American academic prose (1950- ) is the writing style used by professors and others who teach and study at American universities. It has had a huge effect on American writing and thought since about 1950. Mostly for the worse. It has made English into something Shakespeare would no longer understand.
Here is an example I picked out without trying too hard: the second paragraph on page 94 of “What Uncle Sam Really Wants” by Noam Chomsky. He is talking about the press serving the powerful. It is hardly the worst example I could have found:
The outcome is not, of course, entirely uniform. To serve the interests of the powerful, the media must present a tolerably realistic picture of the world. And professional integrity and honesty sometimes interfere with the overriding mission. The best journalists are, typically, quite aware of the factors that shape the media product, and seek to use such openings as are provided. The result is that one can learn a lot by a critical and skeptical reading of what the media produce.
No one talks like that.
Think about it: how would you tell your mother the same thing? Maybe like this:
Not everything you read in the newspaper is a lie. The press cannot help the powerful unless what it prints is generally true. And there are some good, honest reporters who write the truth no matter what. The best ones know the deal and slip in enough stuff so you can read between the lines.
What Chomsky wrote does sound more important:
- Instead of “write the truth no matter what”, he has, “professional integrity and honesty”.
- Instead of “read between the lines” he has “a critical and skeptical reading of what the media produce.”
- Instead of “know the deal” he has, “quite aware of the factors that shape the media product.”
- Instead of “so” he has, “The result is that”.
- And, for free, he threw in “overriding mission”.
It sounds better, maybe, but it is hard to read and understand.
Look at the nouns:
outcome, interests, the powerful, the media, picture, the world, integrity, honesty, mission, journalists, factors, product, openings, result, reading.
Weak, grey words.
Compare them to the nouns James Baldwin used in the same paragraph (second paragraph on page 94) in “Go Tell it on the Mountain”:
Deborah, mother, eyes, night, tavern, house, daytime, lust, hammers, skull, friends, enemies, blood, morning, mud, clay, beds, jail, mouth, clothes, rags, stink, corruption, death, cruelty, chains.
Chomsky lives in a world of pale clouds somewhere up above our heads. A place where there are factors, integrity and missions, not mud and lust.
Baldwin’s words are much shorter too: only 5 in a 100 are more than two syllables long. For me it was 9 in a 100, but for Chomsky, 25! It makes his writing worse, not better.
It is easy to rewrite Chomsky and make what he says shorter, clearer and more pointed. Not so with Baldwin.