Academics and plain language — an oxymoron?

Jonathan Tan | January 16, 2015

A lot of my time at university was spent detangling scholarly writing. This involved getting out a highlighter, reading through each paragraph, and picking out which sentence held the main message. Often, the message was hidden in the middle of the paragraph and surrounded by unexplained and unnecessary jargon. I would then write out clear, concise notes that summarised what the author meant.

I didn’t realise it then, but the skills I was using had a name. Plain English.

This decoding took me a long time, and restricted the time I spent comprehending and analysing what I was reading. However, it did teach me the importance of getting my ideas across without making it a test for the reader.

Eleanor’s blog post Why ‘dumbing down’ is for smart people is also relevant for the education sector. By being able to comprehend concepts quickly and easily, scholars can spend more time analysing rather than looking up definitions. And more people will be able to understand new topics without worrying about their lack of background knowledge.

Some of the educators I met are embracing the concept of plain English. Once, I was reading a book on ecology when a biology lecturer walked past. Realising that he’d never seen me in any of his classes, he introduced himself. When I told him that I was an English major, rather than a science major, he seemed taken aback. ‘I hope you’re understanding the language,’ he said. ‘It should be the goal for all academics to make their research and findings easy to understand for every reader, not just those in the specific field.’

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.