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Monday, May 12, 2014

The Elements of Academic Style

Someone has remarked that when writing an essay, article, book, etc., the most important points should be written in short, declarative statements. Strunk and White, in their classic book on writing well, The Elements of Style, make a similar point:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.
Now, consider the following sentence written by the late French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, in his classic book, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste:
Likewise, the style of the book, whose long, complex sentences may offend— constructed as they are with a view to reconstituting the complexity of the social world in a language capable of holding together the most diverse things while setting them in rigorous perspective— stems partly from the endeavour to mobilize all the resources of the traditional modes of expression, literary, philosophical or scientific, so as to say things that were de facto or de jure excluded from them, and to prevent the reading from slipping back into the simplicities of the smart essay or the political polemic.
Although sentences such as this abound in his book, and this one is rather tame compared to what comes later, Bourdieu analysis of high culture has become an instant classic. Some, in fact, argue that it's the sociological text of the 20th century. Nevertheless, since very few have the patience and only academics have the time to soldier through his awkwardly-constructed sentences, one has to wonder whether he wrote to enlighten or for distinction.

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