A Word, Please: Meaning can get lost at a certain level

June Casagrande

In September, the “Chronicle of Higher Education” published an article by linguist and Harvard professor Steven Pinker titled “Why Academics Stink at Writing.”

I have, over the years, caught whiffs of the problem, and I had my own theory: Certain academics, I figured, need to make their writing as convoluted, intimidating and hard-to-read as possible to hide the fact that they have nothing to say.

That is, if no one can grasp or even finish reading something you wrote, no one will know that your research is useless and your university paycheck is tantamount to theft.

I was eager to see my theory affirmed, so I tore into the Pinker article with glee. I didn’t get far.


“The most popular answer outside the academy is the cynical one: Bad writing is a deliberate choice,” Pinker wrote. “In my experience, it does not ring true. I know many scholars who have nothing to hide and no need to impress. They do ground-breaking work on important subjects, reason well about clear ideas and are honest, down-to-earth people. Still, their writing stinks.”

Deflated, I skimmed some more of the article, saw it was an in-depth analysis of problems in academic writing, then noticed something shiny in another corner of the Internet and toddled away.

A few months later, I had to edit some newspaper articles that originated from university professors. Awful, awful articles. It was my job to make them read like feature articles.

That is, I had to translate from academic language like this, “Reports on the facility’s most regular operations indicate that commerce commences approximately nine hours into the calendar day and persists unabated, though fluctuating significantly in volume, until approximately 48 minutes before sunset,” into reader-friendly language like this, “The store is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.”


That’s hard enough when you know to what “the facility” refers and what time the sun sets. But when all the nouns are so vague (“facility”) they require antecedents (“store”) but don’t have them, the editor can’t recast the sentence because she doesn’t know what the sentence says. Just as I was about to storm out the door and do something that would have made the nightly news, I remembered the Pinker article.

This time I read the whole thing, and though it contained many insightful, soul-salving reasons why academic writing often stinks — including writers being so deeply immersed in their subject matter they forget the rest of the world isn’t — one point did more than just make me feel better. It helped me better understand a common writing problem.

Consider this excerpt, which Pinker cited from a legal scholar: “I have serious doubts that trying to amend the Constitution… would work on an actual level.… On the aspirational level, however, a constitutional-amendment strategy may be more valuable.”

So annoying. But why?

Pinker nails it: “What do the words ‘level’ and ‘strategy’ add to a sentence that means, ‘I doubt that trying to amend the Constitution would actually succeed, but it may be valuable to aspire to it’?”

Then Pinker offered a term for understanding this problem: meta-concepts.

Meta-concepts are concepts about concepts. Examples include “approach,” “condition,” “context,” “framework,” “issue,” “level,” “model,” “perspective,” “process,” “strategy,” “subject” and even “concept” itself.

If you play with these, you can see their terrible power: “The process of reading Joe’s emails in the role of a partner gave Jane the perspective within that framework to model Joe’s approach to the fidelity issues and strategies.”


Why would you bother talking about the “process” of reading the emails? Why mention that Jane got perspective, since the reader’s already way ahead of you? Why even mention it’s in a framework? Why model anything? Who cares about the approach? Isn’t “fidelity” a fine noun on its own that need not be demoted to a modifier of “issues” and “strategies”?

Why not just say: “Reading Joe’s emails, Jane learned he was unfaithful”?

Mine is not to reason why. Clearly, that’s not my strong suit. But I can learn from others’ reasoning. And I pity the next “approach,” “level” or “process” that lands on my desk.


JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at