Although most of what I am expected to do on a daily basis involves reading and writing, I am convinced that graduate school is killing my (up to now, somewhat decent) ability to communicate via the written word. In my college writing workshops and literature classes, language was something to be manipulated–once you had mastered it. (Manipulation was off-limits if you didn’t know where to put the apostrophe, in other words.) My long sentences and parenthetical style suit themselves to my brand of communicating. This was something that people at my job noticed. “Your case notes are always the best to read,” my supervisor at the women’s shelter commented. I’d like to think she meant more of it than just the plain fact I am able to string together words with subject, verb and predicate. Name the parts of speech of this sentence: “Advocate informed S.C. once again that she could not change her child’s diaper on the kitchen counter during meal preparation.”
When I entered higher education in the social sciences, I was thrown for a loop. It may not mean much to others, but switching from MLA guidelines to APA was difficult. Essentially, writing for the APA means following a pretty rigid set of criteria, not just for headings, formatting and references at the end of the paper, but tone and style as well. Conjunctions and adjectives are frowned upon. Yet, it’s OK to use dangling prepositions and clipped sentence fragments. Elipses and parentheses, unless the parentheses are enclosing a citation (e.g. Prochaska & Diclimente, 1993) are strictly prohibited. Comparing my academic writing from my undergraduate years with my current writing is incredible. Consider the following, from my term paper in a Shakespeare class:
“The tendency of New Historicist and materialist readings to omit gender roles altogether–excluding Cordelia and Lear’s relationship from discussions of sex, inheritance and parent-child dynamics while focusing instead on Edmund and Gloucester as the primary example of a power struggle–has compelled feminist critics to question whether there are any women at all in King Lear.”
And this, from a paper for one of my data analysis classes during the first semester of my PhD program:
“Recently volunteerism has experienced a major upsurge (citation). Reasons for this swell of activity are manifold. The growth of identity politics and efforts to reframe the concept of productive labor in modern societies are contributing factors (citation). According to (citation), the non-profit sector’s shift away from informal philanthropy to, in many cases, hierarchical organizations based on the corporate model have also bolstered the rise and and diversity of volunteerism.”
The last sentence in this paragraph received this comment from my professor: “Run on sentence, break into small chunks.”
This same professor once said during class that ideally, if a sentence takes up more than two lines, it is too long and a journal will ask you to cut it. I realize that when people read scientific or social science journals, they are not reading the content–they are skimming the methods section and looking at the tables of results to see whether the object under study was statistically significant or not. (And no one besides other social scientists reads social science journals–for good reason. For one, subscriptions are prohibitively expensive–and besides that, they are dry and boring, similar to reading the text of an algebraic equation.) However, I think the quickest way to ruin the flow of a paper is to think about whether the editorial board of Social Science Review will be offended by your run-on sentences. Moreover, I don’t care about publishing articles in journals that only other academics are going to read. This seems to me a good way to ensure that good social work research and evaluation never reaches people and practitioners.
There is definitely a place for discussing probability values and odds ratios. I do think empiricism is important–this whole positive scientific move, centuries ago, into the “hey, let’s test this to see if it actually works!” realm has been a good thing–far more practical than sacrificing virgins to appease the rain gods. But is the best way to communicate whether a program/policy/intervention works through language so dense that even similarly trained professionals can’t stomach reading it? (The most important part of a paper, said my professor in another quantitative methods class, is the visuals section–the tables and figures.) Maybe academics should talk to each other about their methods at conferences, and focus more of their publishing efforts in the style of journalism or policy reportage rather than regurgitating their conference powerpoints in “high impact” (read: more than two people subscribe to it) social science journals.
Now: the run-on sentence. Perhaps I am being overly picky about this–in fact, I know I am being overly picky, but damn it, I majored in English and policing grammar is one of the few identifiable skills with which an English major reliably graduates. According to everyone from Wikipedia to EnglishPlus.com, a run-on sentence is defined as “consisting of two or more main clauses that are run together without popular punctuation.” By this criteria, the “run-on sentence” from the example above which so irked Non-English Major Professor A was in fact just a regular sentence, albeit a long one containing a compound clause. The major clauses were 1) shift in non-profit sector and 2) rise in volunteerism and the diversity thereof. They were connected with the proper accoutrement–in this case, commas and subject-verb agreement. What if I had broken this sentence into “small chunks”? Well then, we might have had yet another common freshman error: the sentence fragment. Consider:
“The non-profit sector’s shift from informal philanthropy. To hierarchical organizations based on the corporate model. Also led to rise and diversity of volunteerism.”
Of course, my writing isn’t perfect and the academic language of the social sciences is different than that of the humanities. I think there’s a place for greater creativity, more compelling writing–just plain better writing, actually–within my chosen discipline. Unfortunately, it’s a well-known fact that, outside of physicians, social workers are notoriously shitty writers. This is actually a widespread problem, as effective advocacy depends on written and verbal communication skill. Although it’s been dozens of years since any of the professors in my program have written a case note or testimony as a social work practitioner, I sometimes believe that cursory, fragmented writing voice favored by people who prefer tables to paragraphs has carried over. I am therefore strengthened by a resolve to RESIST!…and continue my wordcraftiness, two-line rule be damned.