6 phrases I’d like to ban

Academia, whether that means writing, teaching or studying, is ultimately a matter of communication. Our words are the lifeblood of what we do. So I regularly find myself stuggling to suppress my inner pedant when I read phrases that I know simply don’t do what they’re supposed to. So, if for no other reason than to release the build up of pedantry, here are my top six offenders. Of course, these are things for which I’d never dream of marking down a student, but I might counsel them against. If you use them all the time, it’s nothing personal.

  • It could be argued that…

This is one that gets used endlessly in student essays, and it’s hard to blame them when it’s used so frequently in academic texts. Unfortunately it is absolutely meaningless. Anything could be argued. I could write a blog post putting forward an argument for the sun being The Great Mother Satsuma, but I’d struggle to make the case convincingly. One of the things students find hardest to master is acknowledging complexity while still putting forward a strong argument. For me, this is the wrong side of the line. Arguably, starting a sentence by sitting on the fence like this is a bad habit to get into, as you can easily find yourself opting for this over and over, and miss the fact you haven’t actually argued anything. If you’re not convinced, attribute it to someone who is.

  • On the other hand…

There is a simple way to structure an essay: argument, counter-argument, conclusion. It is easy, but I tend to advise against it. This is often a shock to those students who’ve had it drummed into them at A-Level. Structuring an essay this way is not wrong. It’s actually a straightforward way of producing an acceptable essay. However, it’s a very difficult way of writing really good essay. This is because it creates a number of traps – forcing you to simplify the discussion into two sides when it’s probably much more complex, and making it all too easy to avoid actually having an argument of your own until the closing sentences. No. Start with the argument and then make the case.

  • a biased source

In fact, in my seminars I recommend students ditch the term ‘bias’ altogether. There is no person, no document (no historical witness or source) that is not biased in some way or another. Again, it’s meaningless. The problem here is that labelling a source as biased sounds like you’ve actually said something when you haven’t, making it all too easy to move on to the next point without actually having made one at all. Instead, identify the perspective from which they see events or from which a source is written. That really can tell us something.

  • some historians

What happened is history (the past). How we interpret, explain and debate the cause, impact and meaning of what happened is History (the scholarly discipline). This wouldn’t be possible if all historians agreed, so there is some sense in distinguishing between the ideas and opinions of some historians and others. The problem is the obvious question it prompts: which ones? Not specifying implies historians are interchangeable, that the positions we take are random. We’re not and they’re not. This is why labelling historians as traditionalist and revisionist likewise falls short – suggesting it’s a fluke of timing. Once again this phrase only does half the job.

  • …but then she is a feminist historian

The objective historian is a myth. Once we recognise we are all biased commentators it can serve as a useful myth – giving license to rigorously question our own assumptions against both the available evidence and the wisdom of the crowd. This is a good thing, yet it’s often cut short by the negative connotations of bias. Labelling the premise of the historian’s assumptions should be a helpful way of engaging with their perspective on the past, but instead is often used to dismiss alternative interpretations rashly. Most typically I see this dismissal – sometimes this bluntly – to reject the arguments of feminist historians. Although I’ve never seen a male scholar dismissed on these grounds.

  • as to

I used to use this all the time about a decade ago, and there’s no zealot like a convert. The reason as to why I turned against this unnecessary flourish is that it’s pretentious. I’ve never used it when speaking, so why when writing? It’s the over-compensating that comes from not feeling you have the authority to write about a given subject. There will always be an element of fake it ’til you make it, but this is too transparent a disguise it be any use. Good academic writing is a matter of saying complicated things as simply as possible. Decide what needs saying. Say it plainly. Then stop.

Winnie the Pooh


7 Replies to “6 phrases I’d like to ban”

  1. “Most typically I see this dismissal – sometimes this bluntly – to reject the arguments of feminist historians. Although I’ve never encountered this said of a male historian.”

    The opposite of a “feminist historian” isn’t a “male historian”. And feminist historians can be male.

    A feminist historian is an historian who interpretss history primarily through the eyes of feminist ideology & thought. In the same way you could be dismissive of someone because “he’s an economic historian” or “he’s a Marxist historian”.

    Whether it is wise to dismiss an historians views purely because they come from a specific historical discipline is another question.

    Otherwise a very interesting list. I will send on to a couple of first year history undergrads I know.

    1. Yes, that was exactly my point. Never heard a student dismiss a male feminist historian’s work because it adopts a feminist interpretative framework. Perhaps could have been clearer in that one.

    2. Sorry, I didn’t read carefully enough. You did say “SHE is a feminist historian”. So please excuse my first point.

      However, my point that historians are sometimes dismissed out-of-hand because of being “a Marxist historian” still stands.

      1. Indeed. Though I find it happening more often with dismissing ‘feminists’ than ‘Marxists’ (though not always an accurate description in the first place). Might be something to do with the subjects I’ve taught or where I’ve taught, or the fact they get plenty of Hobsbawm early on.

    1. I agree with everything here except the ‘on the other hand’ which I think is itself an oversimplification. There are plenty of bad examples of this phrase being misused in student essays but it is more because the student doesn’t understand the positions being explored sufficiently. It is because the writer lacks finesse/skill rather than because thesis – antithesis – synthesis structures are inherently stultifying. It is perfectly possible to explore the subtleties and problems of several positions on the one hand and explaining the superiority of another position on the other. If a student is going to avoid the hard work of formulating a strong case and testing it against counter arguments then it really doesnt matter what phrases they use. Please don’t tar perfectly decent strategies with the same brush that you use for the genuine howlers on the list! Also I think blaming A level teachers for bad writing is passing the buck somewhat.

      1. Yes, you’re right that the phrase is not exactly the same thing as the essay structure. Though I do often find it signalling the move from listing all the arguments or factors on one side before listing all those on the other, and essays structured as thesis then antithesis tend to fall down on the synthesis. I absolutely agree that a great essays could be written that way, but I can’t remember ever seeing one and I’ve seen a huge number that run into this problem when trying it. As I say, it’s not a bad strategy for doing the basics (and I expect it was an appropriate one when, as my students often say, their A-Level teachers recommended it), but it’s not the easiest way to produce a particularly strong essay at university level. The problem tends to be students keeping their powder dry before revealing their own argument in the closing paragraph or two, which they simply can’t do if they lead with their own argument and spend the essay making the case, including by anticipating and countering alternative arguments along the way.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s