The Vexing Nuisance Associated With Obfuscated Prose

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Or… The Problem With Overly Complex Writing

I clench my jaw as I attempt to complete my readings for my political science course in preparation for the final exam. I reread the sentence for a second time. Then, a third. And a fourth. It’s only by the fifth read-through that I begin to understand the meaning of this sixty-seven-word sentence, complete with three semicolons and four seemingly made-up words. 

This paper defies all the rules of grammar and punctuation I have been learning since fourth-grade English class. It seems the author has forgotten how to use periods, opting to use semicolons, dashes and commas instead. They use only words of three-syllables or more, replacing “use” with “utilize,” “teach” with “indoctrinate” and “think” with “cogitate.” Not to mention the highly technical terminology used, short of explanation or context. I can’t help but wonder if the author’s writing style is implemented as an attempt to show off their superior intelligence and academic prowess.

However, excessively complicated language is not exclusive to academics and the experts of disciplines. Reading essays written by my friends and peers, I realize that writing riddled with unnecessary jargon has become standard practice, among both seasoned academics and clueless undergraduate students. 

…researchers tend to inflate their writing with professional jargon in an attempt to sound more intellectual and elegant

So, why does academic writing use needlessly complex language and meaningless jargon? Firstly, it’s unlikely that the intended audience of these academic papers are undergraduate students from varying disciplines. Most probably, the author intended that his work be read exclusively by his colleagues, who are familiar with the discipline-specific lingo and complex syntax. Secondly, researchers tend to inflate their writing with professional jargon in an attempt to sound more intellectual and elegant. Academics are pressured to mimic particular stylistic conventions and use similar terminology in order to be taken seriously by their peers and academic journal editors, as well as department chairs and academic committees.

Nonetheless, these papers are still incomprehensible to most. Deborah S. Bosley, a university professor with a doctorate in rhetoric and writing, notes that academic language is often cluttered with so much jargon and unexplained technical terminology that only those with a Ph.D. in the same discipline can understand their peers’ works. Academics tend to use complicated syntax, despite being able to explain the concepts through simple language. This is problematic because convoluted writing only further obscures the meaning of concepts that are already fairly confusing. Academic prose is often so difficult to follow that readers must spend a considerable amount of time and effort to decipher the meaning of the texts. While students can (and often do) spend time simplifying academic writing and re-wording it in a coherent manner in bullet-form notes, unpacking all of the jargon bogs down a student’s learning speed. 

If the primary purpose of academic prose is to reach and inform audiences, writers should acknowledge how obscure and convoluted language confuses and discourages readers.

Moreover, by not maximizing the comprehension of their work, researchers reinforce the elitism and exclusivity of academia. Some authors use complex writing as an attempt to exclude the general public from reading academic works and engaging in discourse, since maintaining the privative status of academia in the eyes of the public makes it easier to justify higher salaries. In the process, the use of unnecessary jargon, acronyms and idioms excludes those of lower class backgrounds and those for whom their first language is not English. If the primary purpose of academic prose is to reach and inform audiences, writers should acknowledge how obscure and convoluted language confuses and discourages readers. Since simplified academic writing would more effectively achieve the researcher’s goal of extending the scope of audience, a greater and more explicit effort should be made to simplify their writing. 

Even still, it’s important to stop conflating complex writing with complex ideas.

Pedantic writing is enticing because it’s an easy way of making the content of a paper seem more complex and prestigious. Even still, it’s important to stop conflating complex writing with complex ideas. Breaking down complicated ideas into simple and concise language can actually actually more difficult.

I find myself falling into the jargon pit only when I’m trying to grapple with concepts that I don’t truly understand. Writing simplistically requires that one firmly grasps the concepts being espoused and have an adequate understanding of the meaning behind relevant terms. 

So, no, you’re not “slow” because you have trouble understanding the sixty-page paper your professor assigned in POLI 362. And no, you don’t sound like a genius when you say words like “dialectical” and “veracity.”

As for the papers we students produce, do your professors a favour this coming exam season and tuck away your thesaurus. We should refrain from using needlessly complex language to sound more intellectual, because this could be at the expense of making sentences incomprehensible for readers and even our graders. As the next generation of professors and scholars, it is our responsibility to make academic writing more accessible to students like us and to the greater population by writing clearly and concisely, not in obfuscated, floral, indecipherable vernaculars.

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