Don’t be afraid to be clear

Students often try to give their writing an academic air by making it more difficult to read. They’ll turn a straightforward sentence like “the puppet popped out and scared the children” into “the puppet’s sudden emergence caused fear in the children”. Or write sentences like “an experiment to test this theory was carried out”, in which all instances of “I” or “we” are scrubbed out in an effort to make things less personal.

But fewer professional researchers feel this shyness about being direct and personal in their writing. To illustrate this, I’ve taken extracts written by PPLS researchers and degraded them into the sort of writing that’s more typical of undergraduates. Take a look at the transformed sentences below and consider how they could be made less obscure.

Animals setting off to their usual foraging grounds can be seen to be in possession of knowledge of their destination based on the fact that different starting places and different routes exist.

An experiment in which eight- to ten-year-old children played a tangram description and matching task with a partner, as in Wilkes-Gibbs and Clark (1992), was carried out to distinguish these alternatives.

Continue reading “Don’t be afraid to be clear”

Reducing ambiguity

If you’ve taken an introduction to linguistics, you’ll have heard of ambiguity.  When I say “a cow attacked a farmer with an axe”, there’s some potential for miscommunication about who’s wielding the axe.  The reason is that sentences aren’t just words on a string.  Instead, the words come in clumps, and these clumps can link up in different ways even if the word order stays the same.  It matters if “with an axe” attaches to “attacked” or “farmer”.  This is syntactic ambiguity, but you can also have ambiguity in the words themselves.  If I said “I bought a pen”, you would probably imagine that I’d bought something to write with, but my sentence might actually be about an enclosure for some pigs.  You never know.

In your academic writing, you probably won’t be communicating facts about pigs in pens or cows with axes, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t need to worry about ambiguity.  Here are a few examples that can cause real trouble in essays: Continue reading “Reducing ambiguity”

Writing to learn and writing to communicate

Write twice: once to discover what you think and once to present what you’ve learned. Committing yourself to writing twice may look like a burden, but you’ll probably find it to be liberating instead.

The first time through is when you find out what you think. You can’t skip this; you won’t know what you have to say until you get it out. No matter how many times you read through your sources, you’ll find that your ideas and concepts will always have something ethereal about them until they are sitting on your computer screen. Continue reading “Writing to learn and writing to communicate”