Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Tao of “incredibly”

I have only recently begun to pay proper attention to the conventions of academic writing. It's not something that I have covered systematically with my students. I tend to take my cue in this regard from the material in the courses I am teaching. But recently I have begun to realise how important it is. Academic writing has its own conventions and its own style. It is important for students to develop their own academic voice as they progress through their studies. I do believe, firmly, that it should be their “own” voice, not just one in which they have taken on the jargon of whichever academy they're in, made completely impersonal. There's a debate about whether academic writing should be impersonal. I tend towards the view that it should be formal but not necessarily impersonal. I know many will disagree with me, but the search for impersonality eventually removes the soul. In my opinion. It's very important, I think, for academics, among whom I include students, to speak in their own voice, although with the register of the academy.

The key characteristics of academic writing are that it is:
- formal. It uses proper sentence and paragraph construction and relatively formal language – not colloquialisms etc
- precise – where description is concerned it must be accurate
- tentative – when conclusions are being drawn, they should not be too definite – in academic study all conclusions are hypotheses, there to be tested, ready to be disproved. Thus we say, for instance, “This suggests that...” rather than “This demonstrates that...”

The reason that I have been thinking about this just lately is that I have noticed more of my students using the adverb “incredibly” in their assignments. I have begun to score it through and write “No, it is not” beside it. This word alone has finally made me decide to pursue the issue of academic voice properly.

Note to students. If you have used “incredibly” in one of your assignments, you have used it in a place where it cannot possibly mean what it says. For instance, “The Benin bronzes are incredibly beautiful”. The bronzes are there in front of you, they are beautiful. Their beauty is, self evidently, credible, otherwise they would not be there. The word “incredibly” is not just loose, it is actually self contradictory, and completely useless in this context.

The reason students use it is that, of course, it is popular in common parlance. I don't mind that. Ordinary language uses words loosely, metaphorically, poetically, and develops with them all the time. What it gains in mood, spontaneity and timeliness it loses in precision. You do need to lose some of the spontaneity in order to gain precision. But if you gain precision, your vocabulary expands, because the riches of the English language lie within your reach. Think of the words you could use to describe the beauty of the Benin bronzes:

amazingly, astonishingly, especially, fabulously, strangely, uncommonly, abundantly, conspicuously, eminently, emphatically, exceedingly, exceptionally, extremely, highly, immeasurably, immensely, incalculably, incomparably, inimitably, intensely, notably, powerfully, remarkably, strikingly, superlatively, supremely, surpassingly, tremendously, extraordinarily, greatly, highly, noticeably, particularly, profoundly, superlatively, surprisingly, truly, unusually, wonderfully....

You could even use “very”.

But do not use “incredibly” in an assignment. Ever.


eLizH said...

Yep. I agree with your comments about adverbs like 'incredibly'. A100, decades ago, told its students not to use such terms. For example, 'clearly' was dangerous to use because what was clear to the writer might not be clear to the reader. I've followed that advice ever since, and pass it on to my students.

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