A recent editorial in Nature magazine claims that scientific language is becoming more informal. The editorial discusses a new linguistics study, includes a subtle plug for the Active Voice dogma, and ends with the interpretation that modern biologists are now keener to build a connection with their readers, compared to our academic ancestors. Hooray for science communication!
But before we get too carried away, let’s look at the paper and the context.
Lost in translation. The Nature editorial is titled “Scientific language is becoming more informal”. The editorial talks about a linguistics study published in the academic journal English for Specific Purposes by linguists Ken Hyland & Feng Jiang titled “Is academic writing becoming more informal?”. And the author’s actual answer to this question in the first sentence of the Discussion is “it depends”.
The paper is a great read and provides some useful food for thought. But it would be misleading to claim that it provides a convincing argument for informality across all scientific writing.
Here are the stats for the sample of papers that were analysed in the study.
- 360 papers with 2.2 million words.
- Three publication periods of one year: 1965; 1985; 2015.
- 10 focal writing features that are commonly associated with informality were analysed within these papers: first person; unattended reference; initial conjunctions; second person; listing expressions; contractions; preposition ending; exclamation; split infinitives; direct questions.
- Four disciplines: applied linguistics; sociology; electrical engineering; biology.
- Five journals from each discipline. The biology journals used were: The Quarterly Review of Biology; Biological Reviews; Radiation Research; BioScience; The Journal of Experimental Biology. (All the journals for each discipline are listed in the paper’s Appendix)
Biology is such a broad term, covering disciplines from medical research to ecology, entomology or botany, and these five journals may not be representative of writing conventions in other disciplines.
Embracing informal language is not a rebellion against uptight conventions. In the context of linguistics and academic writing, formality is not the same kettle of fish as the word ‘formal’ we use in every day speech…although each kettle does share a few of the same fish species.
Hyland & Jiang explain how slippery the term ‘formality’ is in terms of academic writing, highly dependent on context and the writer’s understanding of their audience:
Formality is thus a result of the need for more context and all texts are situated between the two extremes of complete fuzziness and complete exactitude with the precise degree of formality influenced by the writer’s assessment of the context.
Informality in writing is more about building a relationship with the reader and seeking familiarity. But that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with formality either. Finding the right spot along the spectrum of formality to informality depends on the context and audience.
Informality doesn’t always enhance clarity or engagement. Being engaging depends on empathy, and on understanding who you are talking to and what their values, needs and level of knowledge are. This will change with every new audience you talk to because there is no one-size-fits-all formula to engagement.
The informality study looked at academic writing. The audience of academic papers is predominantly other academics, mostly within the same field of study. So building a relationship with peers doesn’t mean you’ve built a relationship with scholars of other disciplines, or members of the general public.
In some contexts, formality will be integral to building this rapport, in others it won’t. Some demographics will find informal language insulting or alienating, particularly colloquialisms and profanities. Understanding these caveats is especially important when communicating with people from other cultural backgrounds, as many religious or cultural groups have strong codes of formality when interacting outside family.
Hyland & Jiang found that the changes in ‘formality’ over the three years were largely driven by three linguistic features:
- first person pronouns increased (I, me, we, us);
- unattended anaphoric pronouns decreased (this, that, these, those or it, referring to subjects or sections of text that come beforehand; ‘unattended’ means the referent has not been clearly identified to the reader); and
- sentences beginning with conjunctions (But, And, Yet etc.) or conjunctive adverbs (However, Hence, Thus etc.) increased.
Unattended pronouns are not a good thing for clarity and communication – luckily use of them is declining. But this is a key point that was missed in the excitement over this study: sometimes increasing formality to persuade your reader of the importance of an issue is more important than coming across as informal and relaxed.
Informality isn’t about the Active Voice. Hyland & Jiang don’t mention the active vs. passive voice debate, even though the Nature editorial goes there. Yes, the study found increased use of first person pronouns and initial conjunctions, which can be great tools for increasing clarity.
But this is not evidence against the passive voice! Passive voice is a grammatical construction that involves more than just not writing in the first person. And it will always have a place in academic writing as a complement to active voice. A common myth is that active voice is more engaging. It’s not, it’s simply more direct.
An academic revolution or a revival? The earliest paper analysed by Hyland & Jiang was from 1965. But, for decades before that, academic writing in ecology/field biology, and many other disciplines, was riddled with first person pronouns and initial conjunctions (see a few examples below). In fact, in 1965, Professor of English Herman Struck blamed secondary teachers for the rise of ‘inexpert writers’ convinced that it is ‘stylistically immoral’ to start a sentence with a conjunction. My high school English teacher was still pushing that line in the 1990s.
Perhaps biologists haven’t embraced more informal language at all! Here are some of the results from the paper that didn’t make it into the Nature editorial.
- For those who love contractions, biologists are still a bit hesitant to accept them. The frequency of contractions in the focal Biology journals only increased slightly from 0 uses per 10,000 words in 1965 to 1.2 per 10,000 in 2015. Applied linguists are far more relaxed – frequency of contractions in linguistics journals increased from 1.8/10,000 words in 1965 to 13.5 in 2015.
- Use of second person (i.e. referring to the reader as ‘you’) is another marker of informality that increased in linguistics journals, but remained little-used in Biology journals (0/10,000 words in 1965 to 0.3/10,000 in 2015).
- Even more interestingly, the use of exclamations and direct questions by biologists actually declined across the study period (0.3/10,000 > 0 for exclamations and 0.5 > 0.1 for questions). Yet these two features alone can arguably create more engagement and connection with readers than simply writing in first person.
- The authors also note that “despite this small increase in informality, the proportion of nouns and adjectives in relation to verbs and pronouns [a suggested marker of formality] is actually increasing”.
See my Humanities vs. Science series for more on some of these ideas!
© Manu Saunders 2016