Academic writing follow-up post 2

Thank you for your candid appraisal of the difficulty in my writing. I won’t explain the meanings of each individual sentence here because the point of your post was to highlight to me those areas whose meaning proved opaque to you. On re-reading them, however, I can see why and how misunderstanding can occur.

A major issue that I take from your post lies in the distinction between native speakers and non-native speakers (of English in this case). More precisely, I’d like to ask the question about how much a writer needs to consider particular audiences when writing for a general one in terms of vocabulary and syntactic choices. Is there an ethical problem at the heart of this, or one of cultural imperialism, or one of simple practicality? (I will use ‘I’, but the meaning refers to any native speaker (of any language) writing in their own language.) If I write in my own language, am I right to feel that I can use the full range of expressive devices available to me? Should I expect my audience to be educated in my language to the point where I don’t need to alter the expressions unduly? Where exactly is that point?

Being sensitive to foreseeable needs of the reader is important, but without a clear knowledge of what the reader knows, or is likely to know, a writer may still have troubles. Others in this forum have pointed out that reading the targeted journal in advance of writing for it will give a good sense of the reader’s level. However, this technique assumes that the journal editors have that sensitive outlook. Limiting one’s vocabulary and turn of phrase may be another, but in doing so, the preciseness of the expression may be lost, or the voice of the author may be muffled.

But let’s go the other way around in a different way. Issues of clarity do not disappear when non-native speakers of English write in English. We had to read this in Module 2:

“In recent discussions of design experiments, theoretical weakness has been high- lighted as a major problem, especially by diSessa and Cobb (2004) who pointed out the importance of being able to distinguish between what is necessary and what is contingent” (Marton & Pang, 2006).

This is the very first sentence of what turned out to be a truly excellent article. I got the meaning on the third or fourth reading of the article (not the sentence). The introduction and early sections of the article were dense, had technical definitions at seemingly random places in the texts and sentences had so many clauses that meaning was obscure. This kind of writing in English seems to be common in native speaker of Germanic languages. Presumably they find the texts relatively easier to follow. What is difficult in English for a native speaker of English to understand may be easy for a French speaker, or more difficult for a Japanese speaker, or simple for a Chinese speaker and so on.

As an English speaker, I deeply want to avoid language impoverishment. We have a fantastically clear example of this impoverishment in the Latin of the 17th to 19th centuries. I can pick up most 19th century Latin texts and read at sight. But I struggle with Cicero and other ancients. When Latin became the lingua franca without a native speaker user base, much of the language’s flexibility, nuances and potential was lost. In its place came rather straightforward syntax, direct communicative text and a reduced level of vocabulary (albeit with an increased number of medical and scientific lexis). For this to happen to English would be a mistake.


Marton, F., & Pang, M. F. (2006). On Some Necessary Conditions of Learning. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 15(2), 37–41.

About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a national university.
This entry was posted in academic writing. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s