You might not believe this to read my writing today, but I did not receive any education in writing until ninth grade.


I received spelling lessons, sure. And I received handwriting lessons. Everything else was withheld until I could hand write to “grade level.”

Which, since as an adult I still have handwriting that’s messier than that of most third-graders I’ve met, happened never.

I’ve mentioned before about my ninth grade teacher and how she saved my education, but I don’t remember if I ever fully explained the extent to which she saved my education.

Before 9th grade, my grammar knowledge was almost nonexistent. I knew that periods go at the end of sentences and that question marks indicate questions and that exclamation marks indicate an exclamation and that quotation marks go around stuff people said because I read voraciously. Beyond that, nothing. Aside from periods, I didn’t even know what the rest of them were called. Periods, I only knew because I got curious and looked up why people say, “period!” when they’re trying to emphasize something (for you non-North Americans out there, the equivalent is “full stop!” and has the same etymology). I was a ninth grader who would sometimes still spell cat with a K, who put commas in places that made no sense, and who didn’t even know that the colon-like thing with a comma instead of a period at the bottom was called a semicolon. I had no idea how to write an essay or a paragraph. I didn’t even know what an essay was, beyond “written thing longer than a paragraph.” You could’ve handed me a short story and called it an essay and I wouldn’t have known the difference.



My teachers knew I loved learning. They knew writing gave me a hard time and I hated it. So they came up with the bright idea to “motivate” me to learn how to handwrite by holding hostage the rest of my education in English. I also did calculus and read at university level, and this was used as “proof” of the “fact” that I could have written neatly if I wanted to, so obviously I must want to spend my days in boredom and pain and occasional physical restraint when it got too much and I refused to scribe further.

So while other kids learned paragraphs and sentence structure, I was sat at the back with handwriting sheets. Reams and reams of them. When my parents got the school to agree to not give me any more handwriting sheets, they instead gave me stuff to copy over and told all the teachers to mark me on handwriting. Same shit, different format. They still gave me the assignments everyone else got, but instead of being given writing, grammar, and composition exercises in class, I was given handwriting work. Instead of listening to the teacher teach on those subjects, I was told to practice more handwriting.

Because I read so much, I had a decent intuitive feel for grammar – I knew when stuff looked wrong versus when it looked right. But I didn’t understand why it looked wrong or right, just that it did. Thus, more obscure or advanced grammar rules (like when you use a semicolon or why you use parentheses) were beyond me. Intuition is no substitute for understanding and knowledge, but they pointed out that since I did okay on the assignments that were handed out, I needed to practice handwriting more than I needed to learn grammar, sentence structure, or composition.

It was getting to the point that my clumsy grammar was affecting my other subjects. In history, a third grade teacher doesn’t care if you splice a comma so long as you get your dates right. In eighth grade, they do. In science, a fourth grade teacher doesn’t care if your short answer doesn’t have proper paragraph format. In seventh, they do. So I was being docked points for not using grammar skills I’d never been taught in the first place.

When my ninth grade teacher arranged for me to type, she also arranged for me to actually get the same work and education as the other kids. Without her, I would not have had a hope in hell of passing my provincial exams in high school, and in turn, I would not have gained admittance to university. I would not know how to formulate an argument. I would not know how to write a paragraph, let alone the thesis I submitted last year. All because I can’t make pretty letters on paper.

Everything I have ever done with writing, I owe to her, and to her firm opposition to scholastic gatekeeping. And for that reason, I get angry when I see people – especially teachers – talk about how kids “can’t” learn Subject Y until they’ve passed Unrelated Milestone X. I I still haven’t passed my Unrelated Milestone, but I think I’m pretty damn good at my Subject Y. Without a teacher willing to look past the dogma of handwriting then spelling then grammar then sentence structure then composition, I would never have learned to write.

One final note: I also learned the rest of it out of order: I grasped sentence structure before spelling, and composition before I understood why grammar was necessary. Order of how stuff is typically taught is not always the order that it must be learned in. Some kids learn differently and need to grasp Milestone X+3 before they’ll get Milestone X, and teachers need to learn to deal with that.

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.