose you've got a paper arguing that Bolivian firms are beholden to the metaphysics presence as the result of the imperialistic influence American management ideologies on Latin America during the Cold War.

Notice, first of all, that the abstraction "Bolivian management practices" captures in three words what this paper is about; that is, these two imaginary papers are at one level of abstraction about the same thing. What they go on to say about that thing is, of course, very different. Key words here might be: Bolivia, management practices, Jacques Derrida, Campbell Jones, metaphysics of presence.
This paper deconstructs the ideologies that currently dominate Bolivian management studies. It targets, in particular, those discourses which owe their dominance to post-WWII (largely American) policy interventions, which are becoming increasingly irrelevant after the collapse of the Soviet empire. As an alternative to uncritically continuing the policies of a bygone era (construed as "texts"), this paper draws on the work of Jacques Derrida to identify the tensions within them . This allows us to note the play of difference that is ultimately the origin of the differences within managerial practice. On the advice of Campbell Jones, it presents this différance both spatially and temporally, indicating both the "elsewhere" and the "later" of management, without succumbing to the "nowhere ever" of utopian approaches.
These two abstracts will allow conference organizers to bring the two papers together or keep them apart as they see fit. There is no simple rule here. The conference organizers may decide to have an interdisciplinary session on current management trends in Bolivia where both papers will serve a useful purpose. Or they may find it more appropriate to run separate sessions on deconstruction and Chandlerian management, each presenting studies of a variety of countries. The point is simply that the abstracts contain enough information to make such decisions intelligently and this is why they should be written.

The abstracts we have written are not inadequate to the ideas that they are about, they are just very abstract. Much more can be said on these topics, and the papers will go on to do so. But once they have been written, they, too, will be "inadequate" to the material that was introduced in the process. There is no ultimate act of concretization. In an important sense, all research writing is the composition of abstracts of the research experience; it is a composite of such abstracts. These are summaries or synopses or outlines of an infinitely rich manifold of impressions that you are helping the reader to make sense of.

Research results are the infinite spaces you can put in a nutshell.


----------
*Here's how David Lehman tells the story: "A century ago in Paris, the painter Degas had lamented that his poems weren't any good though his ideas were wonderful, and the poet Mallarme responded, "But my dear Degas, poems are made of words, not ideas."

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The Supreme Swiss Army Knife of the English Word Kit

If you plan to use "colubriform" in public you'd best devote fifteen minutes to making sure it really means what you want it to.

Hugh Kenner


In a 1986 essay* about his messy desk and G. K. Zipf's principle of least effort, Hugh Kenner made some interesting observations about the "carpentry" of texts. Chapter X of Henry James' The Ambassadors consists of 2339 individual words, but only 665 different ones. "The 665 words," he notes, "seem a meager resource. Spread evenly over the pages like soft margarine, they'd turn up with dull uniformity, each one just three or four times." But this, of course, is not how a text is made. Indeed, Kenner reports that "fully 75 percent of the chapter's carpentry is done with a mere 176 of the different words that went into it--only 27 percent of its vocabulary." That is, of the 2339 words that comprise the chapter, 1754 are uses of only 176 different words (86 "the"s, 72 "you"s, 62 "to"s, etc.). By the time this core part of his vocabulary has been used, he has 585 words left in his chapter to write but wholly 489 words left in his vocabulary, which are "available for special effects." Needless to say, he will use most of these words only once, as when the fire has "burnt down to the silver ashes of light wood", where four words are used that are not used in the chapter again.

Kenner draws our attention to a number of seemingly lawlike regularities of this kind about the texts we write. As a rough approximation, we can expect 80 percent of the work in a text to be done by 20 percent of its vocabulary. (This 80-20 rule has been claimed to count for everything, including the kitchen sink. "The one-time words resemble those kitchen gadgets you must rummage for because you want them so seldom." 80 percent of the cooking gets done using 20 percent of the kitchen: a reasonable hypothesis.) Hugh Kenner contributes his own law, derived from a study of Shakespeare: 40 percent of the plays consist of 40 different words. This, he says, will be true of "any extensive text sample".

So we can expect it to be true of academic texts as well. Indeed, I expect to do some statistics of my own in weeks to come on the texts I read and edit. I imagine that we can learn something important about those first 40 words (that do 40 percent of the work) and that first 20 percent of a text's vocabulary (that does 80 percent of the work).

But the thing I want to emphasize is that of the different words you use when writing 80 percent of them will be used very rarely and over half of them will be used only once. These rare words are cognitively more expensive to use because they are more difficult to find (fifty-dollar words, Kenner calls them). It is therefore well worth the effort to make a list of words that you regularly use only once or twice in a text (there will be hundreds of them). I suspect that these words are the ones that define your discipline and your area of specialization. Without them your text would have none of the "special effects" that display your knowledge.

Kenner liked to draw attention to the ease with which dictionaries define difficult words and the difficulties they face in defining easy ones. His favourite example may have been the word "set",

the supreme Swiss Army knife of the English word kit, handy in any thinkable context--get set to set the table with the dinner set, set the alarm so we can set out early, and set things up so we'll not be upset by a prowler but can set our teeth and set a dog on him--the Oxford entry was thirty years in the pondering, forty days in the writing, and ran to two-thirds the length of Milton's Paradise Lost.
By contrast, James Murray, the chief editor of the original OED wrote the entry for "Dziggetai" on Christmas Eve, 1896, "while his wife watched."**


*Kenner, Hugh. "The Untidy Desk and the Larger Order of Things", originally published in Discover magazine, 1986, and reprinted in Mazes (North Point Press, San Fransisco, 1989).
**Reported by Kenner in his review of the Oxford American Dictionary for Harper's in 1981, reprinted in Mazes, p. 83.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

More Stylistic Exercise: rereading Butler

A rush and a push and the land
we stand on is ours
Morrissey


As I said in my last post, the following prize-winningly "bad" sentence, written by Judith Butler, reports on the state of the art in a corner of the academy.

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.


As in many fields, Butler's writing is self-consciously post-revolutionary. The norms that inform her research are the result of a paradigm shift in the Kuhnian sense. This is a very common situation to be in; it is a very "normal" one, we might say, again in the Kuhnian sense. Today, most research is "post"-something and most research writing therefore at some point recalls the historic change of mind that "inaugurates" a new era of fruitful conversations. Academic writers have to say this sort of thing again and again.

I want to take some time to analyse the "moves" and "shifts" in this sentence. In essence, Butler is reporting on two related developments, which have both been part of the epochal constitution of her field. There is a move away from structuralism and a shift away from an Althusserian theory. Note that according to the grammar of the sentence, the move marks the shift.

I want to look very closely at how Butler describes the developments she is talking about. To this end, I have divided the sentence into five parts.

(1) The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation
(2) brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure,
(3) and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects
(4) to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure
(5) inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

First, she tells us what we moved away from, namely, "the structuralist account", and what we moved toward, namely, "a view of hegemony". Both the account and the view are further specified along the way in the first part of the sentence. Next, in the second and third part, she looks at what this move has accomplished. It has (2) introduced the notion of time to the concept of structure and (3) "marked" a shift in the theoretical foundation of the study of hegemony. She then goes on to describe this shift in the manner of the initial move, i.e, away from Althusserian theory (again further specified) and toward a theory that seems rooted essentially in the notion of contingency.

In an important sense, she is telling us what it means to be "post-Althusserian". It means, first of all, that you give up the appeal to structural totalities, i.e., you stop referring to them as though they are "objects" of your theory. But it does not mean that you give up theorizing. When Butler talks about
a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony,


the phrase "one in which" indicates that the concept of "theory" carries over into the new epoch. What is not carried over is the Althusserian "form" of the theory. (That is, if you've got a theory, it can be an Althusserian one or a post-Althusserian one.) Now this new "one", this new theory, is described by relating an event that is internal to its formation, i.e., the theory is that "in which" the inauguration takes place and this inauguration, of course, shapes the theory from there on. This is really the third event in the sentence. We have a move that marks a shift toward a theory in which a conception is inaugurated.

Now, this inauguration has both a beginning and an end. It begins with an insight and ends with a renewal. The insight is characterised by (4) "the contingent possibility of structure", while the renewal is more complex. It is the concept of hegemony that is renewed, of course. And keep in mind that this again says something about what is being carried over from before the paradigm shift. Before the revolution, there was certainly a concept of hegemony, i.e., an old one, which presumably went well with both a structuralist understanding of capital and an Althusserian understanding of totalities. Indeed, the pre-revolutionary concept of hegemony was no doubt nothing other than the totality of social relations structured by capital.

What is hegemony after the revolution?

Well, looking back at the beginning of the sentence we see that (1) we are no longer dealing with "homologous" structures of social relations but must instead take account of "power relations" (which should probably be taken to mean the same thing as "social relations" earlier) that are "subject to" (which is not quite the same thing as being "structured by") repetition, convergence and rearticulation. (These three forces, which subjugate power relations, are the fitting themes of several paragraphs to follow.) And it is at the end of the sentence that we discover where these forces are operative, namely, on sites and in strategies that "rearticulate power". The recurrence of the word "rearticulate" is perhaps unfortunate but it may simply be an abbreviated way of referring back to the triad of forces already mentioned, as the reference to "power" also emphasises.

In any case, what this sentence is telling us is that the post-revolutionary situation demands that we pay attention to the way power is rearticulated on sites and through strategies, which are essentially contingent (she uses the word twice). And these sites and strategies are what replace, in the post-revolutionary idiom, the pre-revolutionary (oldfashioned) idea of "structure" in our understanding of hegemony.

Thus endeth the lesson.

It is possible to defend the famous "difficulty" of the sort of style we are dealing with here by suggesting that it truly turns reading into an activity. Indeed, we have here seen what sort of activities lie in wait for the willing reader. Butler has, we might argue, encouraged us to think this sentence all the way through (we have tried to do that just now) instead of "sparing us the trouble of thinking for ourselves," as Wittgenstein put it. I don't propose to settle the debate, but I will suggest that she has also spared herself the trouble of editing the text. Indeed, by day, that's my job, and I do it happily, but I recommend that the aspiring researcher plan the reader's activities a bit more kindly.

But there is another argument for writing this way. I have said in a previous post that there are times when you want to make your points one at a time, by parataxis, and there are times when you want to make a single gesture of a series of points, employing hypotaxis. The extreme hypotaxis of Butler's sentence indicates the intention to make just such a gesture. Indeed, her sentence is a vast exercise in subordination. After all, a revolution is not accomplished by a series of small careful steps but by a rush

and a push.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Exercises in Style

with apologies to Raymond Queneau (and Judith Butler)


In 1998, the following sentence won first prize in the now legendary Bad Writing Contest, sponsored by the academic journal Philosophy and Literature. It was taken from Judith Butler's paper "Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time" in Diacritics (Volume 27, Number 1, Spring 1997, pp. 13-15 ).

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

I don't want to get into the controversy over the social function of the award itself, or over the literary merit of this sentence. There is really no such thing as absolutely good or absolutely bad writing; but any piece of writing may be better or worse. These are useful categories because they suggest that no sentence is perfect, that there is always room for improvement. There is, in any case, always something to be learned from trying to say the same thing differently.

In this post, that is precisely what I propose to do. I want to take Butler's sentence apart and put it back together again in a variety of ways. I don't want to claim that all these sentence are equally good, nor that mine are better than hers, nor even that all of my attempts say exactly the same thing. I will leave it to the reader to decide whether and how her point is being badly misconstrued or elegantly paraphrased.

(Please note, however, that these are not exercises in paraphrasing Butler. Many of them, owing to their recycling of her exact words, would be considered plagiarism, even if she was cited as the source. I will take up this delicate issue in a later post. What I'm trying to do here is to imagine how Butler herself could have reworked the "offending" passage.)

I have chosen this example because the kind of point Butler is making is a very standard one in contemporary research in the humanities and the social sciences. It is about the changing body of theory that is trying to come to terms with society. It is a report on "the state of the art", as it were, and like most such reports it tells you what was once thought quite natural to think, and what it is no longer tenable to suppose. As an academic writer, you will find yourself having to say this sort of thing very often. This exercise is intended to help you decide how you want to do that.

You are here catching a glimpse of the sort of thing that runs through an editor's mind when correcting an academic text. I'm trying to make very explicit how much of a difference editorial revisions can make.


* * *

Variation # 1


First, let us try as objectively as possible to assign each proposition in Butler's original to its own sentence. In turns out that this gives us eight separate declarative sentences:

There has been a move away from a structuralist account.

This structuralist account is one in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways.

We have moved toward to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation.

This has brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure.

It has also marked a shift away from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects.

The new theory provides insights into the contingent possibility of structure.

This inaugurates a renewed conception of hegemony.

Hegemony is bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

This indicates part of the reason, whether justified or not, that Butler won the Bad Writing Contest. If you write a sentence that could be rewritten as eight independent sentences then you are very likely trying to do too much too quickly. It means you are qualifying every concept you introduce within the sentence that introduces it. You are doing with a sentence what one normally expects of a paragraph. That said, there may sometimes be good reason for it and, more importantly, the point may be so peripheral to the main topic of the paper that the sort of work we're doing here isn't worth the trouble.


* * *

Variation # 2


Let's now try to put these points together as straighforwardly as we can, trying to do what we assume Butler was trying to do, but doing it with several sentences instead of one.

On a structuralist account, capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways. There has, however, lately been a move away from this account toward a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation. This has brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure. It has marked a shift away from Althusserian theory and brought insight into the contingent possibility of structure. After all, Althusserian theory takes structural totalities as theoretical objects. But what we see now is the inauguration of a renewed conception of hegemony: one in which it is bound up with the sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power. And these sites are, of course, utterly contingent ones.


* * *

Variation # 3


Here's a not very different attempt. I have tried to make the language a bit more natural and less redundant ("relations in relatively" and the "theoretical objects" of "Althusserian theory") and I have a personal aversion to the way we "think" various notions, as in "into the thinking of structure". I prefer to "conceptualize" in such cases.

Capital was once understood to structure social relations in rather homologous ways. But hegemony is today best approached in terms of power relations that are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation. This also implies a shift away from Althusserian theory, which has traditionally taken structural totalities as objects. On our renewed conception of hegemony, according to which it is bound up with the sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power, the possibility of structure comes to appear as an increasingly contingent one. That is, we must bring the question of temporality into our conception of structure.


* * *

Variation # 4 (Intermission)


This one is just for fun. See if you think it captures the sense of Butler's original.

Remember the old days? Remember when everyone knew that capital structured society with a nice, even heat? Well, you can kiss those days goodbye because power is getting it together and repeating itself all over again. It's a question of time now. So we'll have to ditch our old Althusserian ideas about structural totalities as theoretical objects. Hegemony is so mixed up with the places and ways that power sells the old product in new wrappers that the question is whether structure is even possible. And, if it is, then whatever the structure IS will sure as hell depend on all kinds of things we may as well just start guessing about now.


* * *

Variation # 5


This one is my suggested edit. It is what I imagine I would have suggested if I had been asked to line edit Butler's paper.

It was once taken for granted that capital structured social relations in rather homologous ways. Since then, however, a number of developments have forced a reconceptualization of hegemony in terms of power relations that are subject to repetition, convergence and rearticulation. This reconceptualization has come to include a shift way from the Althusserian idea that structural totalities could be taken as theoretical objects. On the contrary, with the introduction of a temporal dimension, hegemony comes to be inextricably bound up with the sites and strategies through which power is rearticulated, making the very possibility of structure a contingent one. This contingency, then, becomes a defining moment in our current understanding of hegemony.


* * *

Variation # 6


This one tries to isolate the normative judgement implicit in the shift that Butler in any case seems to endorse. It's one thing you might consider whenever you are firmly in agreement with developments in your field, i.e., when you feel good about being complicit in them.

The structuralist account of hegemony is inadequate because capital does not simply structure social relations in relatively homologous ways. Instead, temporality must be taken into account when thinking about structure. Hegemony must then be seen as a form of structure in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation. Likewise, structural totalities can no longer be construed as theoretical objects (as Althusser did). Structure is a contingent possibility and this is central to the new conception of hegemony, which is tied precisely to the sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power. These are the loci of the relevant contingencies.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The Academic "I" (Part 1)

Thesis supervisors sometimes ask their students, "But where are you in this text?" They are not normally asking them to write "Here I am!" every now and then in the text.

One of the most legitimate reasons to ask this of students is when we are faced with a text that is about to buckle under the weight of its citational politeness.

Whilff (2001) has noted that this is an age of the lone pig. But in his celebrated analysis of the situation, Xavier (2002a) has emphasized also the cow, the horse and the hedgehog. Yssling (2002), meanwhile, was able to identify several pigs, "thoroughly undermining that facile, if fashionable, lone pig idea" (Ziegler 2003, p. 17).
Such passages are both justified and necessary in academic writing, but no text should confine itself to this sort of expression. The reason for this is that the putative "author" of the text becomes little more than a reader of other texts and these are texts that the target reader is in most cases (presumably) already familiar with.

When the supervisor asks you to put some of yourself in the text, it will not do to say
I have chosen to take Walter Whilff's Stall and Field as my point of departure. He notes that this is an age of the lone pig (Whilff 2001, p. 58). But in his celebrated analysis of the situation, Xavier (2002a) has emphasized also the cow, the horse and the hedgehog. Yssling (2002), meanwhile, was able to identify several pigs, "thoroughly undermining that facile, if fashionable, lone pig idea" (Ziegler 2003, p. 17). Despite this, I find Whilff's arguments generally compelling.
The presence of the author in a text should not be tantamount to the presence of arbitrary judgements made on the work of others. Still, one minimal way of bringing some of "you" into the text is to pass judicious comment on the texts you read.
Whilff (2001) has astutely noted that this is an age of the lone pig. It is true that in his celebrated but very uneven analysis of the situation, Xavier (2002a) has emphasized also the cow, the horse and the hedgehog and it is also true that Yssling (2002) seems to have been able to find and even name several pigs. Still, Ziegler's conclusion, that Yssling thereby "thoroughly undermin[ed] that facile, if fashionable, lone pig idea" (2003, p. 17), is surely an exaggeration. Much depends on the relations that can be established between these various beasts.
Note that the authorial persona has entered the text without calling itself by name ("I"). The materials are introduced and evaluated, and instead of simply starting with Whilff's idea and ending with Ziegler's the reader is initiated into a rich texture of disagreement, an intertextual tension that can obviously be occupied by any number of other persons, including the reader. Indeed, the phrase "it is true" makes the amiable presumption that the reader of the present text is already familiar with the others (thus assigning the reader a place without resorting to "my dear reader", which should be used with extreme restraint.) Lastly, the raised eyebrows of "and even named" indicates a sensitivity for the relative weight of the facts that impinge on the situation as seen from the author's own point of view. The author has led by example.


Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Writing for the Sake of Argument

Presumptions are normative instruments for injecting some make-believe into an all too real world, with the long-term hope that reality may become more like make-believe.

Steve Fuller


Because academic writing is generally discursive, which is to say, because it is done "for the sake of argument", its sentences are often marked by the nesting of qualifying clauses. These clauses condition the way we read the main clause; they determine "the sense in which" we are to take it. The use of subordinating conjunctions to coordinate clauses (also called hypotaxis) is very common in academic writing because it makes the logical hierarchy of the clauses explicit. Consider, as an example, the first sentence in this paragraph. These clauses could be arranged very differently. We could, for example, resort to parataxis, which is the arrangement of clauses without subordinating conjunctions, and which often results in a bad parody of Hemingway's prose.

Academic writing is generally discursive. It is done "for the sake of argument". Its sentences are often marked by the nesting of qualifying clauses.
This exercise will be familiar to most people who have struggled explicitly with the problem of writing in any language. I bring it up here for a specific reason. Paratactical presentation brings the individual propositions that a sentence deploys to the fore, while hypotactical presentation makes a single gesture of their arrangement. While your writing will generally strive for such coherent gestures, the awareness that paratactical presentation brings can be useful in locating important elements of your style.

Philosophers sometimes count beliefs among the "propositional attitudes", meaning that beliefs, like hopes, desires, promises and fears are "of" or "about" something. It is important to keep in mind that propositions themselves are not necessarily to be believed. Believing is one thing you can do with a proposition; but there are other things. One can, for example, presume it.

Consider again the propositions of the first sentence of this post. Which may be presented in a still more radically paratactical form to allow each of them to stand entirely on their own.
1. Academic writing is generally discursive.
2. Academic writing is done for the sake of argument.
3. The sentences of academic texts are often marked by the nesting of qualifying clauses.
While I believe the original sentence to be basically true, and even largely "good", I feel very differently about these propositions when taken in isolation. The third sentence, for example, which had previously emerged as an understandable feature of a specific context of writing (specific features of which had been highlighted) now stands as a terse judgment about the style of academic texts. Thinking about it on its own, I find myself wanting to add the words "more often marred" in parenthesis after "marked". Also, the first two propositions, and especially the second, are, a bit dubious in today's "publish or perish" world . ("Discursive" still holds in one sense, but not in the sense specified by the original subordination of clauses.) The sense of practical advice and amiable engagement is lost in the paratactic presentation and is replaced with an air of detached judgement. This effect is in fact what parataxis is often associated with. It is "terse" [1].

Steve Fuller [2] has taught us to think of our theories as systems of presumption not belief. He uses the presumption of innocence in legal procedings as a paradigm case. After all, to presume that the accused is innocent is not to believe that he hasn't committed the crime. It is not inconsistent with the procedural presumption to suspect that he is guilty, or even to believe this quite firmly. Opinions will differ, and some will be more sure than others, but in talking about the case we must frame our remarks in a manner that presumes innocence. We must treat the accused in a particular manner.

To return to my opening statement, I may sometimes suspect that academic writing is not so much done to engage peers in argument as it is ventured with the vague hope of avoiding further discussion while dutifully improving one's list of publications. But in writing about academic texts as part of an effort to improve them, I am entitled to presume something that I don't fully believe. Theory makes it possible to present hopes as statements of fact. (Note that the accused is entitled to presume his innocence for the sake of a fair trial even if he is guilty.)

Sorting out what you believe, suspect, hope and fear can begin with defining a set of propositions that serve as presumptions for your research. These are things you can take for granted in setting out to write a text regardless of what you come to believe during the writing or the research that it is about.

The relative durability of systems of presumption (theories) is necessary to keep your style from devolving into a parataxis of cynical judgements or, worse still, a superficial hypotaxis of judgements arbitrarily subordinated "for the sake of argument", albeit an argument one is not interested in having. This happens if you think that all the propositions you write must be "entertained" in the same way, i.e., believed or disbelieved and nothing else. Presumptions allow you to keep your hopes alive even as you learn how the world "really" works. There's always more to learn. And hope is good for your style.



Notes

[1] See J.A. Cuddon's Dictionary of Literary Terms, third edition. London: Penguin. 1991.

[2] In Philosophy, Rhetoric and the End of Knowledge. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. 1993, pp. 367ff. (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates has recently published a second edition of this book, reworked by Fuller and Jim Collier as a text book. Worth getting a hold of.)

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

English Empiricism

Sometimes I think the education we dispense is better suited to a fifty-year-old who feels he missed the point the first time around. Too many abstract ideas. Eternal verities left and right. You'd be better served looking at your shoe and naming the parts.

Father Paulus
(in Don DeLillo's Underworld)


As adults approaching a foreign language we sometimes forget how easily children learn languages. We forget how easily we speak our first language. I want to take a moment to consider why that is and I want to bring this to bear on something Jim Collier noted about "intellectual style" in his comment to a previous post.

Abstract ideas are an unavoidable component of academic writing. One way to draw the line between empiricist and rationalist attitudes to abstraction is to distinguish the sorts of writing that count as "mastery" of the ideas in question. A rationalist will grant that you understand a given set of abstractions if you are able to correctly deduce other abstractions from them. An empiricist will generally expect you to be able to describe concrete particulars that fall under or are subsumed by the abstraction.

One of the reasons that academic English can be difficult to master is that academic discourse is largely a rational enterprise. That is, academics are expected to combine words and phrases in especially orthodox ways more often than they are expected to describe a particular matter of fact. This is not in itself a problem. I don't want to suggest that one has to be an empiricist in order to write good English, nor that there is something fundamentally wrong with academic writing. I am simply trying to indicate a form of exercise that can be useful in developing one's style, and which may even be pleasurable in its own right.

I want to suggest that your language can be more or less empirically sensitive. Your native tongue has, if you will, a broad palate. Through it, you can describe very ordinary, very personal situations and very exceptional, very impersonal ones. And you will be able to describe a whole range of situations in between. But if you are working with English primarily as a research idiom, there will be a region of insensitivity somewhere between your ability to buy a train ticket and your ability to articulate the consequences of deconstruction for management studies.

Roughly speaking, this is the region occupied by illustrative examples of abstract ideas.

The way to make this part of your English more sensitive to the things you learn is to use it. In the course of your research you will have a variety of experiences about which you will discover yourself to be more or less articulate. You will discover this by experiment. You will find yourself having to tell a story, to describe a scene, to name the parts of a given object.

In academic life we too often confine our expression to a relatively small set of abstract gestures, indifferent to the detailed state of particular affairs. Native speakers suffer less for this because they have their empiricism always on hand in their daily routine. It is, as it were, ambient. To get by at a basic level, and, more interestingly, in that intellectual mezzanine of the academy provided by the classroom, they engage in story-telling and description and naming with the enthusiasm of children. This, I would argue, is generally good for their style.

Non-native speakers will have to work at it more consciously. Faced with a set of abstract notions, you do well to describe concrete situations to which those notions may be applied. You do well to write anecdotes that illustrate your ideas, and to write detailed descriptions of objects that can be subsumed under them. Faced with concrete experiences you likewise do well to set them down in writing in such a way that you might recognize them later.

A good exercise here is to describe a "text book case" of your favourite abstraction in concrete terms (using no abstract terminology). Then show it to one of your colleagues and see if they "get it". Throughout this process be on the lookout for lacunae (holes) in your language. Whenever you are at a loss for words, make an attempt to find them. Go looking for the phrases and constructions you need to illustrate your ideas. These will become elements of your style. It is a matter of building up a language that is able to articulate the rich texture of the research experience, not merely to trace the rough outline of its results.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

A Dead Metaphor: Notes on Grammatical Correctness

I'm reading Harry Blamires' Compose Yourself these days, which is well worth having a look at. I will return to it again to indicate why I think you should read it. Here I want to take up an aspect of it that is more likely to put you off.

Like most books on "good English" it sketches a very conservative looking project, which begins by observing the "increasing faultiness [of] English usage" (p. 2). He goes on to talk about incorrect usage in terms of the "damage" it does, the "decay" (and "decomposition") of usage. "We live," he tells us, "in a verbally infected environment" (p. 5).

This line is not new. Grammarians have long complained that "ordinary" or "popular" usage (and Blamires draws his introductory examples primarily from the media) is somehow flawed. The very durability of this complaint indicates that decay may not be the problem Blamires thinks it. If English had really been in decay as long as its grammarians have been complaining about it, it would have disappeared long ago. Sticking to the biological metaphor he invokes, describing usage as "a decaying mass of squalid remains" (p. 7), we might see in this squalor the hope that a biologist would. You can't have a rose garden without some dirt, even some compost. Out of that decay will come the nutrients of new usage, new forms of expression.

Wittgenstein pointed out that language is rooted in our forms of life and that these change. But language is not, as we grammarians so often would have you believe, a matter of life and death for something we call "civilization and culture" (p. 7). It is a matter of life and death and rot and life and. . .

We are dealing with a "life cycle", one might say. I suppose I'm suggesting a more cheerful view of the matter. Let your metaphors die and decompose and then see what new forms of life emerge from the ooze.

I say this because the vitality of language--which is something that needs to be encouraged, defended and fostered, make no mistake about it--is not served by the idea that there exists some fundamental species of "correctness" that grammarians are the arbiters of. Rather, there is a continual process of "correction", i.e., a reading that passes through a text and prunes it, letting pieces fall lifelessly but not without dignity to the ground in order to contribute to the soil (the language).

Wittgenstein said that philosophy is not a body of doctrine, but an activity. Likewise, proper usage (grammar in a broad sense) is not a code of rules but a practice, a craft. English composition is a bit like gardening. And we should not allow ourselves to stick only to off the shelf fertilizers (style manuals and writing courses). We must engage in the continual cycle of composition and decomposition, writing and correction. We must risk the editorial experience.

Friday, March 18, 2005

About this Blog

This blog is still in its early stages. Its aim is to provide a forum for discussion about academic writing, construing this problematic as a matter of acquiring a specific disciplinary idiom for the communication of research results.

I have come to see this problem from two opposite but, on the face of it, equal perspectives. First, there is the problem of representation, the problem of reconstructing the objects that define the domain of one's research, and therefore of presenting the facts of inquiry that are relevant to the discourse one is working within. Second, there is the problem (borrowing a term from Foucault) of "depresentification", the problem of deconstructing the subjects that define the domain of one's research, and therefore of presenting the acts of governance that are relevant to one's discourse.

In both cases, the problem of writing emerges as the problem of developing a suitable style of presentation, of appropriating what may loosely be called respectively a "modern" or "postmodern" academic idiom. It is a matter of learning how to write in order to get one's point across most effectively, and most efficiently.

All this, of course, must often be done in English. And these problems are therefore aggravated for people who are trying to enter discipline that are in most cases dominated by standard English from the position of a non-native speaker. These problem, I want to show, are by no means insurmountable. Here, as elsewhere, it is a matter of continual practice.

As the blog develops, then, I will introduce particulars of grammar that are peculiar to a variety of academic discourses in the hopes of making a few limited but useful contributions. I am very interested to hear when I am being helpful and when I am not. Also, I will try to answer questions to the best of my abilities. Comments, questions and suggestions are welcome.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Getting Your Facts Straight (2): a handbook supplement

I shall derive my emotions solely from the arrangement of surfaces.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska


If the email response to my last post (for which I am very thankful) is any indication, it has left the reader with the impression that I am some sort of monstrum de profundis, a rough beast slumming it to Atlantis through the vast wash of the sea of discourse, a leviathan of the language. So in order to avoid any confusions, let me emphasise that my point was really quite a superficial one, and an of entirely practical kind.

What I am proposing is that researchers begin to compile a set of individual pages (text files), a sort of loose leaf system for the organization of one's intellectual accounts. At the top of the first page of each file you should write "A1", "A2", "A3" ("A" for "accomplished", the numbering in order to keep track of your facts) or "C1", "C2", "C3" ("C" for "contentious") or "P1", "P2", "P3" ("P" is for "pax", "peace"). You should then write between one (1) and ten (10) words that names your fact; set this in bold type. Leave a blank line, and then write around 300 words that does greater justice to your knowledge of the fact you have just named. New page. Same letter and number at the top. You now have up to 3000 words to say what's on your mind about the fact you have numbered, named and briefly described. You need not use all of them.

I think, to start, we would do well, each of us, to have at least three facts of each kind on hand, i.e., in our files, in this form. At least nine facts in all, more or less accomplished, more or less contested, more or less restful. They may never be published in this form, but they are nice to have around in case of trouble.

Create two folders. Call one "Active", the other "Inactive". If you ever discover that a fact of yours is wrong mark it "x" after the number, i.e., "C2x" and move it from the active to the inactive folder. Likewise, if you ever discover that a fact has stopped being especially relevant to your research (so that you are no longer keeping tabs on it in any serious sense), mark it "i" (A1i) and move it to the inactive folder. The file names should of course simply use this this numbering scheme, and it will be useful for you in the long run to note the date you last updated the fact file, right next to its number. Feel free to change your mind as often as you like, moving the files back and forth between the folders accordingly.

Working in this way ought to make it clear to us that as researchers, thinkers, knowledge producers, or whatever we choose to call ourself, we derive our concepts from the arrangement of appearances, and that our knowledge is nothing other than specific, factual arrangements of matters of fact, and statements to their effect. We engage with the facts and note down the results of these engagement. The trick here is to keep your composure. We may also arrange facts in order to undermine especially dominant facts, if we are "critical" for example, or "deconstructive". In which case we are dealing with the delicate art of losing your head with style. But there is nothing especially "deep" about it. The whole point is simply to assign the monsters a place in the aquarium.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Getting Your Facts Straight

What was it Harlot had said once on a Low Thursday? "The aim of these gatherings is to acquaint you with the factology of facts. One has to know whether one is dealing with the essential or the circumferential fact. Historical data, after all, tend to be not particularly factual and subject to revision by later researchers. You must look to start, therefore, with the fact that cannot be smashed into subparticles of fact." -- Norman Mailer, Harlot's Ghost (p 1281)

Research is the arrangement of facts, the business of laying them out, of putting them in the right order. Facts are to space what acts are to time. Of time, Henri Bergson said that it's what keeps everything from happening all at once. Space, perhaps, is what keeps everything from piling up in one place. You make use of this fact (for it is itself a fact) to sort through your facts, to arrange them neatly on your desk. That's what writing is for. It helps you get your facts straight.

For those who think that facts are a thing of the positivistic past, keep in mind that even such non-positivists as Kuhn and Foucault were interested in "the familiar data" and "the comparative facts", respectively, that pertained to their areas of research (into the nature of research itself). A researcher today does not exclusively take an interest in the facts but the research "deals with", "bears upon", or "is concerned with" them. The precise nature of the facts, and the kind of facts in question, vary from discipline to discipline, and from subfield to subfield. But show me your facts, let's say, and I'll tell you (more or less) what kind of researcher you are.

I want to say something, I hope, useful about how facts are deployed in academic writing. And I will do so at two levels. First, I want to say something about what a fact is quite generally, even metaphysically (I will be brief). Wittgenstein was, in specific sense, quite right to suggest that facts are all there is to the world. I want to try to say something straightforward about what that could mean. Next, and more importantly, I want to say something about what a fact is qua "something to write about", i.e., as something that "turns up in discourse". Making a very rough set of distinctions into what is always a graduated plane, I want to say that some facts are accomplished, others are contested and some we are simply "at peace" with. All three kinds of fact go into writing a scientific text.

First, then, some metaphysical speculations. "The world is the totality of facts," said Wittgenstein, "not of things." Things "themselves" are really just lying about, or drifting around aimlessly. A fact, by contrast, is the sort of determined arrangement of things that must obtain (or be the case) in order for a sentence (or proposition) to be "true". Without facts, no truth. Keep that in mind. When you talk about facts you want to say what you think is the case in the world, and then you want to check whether or not things "really" are arranged that way. Notice that I'm not yet talking about methods of data generation, reading strategies, or theory construction. That's really none of my business. What I'm insisting on is that everything from "The world today is undergoing dramatic changes in social organization," to "Zygmunt Bauman has suggested that ours is a time of ambivalence," are facts. And that such facts are the material out of which research is made.

Facts are more or less prevalent (there are big facts and small facts), more or less stable (there permanent facts and ephemeral facts) and more or less certain (there are known facts and unknown facts). In all cases, the relevant variable is how a fact is connected to other facts. A fact is ultimately connected to every other fact, either by a long tenuous and circuitous set of relations or directly to a broad range of facts. This is the "facticity" of facts, i.e., the sense in which a fact is a fact in its likeness to all the other facts. The specific facts about my fridge are very tenuously and very circuitously related to facts about your fridge; but the facts of gravity are directly related to both our fridges. The bigger facts are, the harder they fall. That is, the more facts that a fact is connected to directly, the more prevalent it is, and the more stable, and the more certain. There is very little you can do about very well connected facts. This is important to keep in mind, for ultimately there is only one fact. The Great Fact, as Donald Davidson once said somewhat ironically, about which you can't do anything. That is, what is true about my fridge (statements of fact) is really a truth about the relative position of the things in my fridge to every other thing in the universe. So much for metaphysics.

Research is about keeping the facts in proper proportion, about keeping things in perspective. And writing is one of the main tools of the trade, since once the facts are written down, you are in a position to survey them, to arrange them in different patterns, to see how they are connected. I propose thinking of your facts in three classes for the purpose of writing about them. We are now not thinking so much about their metaphysical connection, but a specific aspect of their facticity, namely, the connection of the facts your research is about to the facts that constitute your research environment. How will your reader "take" your statements of fact? This set of relations will have profound implications for your style. Consider the following kinds of fact and their associated statements.

Accomplished facts are those that you have spent a good deal of time looking at in various kinds of lighting in order to be sure that they are very much as you think they are. These are the facts that you are very proud of, and which you would be disconcerted to discover were otherwise (especially if many of them were otherwise). They are also facts that you know more about than almost anyone else. That is, if someone were to question you on them, they would find that you had very much to say in support of them. You would not so much be discussing their status as telling them (always patiently, generously) what you know about these facts. A fact is "accomplished" in your research when you really can't think of a higher authority on it than you yourself. These are the facts that you are in a better position to say something about than anyone else that you know of. They are not "beyond doubt", but you have a clear sense of what sort of investigation would be needed, and what it would have to show, in order to change your mind on them. They are the centre of your style.

Contentious facts are those that you expect to have to defend and discuss on par with your peers on a regular basis. These are facts that you believe in but that you know others don't, and which you don't feel yourself especially superior about. They are facts you are interested in discussing, albeit in a particular manner and for a limited time, on an equal footing with those who hold a different opinion on the matter.

Peaceful facts are facts that you know full well you only believe because they sounded right to you when you heard them the first time. These are the stuff of hearsay and idle chatter, which makes its way into your language without being investigated in any serious way. They simply fit into the space arranged (left empty) by the facts you have firmly accomplished and regularly contested in your research practice. These are facts that make your research pleasant to be around, they offer a kind of cartilage between the bones of sterner facts. They are almost not facts at all, but have been ground into a fine powder, crushed again and again to leave only something like the "sub-particles" of Mailer's factology. You are not interested in discussing these facts, but you often need to pass them off in statements in your writing in order to pass expediently from your last accomplishment to the next waiting contest. They are shortcuts. Given more time, you could dispense with them and take a longer, safer route. Nothing really depends on them, except that they improve your readibility. People can take them or leave them. If you know of someone who would object, but "don't want to get into it", you write, f.eks., "Pace Williamson, institutions are not things out there in the world to be manipulated like so many nuts and bolts," that is, "Peace be with Williamson, I'm just trying to move on to the next more firmly rooted fact."

One last thing about facts. There is no limit to how long a statement of any given fact may be because, as I have said, each fact is in principle constituted by its relation to every other fact. You begin in the middle of the fact you are talking about, or in the middle of the fact you are talking from. When working with your facts, therefore, try putting it in a variety of otherwise arbitrary amounts of words. First ask yourself, "In a word or two, what would I call this fact?" Then, "What would a paragraph stating this fact look like?" Then, a subsection of a chapter devoted to it, then a chapter, a book, an oevre. . .

Facts can be named, they can be described briefly, they can be described at length, they can brought to life and they can be talked to death. Some facts more than others.

[See also: "A Handbook Supplement" and "Getting Your Act Together"]

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Language and Discourse

There is no simple correlation between the set of possible sentences and the set of possible statements. Michel Foucault has perhaps been the most active exponent of the difference, suggesting, in fact, that these sets are defined by altogether different operations. Sentences are possible or impossible within the order of language, while statements are possible or impossible within the order of discourse. The crucial difference here is the role of knowledge.

Now, in one sense, knowledge is essential to all language. What defines a "discourse", however, is the degree of specialization. If we define "style" in the simplest possible terms, namely, the choice and combination of one's words to achieve particular effects, then we can already see how the acquisition of knowledge (scientific competence) is an acquisition of stylistic mastery. After all, one learns not just the meaning of a set of specialized words (vocabulary), but also the suitability of more colloquial expressions, the necessity of illustration with concrete examples, the demand for formal expression in statistics and formulae. As Foucault points out, part of the style of a discipline also lies in a particular "play of metaphor". While it is certainly not the whole story, these stylistic elements (from vocabulary, to context sensitivity, to figurative language) help to define a field of research and limit participation in it.

For students working on the basis of English as a first language, the task of acquiring scientific certification is largely one of passing from a generalized linguistic compentency to a specific discursive style. In Foucault's terminology, the idea is to master (if always partially) a particular "enunciative modality", which constitutes part of the "discursive formation" of a field. Most fields also depend on a selected linguistic competence, of course. Thus, some fields are difficult to work in without a working understanding of French or German. But for the very great majority of academic disciplines, English is the only real linguistic prerequisite for any serious participation in research.

For students working with English as a second language, or as a foreign language, there are two immediate challenges where others have only one. Or rather, the division of tasks comes into starker focus. (Most students with English as a first language need to improve their linguistic competences during their studies, even after entering a PhD programme; but their improvement is less noticable here and more often attributable to practice than concerted study). It is often possible to structure this task in accordance with the specific demands of the field. As a start, I will suggest that students make lists of words that are often used in the writing of their chosen discipline, and that they then learn these words, their grammar, and their etymologies. This means looking them up in a good dictionary (The Oxford English Dictionary is good). A slightly more difficult task is to try to determine a list of words that is rarely or never used to name particular phenomena. What kind of economist you are will depend on how you use the word "capital", for example.

Learning how to construct appropriate expressions within the specific academic discourse you want to work in begins with constructing sentences that employ its vocabulary. The good news is that a discourse generally has fewer words than a language. The bad news, of course, is that they are "hard".

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Coming Soon


This blog will deal with issues that arise from the attempts of non-native English speaking researchers to communicate their results in a research environment largely dominated by the English language. Its aim is not to bemoan the current situation but to make the best of it. While I am trained as a philosopher, I have come to think of myself as a somewhat specialized English teacher.

I want to use this blog as a regular column on topics spanning from details of English grammar to intricacies of academic style. Since we are now working under 'postmodern conditions', this means figuring out how to write either reconstructively or deconstructively, or sometimes both, but always critically. Whether one wants to represent the object of one's research, or 'depresence' its subject, one's problem, when writing, is one of attaining an effective style, of finding one's footing in the crisis. The current crisis of European science, I'd argue, is conditional on our ability to use the English language, especially here on the Continent.

I should stress that I think of crisis not as something to be avoided, but something one must always, very carefully, try to achieve in one's writing. It amounts simply to producing texts that are capable of critique--that distinctively 'academic' stylistic virtue. This, however, can mean many things.