Simplicity is So Mainstream

“How could movements of deterritorialization and processes of reterritorialization not be relative, always connected, caught up in one another?” asks a popular philosophical text of 1987. What does this mean? Perhaps deterritorialization refers to taking apart territories, and reterritorialization is putting them back together. Or is it just nonsense? I certainly can not tell.

In my time reading the work of other students, I now know that students believe the best defence is an overdeveloped vocabulary. I see words marked as deceased in the Oxford English Dictionary liberally sprinkled across pages, huge numbers of subordinate clauses that would make Edward Gibbons pause, and syntax that is beyond poetic. Why do students write in such a complicated way?

Perhaps it is the readings they are assigned. Readings, especially those in Arts courses, often contain language that is impenetrable to the average first year (see example above). Students are conditioned to copy this ‘academic’ style in their own writing. We are told “don’t use colloquial language”, “don’t use spoken styles” and perhaps paradoxically “don’t use contractions”. Why should a text that is seeking to explain some aspect of existence (which is what all the work we do has in common) try so deliberately to obscure its message?

There is hope however. A prominent Semanticist at ANU has spent most of her career advocating simple language. She claims that academic language is ‘bird-speak’, indistinguishable from the sound of chirping birds, and asks us all to try and express our ideas in simple language. This is not as easy as it may seem, mostly because people don’t always know what they are talking about to begin with. The student who writes “the text reveals a range of multiplicities through its idiosyncratic discursive techniques” might actually have to say, in words of one or two syllables, what they mean when they say “multiplicity” or “discursive techniques”. However, these words may have already lost their meaning to become Don Watson’s “weasel words” – words that through overuse in inappropriate senses have become shells, losing their signifying power.

So for your next essay, try some simple language. Try writing at least one sentence without a subordinate clause. We deal in difficult concepts at university – it makes sense to talk about them in a simple way.