The Long and Short of It: Academic Style for B/C/M/S Speakers Writing in English

The problem of long and unclear sentences frequently comes up in the editing process. Long sentences create numerous problems in English that are not problematic in B/C/M/S, at least partly because of the case system. The case system makes it easier to identify how each noun links to each verb. It also creates a wonderful flexibility in word order. This flexibility can also make sentences unclear when translated, as word order is much more fixed in English.

A certain kind of academic writer everywhere can be found guilty of indulging in long, verbose sentences. Yet there are certain issues with word order and objects that are specific to B/C/M/S speakers. Chopping sentences up is almost always required in every translation I do, and in many copyedits.

Style or grammar issue?

Academic style in B/C/M/S, in the humanities and social sciences at least, has been strongly influenced by continental traditions. These traditions (especially the French ones) often include long sentences. The eloquence of many such sentences in the original language does not always work in English. Such sentences often need simplifying and transforming in English – and this can be a matter of grammar and clarity as well as of style.

Here’s a sentence with three issues all rolled into one:

“Researching the sources, a general justification for such comparisons is that contemporary archival knowledge was unavailable when those theories were being written, which their misconstrual of these theories increasingly disproportionate to their influence today.”

Now let’s try and make some sense of it. Have a go at rephrasing the sentence yourself and then I will offer a possible solution at the end. There are at least three issues present here: dangling modifiers, ambiguous objects and incorrect parallel constructions.

(1) Dangling modifiers

This is when a gerund (an -ing form, such as dancing, pondering) is used ambiguously, leaving the meaning of the sentence unclear:

“After researching the secret archives, the movie based on the historical evidence found there is purported to be controversial.”

Here the subject is unclear: a movie cannot research archives. In this case, it makes the sentence sound clumsy, but some dangly sentences are clear and sound OK too.

(2) Ambiguous objects

When very long sentences are translated into English, there is often a pronoun (e.g. it, him), demonstrative (e.g. this, that these) or possessive adjective (e.g. hers, theirs) whose object is not clear to the reader. Remember that what is obvious to you may not be obvious to the reader.

In the example sentence, their is ambiguous:

“which their misconstruals of these theories increasingly disproportionate to their influence today.”

In academic English, subjects and objects need to be stated more frequently, as their relationships with verbs etc. are not implied by a case system. Academic English in general uses a lot more “obvious” connecting words and phrases to explain links between ideas. This is likely a consequence of English having become a lingua franca in recent years, and so academic English needs to be intelligible to speakers from a variety of language backgrounds unfamiliar with Anglo-American contexts.

(3) Incorrect parallel constructions

The example sentence includes an ungrammatical parallel construction. The second clause does not fit together with the first clause. A much simpler example might be the following:

“Although the rain, we went to the party.”

In this example, although requires a verb phrase. To retain a similar meaning while using a noun phrase, despite can be used: Despite the rain, we went to the party. While this example is simple, academic connectors (Moreover, Furthermore, Namely) and their usage can get quite complex in long sentences. Consider their use carefully and learn from the corrections your editors and proofreaders make!

Solution:

So how might we rephrase the above sentence? There is no one solution in editing, and context is important.

Original: Researching the sources, a general justification for such comparisons is that contemporary archival knowledge was unavailable when those theories were being written, which their misconstruals of these theories increasingly disproportionate to their influence today.

Possible solution: A general justification for such comparisons, (1) the sources indicate, is that present-day archival knowledge was unavailable when those theories were being written. (2) The “misconstruals” of these theories are increasingly disproportionate in influence to (3) the theories themselves.

  • No ambiguity remains over who is “researching” the sources
  • A new second sentence avoids an incorrect parallel construction
  • “Their” has been replaced with an object

In this case, the solution is not particularly elegant. Further rephrasing would help if a heavy edit was demanded, but the various issues have been resolved.

Editing English, academic hierarchies and “native-speaker” bias

There have recently been several articles circulating about peer reviewers chastising academic writers from non-English speaking backgrounds for their use of English. One wonderful reply from an editor argued that peer reviewers should solely judge works on the merits of their arguments. Sorting out the technical proficiency of the English is the editor’s job, and this is a task to be approached in a kind and non-judgemental way.

Scholars in many countries are under significant pressure to publish articles in Anglo-American journals. This is increasingly the case in Croatia and Serbia, as the following initiative from an area studies journal noted. Learning to write in an academic style, expressing a voice, and honing arguments takes time and requires high-level language skills. The demand to do so in two or more languages means a lot more effort is required than for scholars publishing in one language alone.

Yet the support authors receive varies considerably across institutions and countries. In Germany, there is often considerable funding available for editorial work and some research institutes have an in-house editor. In other countries, such as Serbia and Croatia, I found academic English language editing was sometimes done by editors from those countries who had studied English at university. Here, this was a “good enough” solution as the authors’ messages were communicated, even if technical issues remained with the English. But this meant that such texts were often overlooked by readers who saw the language errors over the arguments and concepts.

Various “foreign-speaker” errors are sometimes used as strategies to gatekeep academic privilege. My own previous experience as a peer reviewer and academic author was revealing. As an author, I noticed that when I wrote about Croatian linguistic topics and had a Croatian academic affiliation, I received more peer review critiques of my use of language. This suggests some reviewers had made assumptions about my language background. In situations where I was involved in peer reviewing texts, I noticed other reviewers on several occasions emphasize “problems with the use of English” at the start of their reviews.

These forms of bias and prejudice typically affect scholars more intensely when they start to publish. During the PhD or as an early postdoc, scholars are often more sensitive and susceptible to negative peer reviews. Such scholars are just beginning to publish and often work in precarious conditions. They are also more likely to receive negative peer reviews on the content of their work as they have not yet had time to internalize the deeper, unspoken conventions of their discipline(s).

Every article that is rejected, or for which extensive corrections and a “language edit” is demanded, takes time away from other activities. Finding a solution obviously depends on both funding available and wider resources within academic networks. Where little funding is available for English language copy-editing and proofreading, more academic solidarity is required. But there is no section of the academic CV giving explicit credit for proofreading and copy-editing skills completed while helping colleagues. This could be recognized, as could the amount of effort that goes into becoming a proficient academic writer in two or more languages.

What are your experiences of such differences? And what changes could help diminish these differences and inequalities?