It’s a cliché, overworked as all clichés must be, that academics write opaque prose.

The Passive Voice tells us that The Atlantic has joined the long line of those who tell us how much they deplore this fact, a trend stimulated every year by the Ig Nobel Prize. It’s really too easy a target for any respectable magazine to be wasting its time and space on, but there we go. If academics feel the need for precision in their word-choice, and that word-choice is opaque to us laymen, so what? Laymen tend not to read this sort of stuff. Barbara Vinken didn’t write Flaubert postsecular: Modernity crossed out with the average Atlantic reader in mind, so why pick on her? If the Atlantic reader does pick up her volume, they just have to be prepared to do the extra work. This does not seem to me a situation which requires any comment or complaint.

Now of course, when an academic is addressing a wider audience than researchers, the equation changes. Steven Pinker has drawn fire from offended colleagues for his critiques and appeals for better writing, but his advice is good. In a paper addressed to your academic peers only there’s no real virtue in making it comprehensible to the high-school graduate. In a book addressed to an audience of high-school graduates there’s no virtue in using specialist jargon they can’t possibly understand. But habit is hard to break.

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