From The Atlantic:
“Persistence is one of the great characteristics of a pitbull, and I guess owners take after their dogs,” says Annetta Cheek, the co-founder of the D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Plain Language. Cheek, an anthropologist by training who left academia in the early 1980s to work for the Federal Aviation Commission, is responsible for something few people realize exists: the 2010 Plain Writing Act.In fact, Cheek was among the first government employees to champion the use of clear, concise language. Once she retired in 2007 from the FAA and gained the freedom to lobby, she leveraged her hatred for gobbledygook to create an actual law. Take a look at recent information put out by many government agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—if it lacks needlessly complex sentences or bizarre bureaucratic jargon, it’s largely because of Cheek and her colleagues.
The idea that writing should be clear, concise, and low-jargon isn’t a new one—and it isn’t limited to government agencies, of course. The problem of needlessly complex writing—sometimes referred to as an “opaque writing style”—has been explored in fields ranging from law to science. Yet in academia, unwieldy writing has become something of a protected tradition. Take this example:
The work of the text is to literalize the signifiers of the first encounter, dismantling the ideal as an idol. In this literalization, the idolatrous deception of the first moment becomes readable. The ideal will reveal itself to be an idol. Step by step, the ideal is pursued by a devouring doppelganger, tearing apart all transcendence. This de-idealization follows the path of reification, or, to invoke Augustine, the path of carnalization of the spiritual. Rhetorically, this is effected through literalization. A Sentimental Education does little more than elaborate the progressive literalization of the Annunciation.
That little doozy appears in Barbara Vinken’s Flaubert Postsecular: Modernity Crossed Out, published by Stanford University Press, and was recently posted to a listserv used by clear-language zealots—many of whom are highly qualified academics who are willing to call their colleagues out for being habitual offenders of opaque writing. Yet the battle to make clear and elegant prose the new status quo is far from won.
Last year, Harvard’s Steven Pinker (who’s also written about his grammar peeves for The Atlantic) authored an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education in which he used adjectives like “turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand” to describe academic writing. In an email, Pinker told me that the reaction to his article “has been completely positive, which is not the typical reaction to articles I write, and particularly surprising given my deliberately impolite tone.”
. . . .
A nonacademic might think the campaign against opaque writing is a no-brainer; of course, researchers should want to maximize comprehension of their work. Cynics charge, however, that academics play an elitist game with their words: They want to exclude interlopers. Others say that academics have traditionally been forced to write in an opaque style to be taken seriously by the gatekeepers—academic journal editors, for example. The main reason, though, may not be as sinister or calculated. Pinker, a cognitive scientist, says it boils down to “brain training”: the years of deep study required of academics to become specialists in their chosen fields actually work against them being able to unpack their complicated ideas in a coherent, concrete manner suitable for average folks. Translation: Experts find it really hard to be simple and straightforward when writing about their expertise. He calls this the “curse of knowledge” and says academics aren’t aware they’re doing it or properly trained to identify their blindspots—when they know too much and struggle to ascertain what others don’t know. In other words, sometimes it’s simply more intellectually challenging to write clearly. “It’s easy to be complex, it’s harder to be simple,” Bosley said. “It would make academics better researchers and better writers, though, if they had to translate their thinking into plain language.” It would probably also mean more people, including colleagues, would read their work.
Link to the rest at The Atlantic and thanks to James for the tip.
PG says lawyers sometimes do the same thing in contracts. When he sees opaque language, PG automatically suspects the author is trying to hide something.