academese (prose style)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

academese
"[T]he popular explanation for academese in humanities writing," according to Douglas Biber and Bethany Gray, "is that it represents a form of deliberate obscurity" (Grammatical Complexity in Academic English, 2016). (PeopleImages.com/Getty Images)

Definition

Academese is an informal, pejorative term for the specialized language (or jargon) used in some scholarly writing and speech.

Bryan Garner notes that academese is "characteristic of academicians who are writing for a highly specialized but limited audience, or who have a limited grasp of how to make their arguments clearly and succinctly" (Garner's Modern American Usage, 2016).

The Tameri Guide for Writers defines academese as an "artificial form of communication commonly used in institutes of higher education designed to make small, irrelevant ideas appear important and original.

Proficiency in academese is achieved when you begin inventing your own words and no one can understand what you are writing."

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

 

Examples and Observations

  • "Dale was not a good writer. Trust me on this. . . . [I]n training to be an academic, Dale was crippled by the need to write in academese. It is not a language formed by any human tongue, and few, if any, academics survive the degradation of it to move on to actual prose."
    (Dan Simmons, A Winter Haunting. William Morrow, 2002)
     
  • "There is original thought here, but the reader is immediately confronted by the language academics apparently use to communicate with one another. Sometimes it reads like a translation from the German, at others that they are merely trying to impress or indulging in a verbal cutting contest. Here are a few of the words you should be prepared to encounter: hermeneutics, commodified, contextualizing, conceptualize, hyperanimacy, taxonomic, metacritical, rhizome, perspectivizing, nomadology, indexical, polysemy, auratic, reification, metonymic, synecdoche, biodegradability, interstitial, valorize, diegetic, allegoresis, grammatology, oracy, centripetality, and esemplastic."
    (Stanley Dance in a review of two anthologies of jazz studies; quoted by George E. Lewis in A Power Stronger Than Itself. University of Chicago Press, 2008)
     
  • Vernacular Equivalents to Academese
    "[E]ffective academic writing tends to be bilingual (or 'diglossial'), making its point in Academese and then making it again in the vernacular, a repetition that, interestingly, alters the meaning. Here is an example of such bilingualism from a review of a book on evolutionary biology by a professor of ecology and evolution, Jerry A. Coyne. Coyne is explaining the theory that males are biologically wired to compete for females. Coyne makes his point both in Academese, which I italicize, and in the vernacular, staging a dialogue in the text between the writer's (and the reader's) academic self and his 'lay' self: 'It is this internecine male competitiveness that is assumed to have driven not only the evolution of increased male body size (on average, bigger is better in a physical contest), but also of hormonally mediated male aggression (there is no use being the biggest guy on the block if you are a wallflower).' It is this type of bridge discourse that enables nonspecialists and students to cross from their lay discourse to academic discourse and back. . . .

    "In providing a vernacular equivalent of their Academese, writers like Coyne install a self-checking device that forces them to make sure they are actually saying something. When we recast our point in vernacular terms, we do not simply throw out a sop to the nonspecialist reader, much less dumb ourselves down. Rather we let our point speak itself better than it knows, to come out of the closet in the voice of the skeptical reader."
    (Gerald Graff, Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind. Yale University Press, 2003)
     
  • "If you cannot write about it so that anyone who buys the paper has a reasonable chance of understanding it, you don't understand it yourself."
    (Robert Zonka, quoted by Roger Ebert in Awake in the Dark. University of Chicago Press, 2006)
     
  • Varieties of Academese
    "Critics outside the academy tend to assume that academese is one thing, public discourse another. But in fact there are major differences of standards ranging from field to field: what constitutes evidence or valid argument, what questions are worth asking, what choices of style will work or even be understood, which authorities can be trusted, how much eloquence is permitted."
    (Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Rhetoric: The Quest for Effective Communication. Blackwell, 2004)
     
  • Lionel Trilling on the Language of Non-Thought
    "A specter haunts our culture--it is that people will eventually be unable to say, 'They fell in love and married,' let alone understand the language of Romeo and Juliet, but will as a matter of course say 'Their libidinal impulses being reciprocal, they activated their individual erotic drives and integrated them within the same frame of reference.'

    "Now this is not the language of abstract thought or of any kind of thought. It is the language of non-thought. . . . There can be no doubt whatever that it constitutes a threat to the emotions and thus to life itself."
    (Lionel Trilling, "The Meaning of a Literary Idea." The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society, 1950)
     
  • Passive Voice in Academese
    "If your style has been corrupted by long exposure to academese or 'business English,' you may need to worry about the passive. Make sure it hasn't seeded itself where it doesn't belong. If it has, root it out as needed. Where it does belong, I think we ought to use it freely. It is one of the lovely versatilities of the verb."
    (Ursula K. Le Guin, Steering the Craft. Eighth Mountain Press, 1998)

 

Pronunciation: a-KAD-a-MEEZ