“Flowery” language, global English, and scholarly communication

I really love language, but my desire to be idiomatic often runs athwart to the goals of scholarly communication. Especially when motivating a paper, I enjoy writing sentences such as this:

In the data-rich setting, at first blush it appears that learning algorithms can enjoy both low privacy risk and high utility.

(Yes, I know it’s passive). However, consider the poor graduate student for whom English is a second (or third) language – this sentence is needlessly confusing for them. If we are really honest, this is the dominant group of people who will actually read the paper, so if I am writing with my “target audience” in mind, I should eschew idioms, literary allusions, and the like. Technical papers should be written in a technical and global English (as opposed to a specific canonized World English).

Nevertheless, I want to write papers in a “writerly” way; I want to use the fact that my chosen career is one of constant writing as an opportunity to improve my communication skills, but I also want to play, to exploit the richness of English, and even to slip in the occasional pun. Am I a linguistic chauvinist? Unlike mathematicians, I never had to learn to read scholarly works in another language, so I have the luxury of lazily indulging my fantasies of being an Author.

When I review papers I often have many comments about grammatical issues, but perhaps in a global English of scholarly communication it doesn’t matter as long as the argument is intelligible. Do we need so many articles? Is consistent tense really that important? I think so, but I don’t have a philosophically consistent argument for what may appear, in situ, to be a prescriptivist attitude.

The cynical side of me says that nobody reads papers anyway, so there is no point in worrying about these issues or even spending time on the literary aspects of technical papers. Cynicism has never been very nourishing for me, though, so I am hoping for an alternative…

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2 thoughts on ““Flowery” language, global English, and scholarly communication

  1. One way to to make your sentences easier to read without sacrificing (too many of) your darling wordbits is to order it more logically, putting qualifiers *after* the content:

    “At first blush it appears that learning algorithms can enjoy both low privacy risk and high utility in the data-rich setting.”

    It could be argued (correctly) that this makes “in the data-rich setting” have an ambiguous scope, but this doesn’t materially change the sentence’s content. If my goal was to communicate simply and clearly, I wouldn’t be using the phrase “at first blush” in the first place — reordering the sentence makes it clear that the phrase can be deleted entirely with no loss of meaning, as the word “appears” is already there, and one doesn’t need two modifiers (one pre- and one post-) that do the same thing. You arguably have a third weasel word (“can”), making the original statement equivalent to “It seems that it appears that X might Y […]”, which is the sort of sentence that I really do not enjoy reading, particularly in a scientific setting.

    Using a large lexicon — maniacally preferring lower-frequency words, if you will — makes for flowery text, not necessarily literary nor communicative prose. This is usually seen in travel articles, amateur novels, and college admission essays. Same goes for baroque sentence constructions, such as: “Especially when motivating a paper, I enjoy writing sentences such as this”, which read like a disfluent translation, or Yoda. Combining the two indulgences leads to the literary equivalent of Sages puzzles.

    So… Pick one. Rather than worry about dumbing down the words when I write, I think about writing sentences with simple structures, where the mental processing happens (mostly) left-to-right. This gives room for any sort of literary flight of fancy I might reasonably desire; it’s ok for readers to miss a reference– or fail to notice some cleverness I’m particularly proud of– as long as they can still follow the sentence.

    Your original sentence could become:
    “It would appear that learning algorithms enjoy both low privacy risk and high utility in the data-rich setting.”
    or even
    “At first blush, learning algorithms enjoy both low privacy risk and high utility in the data-rich setting”.

    Perhaps these are less fun, but that’s because there isn’t much to mine in the underlying statement: All the more reason to not force your readers to expend that much effort to understand it. Save the good stuff for when you have the material (and then make sure to put it in)!

  2. Many prominent English language authors have taken pride in the clarity of their expression, and their ability to write expressive and colorful sentences without confusing the reader. Ernest Hemingway and Truman Capote are two obvious examples, and E.B. White (author of Charlotte’s Web) thought clarity in expression was so important he re-edited the English expression textbook he had used at college (Strunk and White, The Elements of Style)
    The creative writer’s maxim is ‘Kill your darlings’.
    I hope it is not a false memory, but I believe there was a study whose conclusion was that the level of influence a paper had depended as much on the quality of writing as the originality of the research. Assuming the study is not a product of my imagination, I don’t know how they measured originality or quality of expression, but there it seems plausible, at least, that difficult to read papers will fail to achieve the potential influence implied by the quality of research they describe.

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