Bring clarity by objectifying your language


The mental movie of a mouse cowering the corner of a cage that has another mouse in it gets chunked into ‘social avoidance.’ You can’t blame the neuroscientist for thinking this way. She’s seen the movie thousands of times; she doesn’t need to hit the PLAY button in her visual memory and watch the critters quivering every time she talks about whether her experiment worked. But we do need to watch them, at least the first time, to appreciate what actually happened.  (Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style, 2014: p. 71)

Steven Pinker argues that academics like our neuroscientist, above, tend to use abstract language in their writing because they “chunk” together discrete events — the many instances of mice cowering and quivering — into broader categories like “social avoidance.” Yet, as Pinker also notes, many readers won’t have done this same “chunking,” or will have different conceptual “chunks” of knowledge, and so will need to “watch” the mouse avoid its peer at least once in a piece of writing in order to follow the writer’s chain of thought.

So when and how should academic writers write about “social avoidance,” and when should they describe the actions of the mouse?

Academic writing that includes multiple instances of abstract terms regularly becomes difficult to read, imagine, and follow. Often, but not always, these abstract terms are dismissed as academic jargon, as “social avoidance” might be, if we couldn’t picture the frightened mouse.

Language that is concrete — almost tangible — is much easier to follow, because it can be pictured in the mind’s eye.

When you edit your own writing, strive to introduce concrete language in the place of, or as a supplement to, abstractions by:

  • ensuring that at least one sentence per paragraph has a human in the subject position of the sentence. So, for example:
    • Social avoidance precipitates anxiety disorders including panic disorder
      is a sentence with an abstract subject, “social avoidance.”
    • People who avoid engaging with others can end up with an anxiety disorder, such as panic disorder
      is a sentence with humans, “people,” in the subject position.
  • using passive voice strategically — see my earlier post, “Favour the active voice.”
  • using physical or sensory detail to help you reader to ‘see’ what you ‘see’:
    • Social avoidance is a poorly understood aspect of anxiety disorders
      is a sentence with few physical or sensory details.
    • Social avoidance lurks behind–but is too often ignored in–the psychological literature of anxiety disorders
      is a sentence with an abstract subject, “social avoidance,” that is brought to our senses through the animated, concrete verbs “lurks” and “ignored.”
  • providing a telling example along with definitions or explanations of new or niche terminology:
    • Social avoidance is a defense mechanism in which individuals withdraw from social interaction
      is a definition with few concrete or sensory terms to support it.
    • Social avoidance is a defense mechanism in which individuals withdraw from social interaction. When a mouse cowers in the corner of a shared cage, or when the gregarious Caribbean spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) shuns a member of the same species, we witness social avoidance in action.
      While longer than the original, an abstract term that is defined and paired with an example brings clarity and, in turn, a better chance of being understood.(For more on social avoidance and the Caribbean spiny lobster, and a model of physical or sensory details in action, see Behringer, Butler, and Shields, “Avoidance of disease by social lobsters,” Nature 441 (2016): 421.)


Recommended reading:
Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Penguin Books, 2015.

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