Academic writing follow-up post 7

You wonder if you’ve absorbed Sword’s advice by osmosis or not? Certainly, I found your prose very clear, flowing and eminently readable. I think, however, that the characterisation of fit and trim you received is more a function of the narrative approach you took to explain the process of creating your discussion board post rather than any judgement about academic writing per se. Your post reads quite like my own Learning Log entries where everything is in the first person. In those, I write about what I did or will do, i.e. I am the agent and passive sentences are few (sic).

I fully concur with you that nouns like ‘profession, reflection and discussion’ are meaningful and do not require cautious use in these discussion board posts. Certainly, they do in conversations with non-specialists and in academic discussions where there are differences either in terminological nuance or in technical meaning. Following Saussure, we can say that all language is self-referential and that the sign (i.e. the word) is only understood in terms of its relation to the system in which the word exists (Holdcroft, 1991). This is a roundabout way of saying that cat, for example, only has meaning as a sign that points to a signified which can be either an actual cat or, more likely, the general concept of cat that English speakers have. Furthermore, the word cat only has meaning where speakers share a language, and the sound cat has little to do with the signified object (although onomatopoeia and iconicity, which is the “resemblance between form and meaning” [Perry, Perlman, & Lupyan, 2015, abstract], suggest a refinement on Saussure’s model). Saussure implies that successful communication happens when there is maximal overlap speakers’ relationships between signs and signifiers.

What this suggests to me is that I should contemplate my audience. In this case, I know (from your introduction) that you are an educator specialising in geography. I can assume a high level of vocabulary because you are an EdD candidate, and I know that you have an excellent meta-cognitive grasp of your issues in your writing, as evidenced by your reflection in this discussion post. On this basis, I chose an introductory style to present Saussure believing that there’s a chance you won’t know him. I left onomatopoeia unglossed but defined iconicity. You may feel slighted or relieved by these choices, I can’t know at this stage. My point is that any writer must focus on the likely readership[1] before considering style, and that I felt Saussure’s distinction between sign and signifier is a useful addition to help frame and clarify issues in academic communication.


[1] Wallace and Poulson (2003, p. 9) present a very useful “profile of the typical academic who assesses your writing”.

Holdcroft, D. (1991). Saussure: signs, system and arbitrariness (eBook). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Perry, L. K., Perlman, M., & Lupyan, G. (2015). Iconicity in English and Spanish and Its Relation to Lexical Category and Age of Acquisition. Plos One, 10(9), e0137147.

Wallace, M., & Poulson, L. (2003). Critical reading for self-critical writing. In Learning to read critically in educational leadership and management (pp. 3–38). London: Sage.


About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a private university.
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