Academicese: How it’s done right, why it’s done wrong, and why it’s important to do it right

So, there’s currently an internet shitstorm over a cognitive accessibility fail going on.

I’m not going to comment on that particular fail, except to say this: I am an academic, and I had a very hard time understanding what they were getting at. Some of it, I still can’t. And I think that is due to a misuse of academic dialect.

So, now I’m going to talk about the academic dialect that some like to call academicese.

I would go so far as to argue that academic jargon is a necessary evil to help eliminate confusion caused by subtext, euphemism, and dialect. Have problems with dialectal incompatibility? Make your own standardized dialect that everyone is equally fluent in. That’s the ideal behind academicese, anyway.

Done right, academicese should pack a maximum of information in a minimum of space. And it should do so in such a way that anyone who knows that field’s form of academicese gets the same takeaway message from the passage.

Academicese done well fits a lot of information into each sentence. An example: “Titrations were performed on 50mL of a 100 g/L solution, and the equivalence point came at a pH of 2.3 after addition of 14 mL of 0.1 M NaOH.”

That’s one sentence. Admittedly, it’s a compound sentence, but it’s a single sentence with a relatively uncomplicated sentence structure. From that one sentence, I can pull out at least six important pieces of information, above and beyond what the words say:

  1. Because I know how much of what concentration of NaOH was required to kill off half of the acid and the starting volume and mass concentration of solution, I can back calculate the molar concentration of their sample.
  2. This material is an acid. They used a base to titrate it.
  3. It is a monoprotic acid (otherwise there would be >1 equivalence point).
  4. The material is a weak acid with
  5. a pKa of 2.3. I can now estimate the acidity of any concentration of solution of this material.
  6. Exactly what lab procedure they used to get those numbers so that I can replicate it.
  7. If I already know the molar mass, I can find the purity of their sample. If I don’t already know the molar mass but I have an estimate of the purity (through melting point or what have you), I can estimate molar mass because I know the mass concentration.

I can tell all of that from one sentence. Any other chemist could tell the same things from that one sentence. Furthermore, a dedicated layperson with a lot of time and access to Wikipedia could pull out that information. It would take them a lot longer, though, I admit.

So, academicese done well serves to pack as much information as possible into each sentence in a fairly straightforward way.

By contrast, academicese done poorly serves no purpose other than to act as a gatekeeper to the message. You must be able to decipher this convoluted a sentence before participating.

The easiest way for academics to tell the difference between the two is this: Are academics fluent in academicese getting annoyed with the passage in question? If yes, you might be falling prey to academicese-as-gatekeeping, as opposed to academicese-as-necessary-dialect-for-efficient-discussion. Because bad academicese is hard even for academics to parse, and good academicese should be understandable at a glance by academics.

The easiest way for laypeople to tell the difference between the two is this: Does it read like something out of a technical manual, or does it read like something out of a postmodernist essay generator? If the latter, you’re running into academicese-as-gatekeeping, and the person whose work you’re reading is acting like an elitist snob. Which annoys the fuck out of me.


As I said above: I’m an academic. I do academia for a living. It’s my job. It’s what I do. And I like it.

And I feel that people who use academicese-as-gatekeeping are forgetting one important duty of the academic. This duty is especially important in fields of academia that affect day-to-day living of non-academics, like science, tech, engineering, math, and social sciences. And that is: we have the duty to impart our knowledge and make it accessible to non-academics.

That is part of our job. We have to do that. It’s necessary to further human development and quality of life. When we fail at it, the result is a populace vulnerable to shit like the antivaxxers, evo-psych claptrap, eugenics, and climate change denialists. It is our job to make as many people as possible at least somewhat knowledgable about the basic principle of our fields. We are the ones that everyone else calibrates their bullshit detectors to.

And when we fail, it’s disastrous. The environment gets damaged. Bigotry gets justified. And sometimes, people die.

People who use academicese-as-gatekeeping aren’t just failing that duty, they’re willfully failing it. They’re taking it and chucking it out the window. Because it’s better for their egos to stake out their superior elitist camp and defend it from those seeking understanding through the clever use of convoluted sentence structure and impenetrable writing than it is to actually help others learn and keep their stuff as accessible as possible.

And that pisses me right the fuck off.