re: diminishing expectations…

I’ve just read Katharine’s A diminishing infection of casual speech by edited prose?. (For what it’s worth, my answer is yes).

Reminds me of a change I’ve seen.

I never took a college writing course myself, but I was sufficiently alert to understand that the Big Flaw in student writing, in those days, was overuse of big words and passive voice.

Later on, in graduate school, my friend Val told me that her most mortifying experience as an undergraduate had been using a thesaurus to look up and replace every word in a paper with a bigger, more important word, then having her professor tell her that using a thesaurus to look up and replace every word with a bigger one was a terrible way to write. She was crushed.

When I returned to teaching freshman writing a few years ago, I found that contemporary textbooks were just as concerned with big word-mongering and excessive passive voice as they had been in my day. Any composition handbook worth its salt seemed to include a lengthy section on editing your paper to make it sound more like a human wrote it.

So I expected to address the issue with my students …. and then it never came up. No one in my classes was using passive voice, and no one was looking up big words in the thesaurus. Just the opposite. My students erred on the side of being too colloquial and still do.

I don’t know why.

Too much memoir writing in K-12?

Too little reading of sophisticated literary prose?

It’s a mystery to me because I can’t imagine that either Val or I had read much literary prose when we went to college….yet somehow we knew that college professors used big words and passive voice, so we figured we should, too.

Why was that?

And why are things different today?

3 thoughts on “re: diminishing expectations…

  1. Excessive passive voice is still a major problem in academic writing, particularly in the sciences.

    Students also tend to use synonyms, rather than using the same word for the same thing. In scientific writing, when an author uses a different word, the reader expects it to have a different meaning—using a synonym just confuses the reader and leads them to look for subtle distinction that was not intended.

    Students don’t use a thesaurus any more, because they’ve never heard of the concept.


    1. Re excessive passive voice in the sciences, I was actually taught around 1980 in AP Chem class to use passive voice in lab journals, e.g. “1.5 ml of titrate were added to the solution.” Our teacher counted off points for active voice.


  2. IME (which is not so very extensive), overly wordy writing is a problem in students who are educated enough to know that formal writing involves more elaboration and fancy stuff than ordinary speech does, but not educated enough to know how to strike the proper balance between fifty-cent words and humanity. It’s a problem of half-education.

    Writing too colloquially, on the other hand, is a problem in students who don’t even know that the written word is more formal than spoken language. They haven’t read enough to have absorbed it, nobody has taught it to them — it’s a problem of, I guess, quarter-education.

    All of which you know, and which does not explain WHY modern students don’t know that academic writing involves big words and passive voice. So that was useless.


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