This morning in my English composition class, composed mainly of Japanese speakers, I came upon another pitfall of relying on “in the dictionary” as a test of acceptability. The verb ‘ruralize’, which rarely appears in books published after 1940, is nevertheless present in bilingual dictionaries.
Annie Claus’s essay, “How a professional writer improved my academic writing” at Savage Minds is quite useful. She counsels academics to resist overly long sentences, to vary the structure of paragraphs, and to reflect on each element of the paper and what it contributes to communicating the message. I differ with Claus, however, in cautioning against a particular set of words. At the risk of being labeled a positivist, I’ve compared the frequency of “insipid grammatical markers” in American Anthropologist, the Corpus of Contemporary American English, and the work of Joan Didion. The results, to paraphrase an academic writing cliche, are a bit more complicated.
Japanese media use the label “Lehman shock” to refer to the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent shocks. The phrase “financial crisis” occurred frequently in 2008 but has dropped ever since. “Lehman shock” endures, even though Lehman Brothers was neither the first nor the largest institution to fall.
“Variable or non-standard realizations of inflectional morphology in English” sounds rather dry and academic, but the placement of suffixes within compound words or phrases can sound surprising and even amusing. Arnold Zwicky and Mark Liberman recently noted unusual verb conjugation. Non-standard pronouns can be equally interesting.
The phrase, “women and children” to mean non-combatants killed by war strikes me as somewhat outdated. Non-combatants are not necessarily women or children, and women and children are not necessarily non-combatant. The phrase might risk a mis-recognition of the nature of political violence and its victims.
“Socialism” and “liberalism” are poorly defined in US politics; the former is over-applied to left-of-center positions, and the latter used in two almost reverse ways. “Neoliberalism” is a hot topic in contemporary anthropology, but the word is sometimes used without sufficient reflection. One way to spot the best work is to look for authors who take pains to define the terms.