Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Elizabeth I appearing on HBO!

In 1998 Cate Blanchett played Queen Elizabeth I in, er, Elizabeth. That same year Dame Judi Dench played a 'more mature' Elizabeth, in Shakespeare in Love.

Roger Friedman at FOXNEWS is raving about a new two-part, four-hour drama called, er, Elizabeth I, that will show on HBO this weekend:

"This is what I will tell you: If this movie had been edited and combined into a three-hour motion picture for theaters it would have been nominated for many Academy Awards and perhaps won a few. It is one of those extraordinary costume dramas that is so absorbing you never want it to end."
Wow. Helen Mirren plays the illustrious Tudor queen. Alas, I'll have to get the DVD later, being HBO-less here.

Striving for Good Writing: Theologians and Historians Take Note

Theologians and historians (let alone historical theologians!) are not always the best writers. This past week, the Guardian published an interesting article by Michael McCarthy discussing why academics of all sorts are typically bad writers. Here are a few comments:

The broadcaster James Naughtie said recently on the BBC's Today programme, during a discussion about grammar, that academic prose frequently contained "pieces of English which are frightful. They may adhere to rules, but they're unreadable." We can be sure that Naughtie is not alone in this perception that academics often abuse the language. What can it be that he perceives as bad?

The Cambridge International Corpus, a 12m-word database of academic prose, shows that academics love certain types of phrase that everyday language tends to avoid, such as "in terms of", "the role of", "the nature of", "the process of" and "the relationship between". These phrases occur many hundreds of times for every million words of academic prose the computer examines.

What these phrases really mean is "what something is about", "what something does", "how it happens" and so on, but the phrases are shorthand, condensing a lot of meaning into a noun and a couple of prepositions. We seem to have built-in zip-file software that can compress everything into a noun or two.

In fact, the good old noun does most of the work, and here, I bet you (yes, I was tempted to write, "it could perhaps be argued"), is where the trouble starts. Too many nouns produce information overload. Academics love nouns, especially ones
derived from verbs of Greek and Latin origin: proceed turns into procedure, explore into exploration, reduce into reduction, which then has a knock-on effect on how our sentences are structured.

I must confess, I am guilty as charged. There is nothing like the amalgamation of a complex series of convoluted phrases mashed together in a tightly knit logical sequence to give the impression that the author actually knows what he is talking about (!).

Anyone can wow the unsuspecting reader with information ad nauseam. It seems to me that good writing consists not in dumping all that you know about a given topic into a paper but in carefully constructing an argument that adds insight into a proposed subject and benefits the one reading your work.

In our writing (and blogging), let's not strive to impress. Rather, let's strive to clearly state our objectives, critically engage scholarship, and, most importantly, construct papers, essays, and books that add value to those who take the time to read our writing.

In addition to McCarthy's article, check out this humorous and insightful piece written several years ago by Denis Dutton in The Wall Street Journal entitled Language Crimes: A Lesson in How Not to Write, Courtesy of a Professoriate.


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