The Duck of Minerva

And Lo, the Heavens Parted to Reveal an Article on Bad Habits to Avoid in Academic Writing

8 October 2021

If you’ve written a guest post for the Duck of Minerva recently, or published a piece at International Studies Quarterly while I was editor, you know that I really hate “heavy noun phrases.” Scholars seem to really like using them. I don’t know why. Perhaps they think it makes their writing sound more sophisticated. I think it might have something to do with the rise of statistical methods. When we write in terms of variables, concepts like “the amount of violence committed by a militant group” get rendered as “militant violence.” That makes the frequent use of complex noun phrases (“complex noun phrase frequency”) a “natural” extension of what international-relations scholars are already doing.

Given my rather strong views on academic writing, I was very pleased when Page Fortna directed me to Peter DeScioli and Steven Pinker’s forthcoming article, “Piled Modifiers, Buried Verbs, and Other Turgid Prose in the American Political Science Review.” Here’s the abstract:

Academic writing is notoriously difficult to read. Can political science do better? To assess the state of prose in political science, we examined a recent issue of the American Political Science Review. We evaluated the articles according to the basic principles of style endorsed by writing experts. We find that the writing suffers most from heavy noun phrases in forms such as noun noun noun and adjective adjective noun noun. Further, we describe five contributors that swell noun phrases: piled modifiers, needless words, nebulous nouns, missing prepositions, and buried verbs. We document more than a thousand examples and demonstrate how to revise each one with principles of style. We also draw on research in cognitive science to explain why these constructions confuse, mislead, and distract readers.

Read the article. Live the article. Keep it in mind when you write for the Duck of Minerva.