By Ganiu Bamgbose, PhD
Writing is the activity or occupation of composing text as a task or for publication. While writing is a taxing engagement, academic writing is the height of the onerous task of writing. A good start to this piece would be to explain what academic writing is not as a roadmap to what it is.
In his 2022 book titled “Academic Writing”, Jeffrey R. Wilson submits that academic writing “is not creative writing like fiction and poetry, where the goal is to entertain. It is not the journalistic writing that you read in the news, where the goal is to inform. It’s not transactional writing, as in an email to your boss, where the goal is to communicate”. After the negation method of explanation, he moves on to say that “the purpose of academic writing is to search for truth. That sounds fluffy and philosophical, but it simply means that academic writing is where we go to learn about the world we live in—about what is true, how things came to be, and how we know”. Whatever we make out of this description, the clear message is that academic writing is serious writing.
In an earlier article, I discussed the language of academic writing where I mentioned using exophoric pronouns, making assumptions, using flowery expressions, promoting bias and using unexplained codes as linguistic habits to avoid in academic writing. As an addendum to that, I shall be discussing four other language errors commonly found in the writings of many academics which should be shunned to achieve a truly academic, scientific and/or scholarly piece.
A common fallacy in academic writing is the use of spatial adverbials. Spatial adverbials are words or phrases that mark time. The writing error with deploying spatial adverbials in academic writing is that they become unsuitable for scenarios long after the book has been published. It is, therefore, important for authors to be mindful of the fact that writings outlive writers and to choose adverbials carefully. Temporal adverbials include “today”, “as of now”, “recently” and many others. The sentences below may not be appropriate when a book containing them is read 30 years from now:
1. In recent times, autosegmental phonology has been applied to studies on phonology in second language contexts (will the time still be recent in 30 years?).
2. Today, EndSars has passed a clear message to the government on what the youths are capable of doing (will today make sense to anyone reading this in three decades from now)?
Temporal adverbials must therefore be sparingly or concisely used in academic writing.
Also, we must be mindful of and avoid expressions that lack universal appeal except they are used technically or operationalised in the context of use. Sometimes, writers get so used to certain expressions that they do not realize they only make sense among their compatriots. As a Nigerian writer, I had used the expression “higher institutions” in an academic paper and a foreign reviewer asked: “do you mean higher institutions of learning?”. Then it became clear to me that many a Nigerian understands “higher institutions of learning” as just “higher institutions” and tend to use the latter even in writing.
Another common fallacy in academic writing is sweeping statements. According to Online Collins Dictionary, if someone makes a sweeping statement or generalization, they make a statement which applies to all things of a particular kind, although they have not considered all the relevant facts carefully. Expressions such as the one contained in the title of this article (it is generally believed) is a sweeping statement, as one would wonder the population of people sharing this general belief.
Other examples in this category include: efforts are being made by scholars (who are these scholars?), We all know that (who are we?)… etc.
Academic writing is not only an act but also a skill that has to be continually sharpened. Every academic writer must critically look out for the intrusion of these writing fallacies and other ones in their academic works. As a recommendation for further essays, this piece and other public articles can be critiqued for elements of language fallacies.
(c) 2024 Ganiu Bamgbose writes from the Department of English, Lagos State University.