Scholars who write for a general audience are often asked how they reconcile their academic work with their popular writing. Is it hard to lurch back and forth between clear prose and academese? Do your jealous colleagues gong your submissions to the journals and blackball you from the prestigious societies? With all the fame and fortune that you get from popular writing, do you still have the time and desire to do research?
When Oxford University Press offered to publish a collection of my academic papers, these frequently asked questions about the tensions between the limelight and the ivory tower came to mind. Like the majority of professors who rate themselves above average, I tend to think that my academic work is interesting and important, and was predictably flattered by the invitation. But I would not have agreed to mislead book buyers or saddle university libraries with another tome of recycled articles if I did not think that some of my academic papers had crossover appeal. No one will confuse this book with popular science, but at least for me the line between academic and popular writing has never been sharp.
In Stylish Academic Writing, the literary scholar Helen Sword shows why a book with that tide does not deserve a place on lists of The Worlds Thinnest Books, along with America’s Most Popular Lawyers and The Engineers Guide to Fashion. She analyzed the literary style of five hundred articles in academic journals, which may seem like an exercise in masochism.
But Sword found that a healthy minority of articles in every field were written with grace and panache. Fortunately for me, this includes the sciences of language and mind. One of my graduate advisers, Roger Brown, the founder of the field of language acquisition, was a gifted stylist, and as a student I savored his prose and pored over his penciled marginalia on my own papers. Though I can crank out turgid mush with the best of them, Roger’s example inspired me to strive in my own academic prose for clarity, forcefulness, and the occasional touch of flair. After I had published my second university press book, an editor told me (I am paraphrasing) that my writing did not suck and encouraged me to reach a wider audience. The result was The Language Instinct, the first of six trade books and a turning point in my professional life.
I have found that not only can academic writing be stylish but popular writing can be intellectually rigorous. Writing a trade book is an opportunity to develop ideas with a scope and depth that is impossible within the confines of a journal article or academic monograph. The demand for clarity can expose bad ideas that are obscured by murky academese, and the demand for concrete detail in recounting experiments (“Ernie and Bert puppets” not “stimuli”) can uncover flaws in design that would otherwise be overlooked. Standards of fact-checking, too, are higher. A typical journal article is vetted by two or three arbitrarily chosen referees, working anonymously and grudgingly; a popular book is read by tens of thousands of readers who are all too happy to say “Gotcha!” at any lapse of logic or accuracy. In my popular books I’ve always held myself to the standard of not claiming anything that I would not be prepared to defend to my scientific peers, and I’ve often developed ideas that lent themselves to experiments and technical hypotheses. These books get more citations in the scholarly literature than my academic articles do.
- Formal Models of Language Learning
- A Computational Theory of the Mental Imagery Medium
- Rules and Connections in Human Language with ALAN PRINCE
- When Does Human Object Recognition Use a Viewer-Centered Reference Frame? with MICHAEL TARR
- Natural Language and Natural Selection no with PAUL BLOOM
- The Acquisition of Argument Structure
- The Nature of Human Concepts: Evidence from an Unusual Source with ALAN PRINCE
- Why Nature and Nurture Won’t Go Away
- The Faculty of Language: What’s Special about It? with RAY JACKENDOFF
- So How Does the Mind Work?
- Deep Commonalities between Life and Mind
- Rationales for Indirect Speech: The Theory of the Strategic Speaker
with JAMES LEE
- The Cognitive Niche: Coevolution of Intelligence, Sociality, and Language
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Language, Cognition, and Human Nature: Selected Articles by Pinker S. PDF