Informal language isn’t the key to better engagement

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.

DS Jordan (1896) Nature Study & Moral Culture. Science 4(84):149-156.
JR Smith (1916) The Oak Tree and Man's Environment. Geographical Review 1:3-19.
JR Smith (1916) The Oak Tree and Man’s Environment. Geographical Review 1:3-19.
AG Tansley (1935) The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms. Ecology 16:284-307.
AG Tansley (1935) The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms. Ecology 16:284-307.
FJ Anscombe (1948) The Transformation of Poisson, Binomial and Negative-Binomial Data. Biometrika 35:246-254.
FJ Anscombe (1948) The Transformation of Poisson, Binomial and Negative-Binomial Data. Biometrika 35:246-254.

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

7 thoughts on “Informal language isn’t the key to better engagement

  1. Viki Cramer November 12, 2016 / 4:48 PM

    Great analysis, Manu. I agree that the key to making academic papers more accessible to a wider audience isn’t through using personal prounouns or conjunctions. Using plain English terms where possible and avoiding the diabolical sentence construction that comes when writers try too hard to make every sentence as succinct as possible would go a long way towards making scientific writing less impenetrable. It always makes me a little sad when I see students subvert their readable, natural style to what they see as the ‘conventions’ of scientific writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Manu Saunders November 12, 2016 / 5:10 PM

      Thanks Viki, great comment. Completely agree about overdoing succinct sentences! So important to learn contexts and tools of communication, instead of rigid rules.


  2. ScientistSeesSquirrel November 12, 2016 / 10:03 PM

    Great post, Manu – I wish I’d thought of doing it. But then, I wouldn’t have done it so well.

    Gentle pushback: can you justify calling the notion that active voice is more engaging a “myth”? It’s a myth I’d have a hard time letting go of. You are right, of course, that there are appropriate places and ways to use the passive. I’m one of those prophets of the active anyway, for this reason: nobody out there needs encouragement to use more passive. In fact, even those of us who try to write majority-active mostly fail; I have to go through my own drafts looking for overuse of passive. So trumpeting the active doesn’t really risk its overuse, I think.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Manu Saunders November 13, 2016 / 9:19 AM

      Thanks Stephen! I think neither active nor passive should be trumpeted as the only way to write. They are complementary tools. I like how Schimel puts in his book – passive may weaken a sentence but strengthen the paragraph as a whole. The risk with pushing one or the other, is that it sends a black & white message – which is not helpful. Active voice is direct & often succinct…but it’s not always engaging. It can be aggressive, accusatory or cold, depending on how it is used. I think it is more useful to trumpet the need to construct a sentence based on the object, subject and context, rather than pushing one style to rule them all.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Ben Courtice November 13, 2016 / 9:19 AM

    I worked doing media/comms for a research NGO for a while.

    Have you noticed that tabloid news publications tend to have single-sentence paragraphs?

    That’s how I learned to write.

    It gets a bit monotonous, although most of my sentences were a bit longer than some of these.

    Imagine my dismay when a postgrad marking one of my undergrad papers took off half a mark for writing a single sentence paragraph! (just one, not like this comment).

    I googled it and the “rule” that is apparently enforced by some high school English teachers that You May Not Write Single Sentence Paragraphs is a spurious one with no apparent reason for existence. I think it’s good to question rigid formality. I always like to break rules if the people enforcing them don’t appear to know what they are for. But as per my comms background, you really need to make sure that you communicate effectively. Formal (sic) definitions of what is formal or informal writing style may not be the most useful guide for that.

    Single sentence paragraphs, for example, are a great way to emphasise a point, whatever the ‘rules’ may say about them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Manu Saunders November 13, 2016 / 11:48 AM

      Thanks Ben. I trained as a journo years ago and worked in comms before going back to uni to do science – learning how to write differently was eye-opening, but very useful! One of my professors marked an assignment down because I wrote “too much like a journalist” – very perceptive of him! 🙂
      Agree, most grammatical rules have a context for appropriate use, they’re not set in stone.

      Liked by 1 person

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