Friday, January 07, 2005

Bad Writing and its causes

The New York Times > Books > Sunday Book Review > Essay: You Talkin' to Me?: " I CAME across the following sentence in a term paper recently. The student was about to describe how she had arrived at her conclusions. This is what she wrote: ''The following methodology was utilized.'' I see this kind of thing all the time. Not ''the following method was used''; not ever ''this is what I did.'' Like nearly all the students I've taught, this young woman has learned to believe that the English language does not have room for her. That it is a secret code known only to the initiated. That the language she speaks is uneducated, inferior and incorrect. Hence the corseted tone, the vocabulary that strains at sophistication, the way she absents herself from her own writing. This is a student who has been taught to worship the volcano god of Correct English."

I hope Deresiewicz is right, because if our students are really simply trying to be correct, they can perhaps be corrected. But more often I think such formulations ("the following methodology was utilized") combines two equally problematic but different issues. One is the student's impulse to try to sound "important," often scientific. "Methodology" sounds scientific, "method" or "technique" doesn't. Ditto "utilized." Maybe the difference between "Correct English" and "scientific language" isn't significant, though--both are (futile) attempts to sound like an "in" when you're not.

The other is a creeping problem in speech as well as written language, however, and it's the problem of agent-less prose. Who "utilized" those methods, anyway? The sentence is passive--the agent is obscured. Or, more actively: the student has obscured the agent, that is, herself. She used the methods, but she doesn't want to say "this is what I did" because then she has to take responsibility for it. "Mistakes were made" is the classic example of the agency-obscuring passive, but you see them everywhere: in advertising, PR, sociology articles, everywhere. When I (briefly) worked in marketing for a large conference hotel in the mid-eighties, I rewrote lots of their PR pieces to be more active. This had two effects, neither of which was appreciated by my bosses: it made the letters shorter, and it made them responsible. They asked me to change them back.

I can usually get creative writing students to rephrase their work more actively; they understand that they need to develop their own voices in their work, and that "who did what to whom" is important. It's much harder to get the literature students, or the composition students, to do this. They are trying to fill the requisite number of pages, and often they simply don't know who did what. Did Shakespeare create that effect, or is it just in the text? They are afraid to say "I"--I blame their high school English teachers, but it probably goes back further than that--so they simply leave the subject out. "The book was read." Blah.

Deresiewicz's essay is intriguing nonetheless, and I'm all for outing the prescriptivists as the snobbish protectors of their own privilege that they were/are. But, like so many problems, I think this one has multiple causes, and he's only identified one.

1 comment:

Suzanne said...

I manage copyediting for a medical journal, and I can tell you that "agent-less", passive voice in reports of research is an established practice. You can't go more than a sentence or two without encountering "It has been shown that", "statistical analyses were conducted", or "laboratory measurements were obtained". A few authors have even told me that first-person, active voice is inappropriate in science. Apparently ascribing scientific results to the actions of an actual person or persons undermines the credibility of the research (or something like that).

Our editors spend a lot of time transforming this kind of deathless prose into active voice, eliminating puffy words like "methodology", and making really technical material at least a little bit more accessible to nonscientists. Most of the time, authors are happy with the result. But as the article you cited suggests, it seems that they are being taught to write verbosely. I wonder if going through our journal's editorial machine has any effect on their future writing.

Probably not.