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However, anthropologists do over-use some words

As an anthropologist who also teaches academic writing, I was excited to read Annie Claus’s essay, “How a professional writer improved my academic writing” at Savage Minds. Claus reflects on a writing course she took with a professor who had been a member of the New York Times editorial board, and how the course helped her improve her writing. She includes several “writing tips from a (real) pro” based on the experience.

Much of the advice Claus offers 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. She also commends a couple of her favorite writers, John McPhee and Joan Didion.

Where I differ with Claus, however, is in cautioning against a particular set of words. Claus writes, “You do have to tenderly bring [readers’] attention along. This should not include using terms like while, therefore, as, when, since—terms that illustrate that we think the reader is dull. But, nevertheless, yet, however. Convey negation through luminous prose and forego those insipid grammatical markers.” It is in this section that Claus praises Didion for her effective structure.

There seems to be an implicit suggestion in Claus’s warning against “unnecessary navigational markers” that the words she lists should be avoided. One might also infer – though Claus does not directly say so – that Joan Didion manages her prose without these words.

One thing I have learned while studying linguistics is that people tend to have poor intuition about the relative frequency of particular words. Is it true, then, that anthropologists over-use the words that Claus singles out? At the risk of being labeled a positivist, I’ve taken a quick stab at answering that empirical question.

First, I gathered a selection of seventeen articles, essays, and reviews by Joan Didion published in US newspapers between 1987 and 2012 (see Appendix A). These were not gathered systematically; they were simply the articles I could access in full-text form from ProQuest. I removed ProQuest’s meta-information about publication, etc., and kept just the text of the articles plus their headlines. Next, I built a small corpus of articles from American Anthropologist (Appendix B). These were gathered rather more systematically by randomly selecting ten issues of the journal and then adding the first article from the issue to the corpus. Using Microsoft Word, I counted the total number of words in each corpus, and then the number of while, therefore, as, when, since, but, nevertheless, yet, and however tokens. Finally, I consulted the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) sections of fiction, magazines, and newspapers to find the frequency of the nine words in that much larger corpus (more than 277 million words in the sections I searched, versus around 30,000 from Didion and 70,000 from American Anthropologist). Select results are summarized in the chart below.

Frequency of select forms per million words in the corpora indicated

So, do the ten anthropology papers I consulted use these nine words more than average? To some extent, but the picture is quite mixed. Five of the nine words – while, therefore, however, nevertheless, and as – are more common in American Anthropologist than they are in COCA.* On the other hand, three of the nine – when, but, and yet – are less frequent. What about the paragon of paragraph power, Joan Didion? It turns out that she uses five of these nine words – while, when, since, yet, and as – more frequently than contemporary American English, and uses but and therefore at about average frequency. When, since, yet, and but are actually more frequent in the Didion pieces than in those from American Anthropologist. However, the word that begins this sentence seems relatively rare in Didion’s prose, and nevertheless never appears in the essays I consulted.

Does this mean that Joan Didion is not a prose stylist to be admired and emulated? Certainly not. Does it mean that anthropologists generally, or publications in American Anthropologist in particular, do not lapse into opaque, didactic oratory? Um, no. It may suggest, however, that prohibitions against particular linguistic forms should be taken with a proverbial grain of salt. Certainly there are rules of academic writing that can be learned, and there are techniques and practices that can improve writing. In general, though, lists of forms to avoid or include should be regarded with some caution. As one academic writing cliche puts it: it’s a bit more complicated than that.

*Attentive readers may notice that as is missing from the chart. That is because at whopping 30,307 occurrences per million words in American Anthropologist, it swamps out all other variation. By comparison, the most common word in English, the, notches 53,977 occurrences per million words in COCA.

Appendix A
Joan Didion corpus

Didion, Joan. 2012. How to console someone. Chatelaine. 05.
———2011. In sable and dark glasses. Vogue. 10.
———2007. LIFE AFTER DEATH. The Sunday Telegraph, Apr 01, 2007.
———2007. The year of hoping for magic. New York Times, Mar 04, 2007.
———2005. After life. New York Times Magazine. Sep 25.
———2003. War is Bush’s fixed idea. The Independent on Sunday, Feb 02, 2003.
———2000. Dutch: A memoir of Ronald Reagan. Biography 23, (1) (Winter): 293-294.
———1999. Brian Moore: An appreciation. Los Angeles Times, Jan 17, 1999.
———1997. Will power. Los Angeles Times, Jul 13, 1997.
———1995. Gentlemen in battle — the end of the battle by Evelyn Waugh. National Review. Dec 11.
———1994. BOOKS. The Independent, Nov 29, 1994.
———1989. POINT OF VIEW when Reagan White House crisis management went to church. Newsday, Dec 21, 1989.
———1989. Miami vise the dates change but the city’s blacks and its police force seem caught in a seemingly endless round of violence and bloodshed. Toronto Star, Jan 20, 1989.
———1988. Miami; semi-automatic father’s day specials ‘guerrilla discounts’ at hotels suggest city is no longer part of North America. The Gazette, Mar 06, 1988.
———1988. Anglos seem unaware Cuban influx makes them a minority. The Gazette, Mar 06, 1988.
———1987. Late for their date with the melting pot. The Globe and Mail, Nov 16, 1987.

 Appendix B
American Anthropologist (AA) corpus

Note on collection: volume and number were randomly selected using a random number generator. Tables of contents in the selected volumes were consulted in AnthroSource. The first contribution labeled “Articles”, “Articles and essays”, or “Original articles” in the table of contents was added to the corpus; “From the editor” or “Forum” were excluded.

Beall, Cynthia M. and Melvyn C. Goldstein. 1981. Tibetan fraternal polyandry: a test of sociobiological theory. AA 83(1), 5-12.
Herskovits, Melville. 1960. The ahistorical approach to Afroamerican studies: A critique. AA 62(4), 559-568.
Leone, Mark P. 1995. A historical archaeology of capitalism. AA 97(2), 251-268.
Nissen, Henry W. 1956. Individuality in the behavior of chimpanzees. AA 58(3), 407-413.
Pilbeam, David. 1986. Distinguished lecture: Hominoid evolution and hominoid origins. AA 88(2), 295-312.
Speck, Frank G. 1938. The question of matrilineal descent in the southeastern Siouan area. AA 40(1), 1-12.
Shahrani, Nazif M. 2002. War, factionalism, and the state of Afghanistan. AA 104(3), 715-722.
Washburn, S.L., and R.L. Ciochon. 1974. Canine teeth: Notes on controversies in the study of human evolution. AA 76(4), 765-784.
Watson, Patty Jo. 1995. Archaeology, anthropology, and the culture concept. AA 97(4), 683-694
Weidenreich, Franz. 1947. Facts and speculations concerning the origin of Homo sapiens. AA 49(2), 187-203.