A helpful guide to academic language

By October 30, 2012Education, Humour, Other, Research

A working life as an academic required my reading academic journal articles and attending academic seminars. I discovered that the academic world had its own language, its own forms of communication and argument, and I began to collect outstanding examples of them, helped by friends with a similar interest.

I still read journal articles, and read widely on the Internet, the ‘blogosphere’. Academic debate continues there, too, with new forms of interaction. I thought it might be helpful to provide a kind of glossary.

First, let us deal with the journal articles. In what follows, I first set out the characteristic terminology, and then do my best to provide a helpful translation in brackets.

‘It has long been known that …’   (I don’t seem to be able to find the right reference.)

‘It is generally believed that …’  (One of my colleagues agreed with me over coffee that…)

While it has not been possible to provide definite answers to the questions we set out …’  (The data don’t really support our hypotheses, but I need a publication out of this…)

‘An adequate theory to account for these findings has yet to be formulated.’  (No one else has been able to do it, and I can’t, either.)

‘It is hoped that this work will stimulate further research in this interesting field.’ (OK, the paper isn’t much good, but neither is anything else in this area.)

‘Only three of these samples were retained for further study’ (I couldn’t make sense of the others, and ignored them.)

‘Results of later analyses will be reported at a later date.’ (I will probably never get around to making sense of this stuff.)

Although some detail has been lost in reproduction, it is possible to tell from the original graph …’   (You have to be clairvoyant even to see it in the original.)

‘In this area, the most reliable results are those of Bloggs.’  (Bloggs is one of my former students.)

‘It might be argued that …’ (Now, I do have an excellent answer to this one.)

Second, adjectives need not be taken at their face value.

‘The agreement of the observations with the predicted results is…’

‘Excellent’              (fair)

‘Good’                    (poor)

‘Satisfactory’          (doubtful)

‘Fair’                      (imaginary)

‘As good as could be expected given the approximations made in the analysis’   (non-existent)

‘Of great theoretical and practical importance’ (interesting to me)

‘Insightful argument’  (one that agrees with my position)

Strained connection’  (one that I don’t like)

Third, in the blogosphere words don’t always have their common meanings, and while politeness is a key, robust interactions are expected.

You have no idea what you are talking about.’   (I disagree.)

‘Your bias shone through loud and clear…’     (I don’t like you.)

‘Please try to keep up.’   (I have superior knowledge to yours.)

I’m going to sound like a broken record…  (You guys don’t listen to me.)

‘What are you smoking?’       (I think you may well have made an error here.)

‘I’m all for being proved wrong.’    (Though this rarely if ever happens.)

‘Have you actually read [whatever it is]?    (I haven’t either, but I won’t have to show that: the question is directed at you.)

Only a rabid conspiracy theorist could believe…’      (I feel you may be in error here too.)

Good rant.’      (I’d like to have written that, but don’t have quite the nerve.)

‘Amazing.’     (I think I disagree.)

‘Apparently, with your superior intellect…’     (I think you are fundamentally misconceived about this.)

‘I have people telling me…’     (Someone I met in a bar said…)

You do not examine your own influences and biases carefully enough.’  (Unlike me — I do this each morning as I brush my teeth.)

‘Contrast a wacko with a pragmatist.’   (I am pretty sure which one I am.)

This is ridiculous posturing…’       (I rather think that you are wrong.)

Master these forms, and you will be able to take part in these discussions with ease and skill, making good points — oh yes, all argument in academic circles is based on ‘points’, as in ‘I think you’ve missed my point’.


(An earlier version of this piece was published on Judith Curry’s ‘Climate etc’ at the beginning of the year.)

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