Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Utilize Clear Language

If I never again see the word "utilize" in a textbook, I'll be a happier man.

A recent article, Don't 'Problematize' Anything, had me shouting "Yes!" Which really startled the cat dozing in front of my monitor. The article discusses various issues that came up in a panel discussion, including this one:
I could see folks in the audience squirming in their seats when someone said, "Don’t problematize anything. Avoid words like historicity, materiality, hegemony, paradigmatic, judicialize, conceptualize, experientialize." The panelists agreed: Words that end in "ize" are bad. Looking through the titles on the program, it’s clear they’re also endemic in academic writing. —Rachel Toor 

Which brings to mind the word "utilize." I've come to abhor that word. Why? Because those extra two syllables are not needed in most cases. In my opinion. Unless your goal is to sound smarter or "more scholarly." But in my mind, that's exactly what makes it sound a bit pretentious when used in a textbook.

As Joshua Rothman suggested a few years ago in The New Yorker article Why Is Academic Writing So Academic?, using the less "ordinary" language of academic writing may be what's needed to publish in certain journals or gain tenure. Okay. But when trying to help students—perhaps undergraduate students who have challenges of many sorts—why not use "ordinary" language?

Why not simply use the word "use" instead?

In fact, a while back I did a search of the entire draft of my largest textbook (over 1200 pages) and got rid of every "utilize," save one that was in a quote from American Medical Association. That's how much that word bothers me.

In fact, it's a constant struggle for me to watch that my vocabulary remains "ordinary" and my sentence structure avoids unnecessary complexity. However, I think my constant vigilance has slowly improved the quality of my textbooks and, at the same time, honed my skills in writing for students.

Again, I know that academic vocabulary and complex sentence structure are part of how educated folk are supposed to write. Perhaps even using unnecessary jargon. But that doesn't make it right for textbooks. Or, at least, it doesn't make it clear. And writing with clarity is essential in textbooks, if not in all scholarly writing.

I'll end with a quote from Russel Jacoby that I had taped up in my writing studio for many years:
As intellectuals became academics, they had no need to write in a public prose; they did not, and finally they could not.

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