Monday, March 13, 2017

Where I insult all my British friends and acquaintances and everyone else ...

            Since Separate Identity was published in 2014, we’ve had two complaints about the writing style, both from UK residents. Both reject our style as un-academic. What they mean is that we do not write as they do in the United Kingdom. We don’t. We’re not British; we don’t pad our writing with euphemisms, circumlocutions, misused prepositions, and we don’t use passive voice.
            Passive voice is endemic in British writing. It allows one to escape responsibility for opinions, observations and conclusions. It defers responsibility to authors cited or to a non-existent ‘other.’
            British academics avoid any blunt statement. They wouldn’t call ‘a spade a spade’ if their life depended on it. Americans are usually plain-spoken. If something is wrong, we usually say so with little quibble.
            Bruce, my writing partner, has a complex ancestry. But he is American, on the conservative side, a teacher with significant peer recognition. He is separated by a century and a half from the last immigrant family. His family’s presence in America started in 1607. I share some of his ancestry. But I’m separated by a generation from Austria, and I am a dual US-Austrian citizen. I am, despite the duality, an American. As does Bruce, I write like an American. And I find British academic writing stultifying. Say what you mean. Drop the extraneous words you use to pad your writing. Get to the point. And take responsibility for your thoughts.
            Both of those who complained about our style are bound to the circumlocution that characterizes British writers. Frankly, if you experienced the hand of an American editor, you would not come off well. [I’ve read your stuff.] One of those who complained about our writing style is caught up in the arguments about the value of popular [public] history and academic history. Both fill important slots. It’s a meaningless argument, only meant to preserve history as the field of assistant professors. [The life of an adjunct professor is not an easy one. I know.] But having academic credentials does not elevate one to a special position in life. Besides I’d set my BA x 2, MA x 2 and PhD against yours any day.
            Another difference between American and British writers is the kind of analysis each brings to their writing. Brits are more likely to quote every available opinion, sensible or not, to make some sort of indifferent, indirect analysis. Facts can be manipulated. But for British writers, facts are ephemeral things, hardly real. Most American writers do not see evidence in that light. British writers like to pretend that academic competition does not exist. Dear heart, it does both there and here. It’s intense, sometimes nasty.
            Amazon ranks books by sales. I think it is telling that Separate Identity outsells the books of both of those who complained. It ranks about two million places ahead of both. I think that says something about its content and worth.
            I repeat, take responsibility for your work and opinions. Use direct sentences. Avoid passive voice. Be plain. Don't be an academic snob.

Herewith is a power point presentation on British academic writing. Note that it advises use of Passive Voice. It makes them feel good. No competent American writer would use passive voice. The reasons given for using it in this video are, frankly, idiotic.


jerome said...

I must preface my remarks by saying I am in no way connected with the comments that prompted Rachael's post. And this is not the place to debate writing styles of Brits and Americans. In the spirit of linguistic ecumenism, I would simply say that I enjoy American writing, and I enjoy British writing - I enjoy the differences, and sometimes I enjoy winding up certain American correspondents by going into "passive voice" overdrive. But when it comes to writing styles, how about "Vive la différence"? Or as the American Nobel prize winner Bob Dylan sang: "you are right from your side and I am right from mine"... (we're just one too many mornings...etc.)

This no way defends the comments that Rachael disagrees with. But academic material should be judged by content and accuracy, not by entertaining turn of phrase. And while it is trite to say that any publicity is good publicity, there is a grain of truth in that. Any references to Separate Identity will bring it to a new audience, who can read it and make their own assessment.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to disappoint you Rachael but though I was born in Britain, I'm not offended either.

I value reading what academics say about Witness history (and am frequently amused when they get it wrong!) On the otherhand, in recent years there has been significant improvement in their work with those who show the greatest interest producing the best work ... in my opinion.

As regards writing styles, I have always enjoyed the direct approach of Bruce and yourself. (John 1:46,47) In contrast, I fell asleep half way through the Academic Writing style workshop presentation - academically I take pride in being an 'unqualified hack' but with 20 years experience in training I am enraged by the academic who produced this awful PowerPoint presentation. (Hate it when slides contain too many words, especially when presenters simply read every word, assuming their audience incapable of doing this for themselves)

It is important that, whatever writing style is used, error is corrected. If you had not corrected the undue attention given by scholars to the Adventist/Witness link, for instance, I wonder how long it would have taken other academics to have noticed?

Keep on doing well, what you do so well.


Andrew Martin said...

Ah yes, I remember the battle cry of American teachers of English:


Regarding the example in the video:

If I had been there at the time of the assumed accident, in recounting it, it would be appropriate to report it as: "we applied pressure to the wound" - unless it was only I/me, in which case "I applied pressure to the wound" - unless I am the Queen of England (which I'm not), in which case it would revert to "we applied pressure to the wound".

If I arrived on the scene later, and was aware of the course of treatment, but did not know the identity of whoever gave treatment, I can see "pressure was applied to the wound" as appropriate reporting.

Of course, it could just as easily be stated as "someone applied pressure to the wound" but in some cases, especially written material, it could give rise to the unintended question of "Someone! Who?" That would detract attention from the actual narrative, to a search (in some minds) for an unidentified third party.

Maybe I'm overstating this, but I've seen this very thing happen in conversation - people are so easily distracted by irrelevant details.

That said, I enjoy the clear and direct style on this blog.

Donald Jacobs said...

I don't like passive voice either. (In general, there are always exceptions) The presentation didn't make a very good case for it either, it seems to me. Have people making these complaints done so in formal reviews of the book or just through personal contact?

Chris G. said...

Thanks for the education everyone!