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Academic Writing, Then, Becomes A Tool For Warping Perhaps Both Time And Grammar

I am not an academic. It’s been something like 15 years since I last took a course from any university. Nonetheless, I read a fairly high number of academic articles, especially in the “social sciences”, in order to inform my work. In this way, I feel at once estranged from academic culture and familiar with academic writing.

I’m looking for help from genuine academics, therefore, in an effort to deal with a linguistic habit I’ve encountered, over and over, in academic writing. It’s the Curse of Then.

As I read through academic articles, seeking to gain some insight concepts or research findings, I keep stumbling into extra thens. The word then is inserted into otherwise straightforward sentences, without any apparent need. The extraneous then is often present next to a statement about how something can be understood. For example:

“The question of feminism’s contribution to bioethics can be understood, then, as a question about how and why bioethics might benefit from excursions into this sort of theory.”

“Racism in the novel can be understood, then, as a set of rather ridiculous prejudices that exist in society, not a universal or stable system based on truth, which in turn makes its brutal effects (such as slavery in general and the rape of Nanny and its aftermath), particularly devastating.”

“Affect can be understood then as a gradient of bodily capacity – a supple incrementalism of ever-modulating force-relations – that rises and falls not only along various rhythms and modalities of encounter but also through the throughs and sieves of sensation and sensibility, an incrementalism that coincides with belonging to comportments of matter of virtually any and every sort.”

“Noddings ethic of care can be understood, then, as a special case of Martin Buber’s I-Thou or subject-subject relation.”

“The rule of law can be understood then as a set of ideas that institutionally protect the social and dialogic process of exposing and critiquing reasons for decisions, rather than as a set of ideas that institutionally entrench the hierarchical or hieratical process of announcing them.”

“Psychotherapy can be understood, then, as a middle-class, Western invention.”

All these academic writers seem to be saying that certain things can be understood in certain ways, not now, but then. When is this then? Next Thursday at 5:03 PM Greenwich Time? On the Ides of March? After I finish my bagel and lox? After awhile, the use of then in academic writing begins to sound like the use of them in the ramblings of conspiracy theorists – representing a shadowy zone that can never be seen directly, disappearing as soon as one attempts to define it with specificity.

Is this somehow related to quantum mechanics, and Schrodinger’s mangy cat? There certainly seems to be some kind of pursuit of relativity motivating the periodic insertion of then into academic articles, and an uncertainty principle of some sort, though I’m no theoretical physicist, so I couldn’t possibly differentiate a Weberian Boson from a Foucauldian Quark Field with enough precision to nail this relationship down.

There is some association of random utterances of then with the perhapsification of academic language. They write:

“Though Russia is no longer Communist, under Vladimir Putin it can perhaps be described as a post-totalitarian regime.”

“What emerges can perhaps be described as a radical relativism under rigorous restraints.”

“The ability of the therapist accurately and sensitively to understand experiences and feelings and their meaning to the client during the moment-to-moment encounter of psychotherapy constitutes what can perhaps be described as the ‘work’ of the therapist after he has first provided the contextual base for the relationship by his self-congruence or genuineness and his unconditional positive regard…”

Are these academic writers proposing the creation of alternate realities as they construct their articles, so that the act of publishing in a journal validates the academic’s ideas, while simultaneously, in an antimatter universe of some kind, exposing these same ideas as complete hogwash?

If this is the case, the academic’s style of writing can be understood, then, as perhaps the least confident form of language ever known to humankind.

What can be done? Must I wade through an swamp of thens and perhapses and as it weres to get to the ideas in every paper I find? Is there, then, nothing that instructors grading papers could do, perhaps, to eradicate this linguistic plague, as it were?

13 comments to Academic Writing, Then, Becomes A Tool For Warping Perhaps Both Time And Grammar

  • If the state of reality is a matter of question, then it should not be surprising to see academics write in such terms.

    • J Clifford

      Why, then? How does adding “then” to a sentence make what the sentence say more real, then?

      If academics can only write perhapses, then, isn’t it better to stick to reality, rather than wandering into Perhapsland? If an academic can’t decide whether Russia under Putin can or cannot be described as a post-totalitarian regime, then why is the academic wasting my time with pointing out that “perhaps” it can?

      Why not have academics tell us that perhaps there are jelly beans in their neighbors’ kitchens, if they’re going to blathering on about what else might perhaps be? I’d find it more useful if they investigated what is actually in their neighbors’ kitchens, than informing everybody about their perhaps speculations.

      We’re not talking about, in the examples I provided above, scientific studies of hard reality. We’re talking about assertions of how things can be discussed. If a claim can be made, I say make it, and stop the shilly shallying around perhapses. If the claim can’t be made, then don’t perhaps it. Move on to more solid ground.

      • Well then, perhaps we should investigate another manner of speaking. Perhaps then, we could send this newly contrived lingo and send it to those in need of reprimand? It’s your call then again, perhaps, it is my call.

  • Okay J, so then we need to figure it out and then have it changed. Once we change it, then we can move forward… And then get some lunch and after that, then we go home and then we work in the garage and then show our wives the cool stuff we made and then we can get the honey-do list and then complete it. So, what then, do we do?

  • J Clifford

    Perhaps, then, we can get together with our wives and conduct a literature review, so to speak.

  • Charles Manning

    This was perhaps the funniest thing I’ve read in weeks. Or maybe months?

  • Bill

    JLM’s lovely concept of “sentences to nowhere” (bravo, John!) nails it. One of many differences between bad writing and good writing is that, in the latter, each sentence leads inexorably to the next in some logical or emotional fashion. Bad writing, in contrast, is a pick-up-sticks jumble of sentences teetering on each other but pointing in no collective direction. Middling writers, recognizing the importance of this connectionist principle but not up to the task of achieving it on a regular basis by diverse grammatical means, rely instead on a few well-worn literary tics such as “then,” “therefore,” “it follows that,” “likewise,” “thus,” etc.

    But be of good cheer. At least the social sciences make some pretense of writing effectively using sentences that attempt to cohere. On my side of the fence (dare I say the ‘real’ sciences?), we just spit a buncha numbers and some incoherent gibberish onto the page and call it a day. This, I think, reflects our inherent suspicion of any idea that requires words to express. Which is why we’re not much fun at parties (or, really, anywhere else).

    • Nice point Bill.
      My problem is the ‘engineer’ aspect where I expect everyone to be on the same page as me at any given moment, therefore, my writing may then add a certain grade of coherence and as such, becomes a taste of what is and what may become…

      Thing is, I speak the same way I type out my written diatribe… Likewise, the typos are killers!

  • Dave

    I think “then” in your examples is a substitute for “Therefore” at the beginning of the sentence. Each example seems to follow a qualifying statement. I was taught, when one reads a sentence that begins with “Therefore” then one should look to see what it is “there for.” The same instruction might apply to “then.”

    Blue skies make me very happy.
    Therefore, I am very happy with today’s blue sky.
    – or –
    I am, then, very happy with today’s blue sky.

    Then and Therefore are interchangeable, but should not both be used in the same sentence.

    • That’s very observant. I always qualify my general statements and thoughts when I am speaking (or thinking to myself). There are so many naysayers in the world, that all of us should do that just to make certain other people know where we stand and why we stand there… Lest we confuse them with the facts (even if their minds are already made up).

      The fact of qualifying a thought in one’s own mind is actually very critical. How many times have you done or said something or after some strange incident has happened and then thought, “Jeepers, I should have mentioned that this morning I woke up and felt that you’d been in an accident Jimmy Joe, and here you are pinned against a pine tree and I never did load my chainsaw into my truck. Hang tight, I’ll be back in about an hour.”

      Or, “Crap…. I knew I should have remembered her last name.” or best yet, “Hmmmm, the reason I said I was going to quit smoking ten years ago is because I realized why my dad died of lung cancer and now I have it for the same reason.”

  • Tom

    I noticed that the British use then a lot in their speech – maybe it’s a carryover from there. The word I hear too much is “again.” It’s used primarily to continue a train of thought, but it gets annoying after a while. Sarah Palin’s use of “also” too often and at random highlighted that word. Another one is “so” which is now used to start a sentence when it should be to conclude something. As in:

    “So, again, English is fucked up and shit then, also.”

  • I agree with Dave on ‘then’.

    I use ‘perhaps’ when I want to propose a possibility for discussion.

    So both words seem all right to me, in moderation.

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