Opinion 13/12-16 9:11 7

Spare me the French-sounding platitudes

 Photo: courtesy of author
It is no sign of intelligence to write so that only people with a doctorate can understand it. On the contrary, reckons this political science student

I'm tired of the academic world’s salacious cult of elitist, clumsy language.

Sound like gibberish? I regret to disappoint you. University study programmes suffer nowadays from foreign words’ Tourette syndrome and linguistic brain farts.

Too many students and university staff fail to write in plain, simple Danish. It is all made up to be as fine and intricate as possible: Unless a sentence includes at least seven clauses, six foreign words, and a readability index that would give Hegel a headache, it has all been wasted.

I study political science, and to my horror I can see how my fellow students, in their eagerness to sound clever, sling out French-sounding platitudes like raison d'être, vis-a-vis and a priori. Good Lord. It has become a competition over who can sound the wisest and most educated. But this is a complete misunderstanding.

”Most articles swim around in vulgar intricate phrases, while they French-me-here and Latin-me-there”

It is no sign of intelligence to write so that only people with a doctorate can understand it. On the contrary. You are intelligent if you can convey the most complex topics, so that working men, nurses and even the professional classes can understand it.

So where did they get this from? Did it pop out of thin air? Of course not! The trend is pervasive throughout academia, and has its roots in an education system where you consistently have to deliver written copy to people who are better educated than yourself. Throughout the programme you convey upwards.

But when reality hits you on the other side, it is quite the reverse. And here is where the problem arises. Because when you need to communicate to people who do not have the same background as yourself, you can’t write elitist and incomprehensibly. Nobody is served by this.

A minority of the scientific articles I read in my study programme are written in plain language. Most articles swim around in vulgar intricate phrases, while they French-me-here and Latin-me-there. I'm not saying that the language should be stupefied and that the scientific weight of the articles reduced.

"Teaching in written communication should be compulsory in any academic programme”

No, I just want the full stop back. That we strive to write to the many and not the few, and that we again take pride in writing in clear, lucid Danish. Written communication is essential in so many different professions. It is the point of contact to citizens, customers and colleagues. Yet it is shelved away, untaught at universities. Teaching in written communication should be compulsory in any academic programme. Content and its communication should be weighted equivalently. What use is it to have insight, if you do not manage to share it with others?

There is much talk of general education these days. So let's start with the easy stuff; learn to write diversely. This is not gibberish, but common sense.



is that the real issue?

By audrey on 13. December 2016, 18:10.

Hi Andreas,
I think the issue is more about promoting Danish than about pretending to be intelligent..
There is no shame using accurate beautiful words if relevant. But there might be one in mixing languages.
I think it's even more obvious with English words, in all of our sentences. I don't speak Danish (yet) but I won't be surprised if you were using a lot of English words instead of Danish ones in sentences written in Danish. If that leaded to the death of those Danish words, i think it would be sad.
Don't you think?
A French ;)

My experience is the exact opposite

By Thorsten on 13. December 2016, 16:55.

Hi Andreas,
First off, I completely agree with Anca's comment.

(Tl:Dr of the below: My experience in IfS is more the opposite and to me your issues are analogue to some-one complaining about fellow students not using enough would-be academic/precise expressions, simply because this corresponds more to her general language style.)

Secondly: As a fellow IfS student, I have had the exact opposite experience. I am almost afraid to admit publicly that I have read an extensive amount of (completely unscientific) books both as a child and adult, that I grew up in an academic household, and that, most likely as a consequence of these horrific background variables, I have a tendency to express myself in somewhat more convoluted sentences than do some of my fellow students (let this sentence serve as example). This, I do not do to intimidate or pose. It is simply the way I think, speak and write. Also, I tend to generally interact just fine with people who do not speak as do I.
In IfS I have spent years, writing papers in 'my language' and then rewriting them with shorter sentences, rewrite or remove 'academic' expressions, simplify theory when possible and so forth and so on. I see the value of learning this - being able to convey knowledge; being able to adapt the style to fit the audience; but in many cases my impression is that the style intended at IfS should befit a gifted high school student at best. This is not to say that you don't have a point - your experience is at least as valid as mine. This is, however to nuance the impression you have given.

Thirdly: When I, myself, learn new expressions, I will often want to remember them, and so I attempt to use them a few times. If the expression is similar to another expression I know, even better! - that enables me to nuance and season my language even more - especially since many synonyms have different connotations. You may consider this elitist, but I LIKE learning new words, concepts and expressions and I am fairly certain I am not alone in this. Is it possible that in some cases, your, as per your description, annoying dilletant wanna-be's are simply out to learn and/or to practice? Could it be that they are familiarising themselves with new words to better understand and use them?
Of course one does not rule out the other and I, as you, most certainly have had or heard conversations with people simply trying to show off. If they annoy me particularly, though, I tend to challenge them to a game of fussball or beer chugging to show what I have learned over the years - or ignore them. There is, of course, also the Good Will Hunting way, but simply put, I am generally just not that smart and I don't care enough to throw a fit.

Fourth: I have, from the first semester on been stupefied and dumbfounded by texts and presentations from fellow students and some lecturers. Often they have been so wrought with grammatical or logical mistakes, misspellings or dubiously simple formulations that it was anybody's guess what exactly was the intended statement. At some point I learned to simply read such statements out loud and sometimes that would give me a clue as to what the originator was trying to convey. In any case, this communicative challenge was partly infused with what you describe - a tendency or an aim to use words and phrases that might seem relevant and/or simply sound good, without them making any (more) sence in the given context.
I have seldom if ever experienced the same with textbooks, presentations and/or papers in German or English - especially not to the same degree.
With the linguistic freedom being employed at IfS, as I have seen it, it seems just a matter of time before we incur Babelian or Emperors new clothes-y circumstances. At the very least, I would not advocate a hetz aginst or a ban on sophomoric* words.

*(Ok, that one was on purpose <:o) )

Best regards

P.S. Feel free to point out and ridicule any and all misspellings and the likes. My comment is simply too long and boring to leaf through for corrections. Also, the potential irony if I've stumbled is lovely.


By Thorsten on 13. December 2016, 16:58.

I actually agree with all the comments below. Also, those guys have humour, which helps.

Isn't it ironic?

By Theo Schmidt on 13. December 2016, 16:44.

I would be able to take your text more seriously if you followed your own advice and avoided using unnecessarily complicated, obscure and/or confusing terminology and phrasing (in order to sound clever?). Is your text supposed to be accessible to nurse or a 1st year undergrad student?

A few examples: "salacious", "Tourette syndrome" (unnecessary french word), "Hegel" (unnecessary reference to someone most people do not know about), "platitudes", "stupefy". None of these words is less exotic than "a priori".

Then you have phrases like "Throughout the programme you convey upwards." which (unnecessarily) have an unclear meaning, even within the context.

Seems like communicating clearly is not just a problem "of others", uh?

The terms you cited have been

By Marek on 13. December 2016, 16:29.

The terms you cited have been widely used for centuries (also in popular language), and the reason to study is precisely to gain knowledge - including learning the meaning of commonly used terms, as well as terms specific to your field of education. Furthermore, languages borrow words from each other, and terms like "vis-a-vis" or "a priori" have entered many European languages. "Restaurant", "brasserie", "lingerie" are also French words.

I agree, disseminating your work towards laymen requires adjusting the language. But same holds for disseminating your language towards experts or experts-to-be. And it does make sense: it is often easier and faster to use a single, precisely defined term, rather than using 50 words in colloquial Danish to explain the same concept.


By Albert Gjedde on 13. December 2016, 16:25.

Should it not be pronounced "platitydes"? Also, I don't think "a priori" is French. What would be the Danish translations of "raison d'être" and "vis-a-vis"? "Grund til at være" and "ansigt-til-ansigt" or "overfor" or the horrible "i øjenhøjde"? But is "vis-a-vis" really a platitude? Is it not more in the line of a metaphor? And why single out workers and nurses as people in need of simplified language? Isn't it a tad elitist? Or perhaps an attempt to be humorous?

Hi Andreas, I think you are

By Anca on 13. December 2016, 15:27.

Hi Andreas,

I think you are missing the difference between scientific communication within a field and the ability to convey the point of a scientific topic in a simple manner.
Language is rich and complex, and why should that richness be limited in specialized publications, which are not intended for the general public anyway? What is often missing in papers is the ability to write properly, in concise and well-phrased sentences, and this is probably what you mean as well. I fully agree there should be more emphasis on learning how to write in general. And perhaps when young students will master that, they'll feel less inclined to boost their sentences with unnecessary words.
Also, "to stupefy" does not mean "to dumb down", which I think is the phrase you were looking for.
Finally, I don't believe that using or striving to use a language to its full potential is a sign of elitism.


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