By Susan Carter

Here is a sticky dilemma for thesis writers: do you develop a wider vocabulary so that your academic prose gains precision and richness, or do you keep your vocabulary tightly reigned in so that it is easy for all to read?

This is a no-brainer for me: I very much like collecting and fingering interesting words. I come out of English literature studies, and now in Higher Education I sometimes still gratify my satisfaction at pulling out some of my favourites for my academic prose.

For a while I was entranced by the look of ‘chthonic’ and managed to slip in a reference to chthonic experience in almost everything I wrote. Doing a PhD is a chthonic experience, for example (there may be scope for an article showing how like Dante’s Inferno the doctoral progression can be). Scholarship lets you manoeuvre through a language rich in words with evocative histories. I feel that building a quirky stock-of-trade lexicon lets me texture my prose voice.

So I am happy when I find new words I can consider using. The latest novel I am reading, Kate Atkinson’s Emotionally Weird has already given me three new words and I am not yet a quarter of the way through: one character is ‘racine’ (acting as a root cause) yet always ‘widdershins’ (out of kilter with everyone else, going against the flow, and unlucky) and another is unlikeably ‘thrawn’ (twisted, bent). A colleague gave me the word ‘precariate’ – and in the context that ‘increasingly, academics in humanities are joining the new precariate.’ Nicely put as a call to their defence—but could this comment be a warning that word-obsessive academics are an endangered species?

The plot thickens….

Another academic colleague discussing her publication ‘work in progress’ recently described having to pare back her lexicon because the journal felt readers whose first language is not English would find her wide word range too hard. She had to stay within common or garden language. Fair enough, she thought; it is an international journal.

This thought stumps me with real problem. Equal access is great. Those who produce academic writing in a language other than their mother-tongue are valiant and add so much by widening academic discourses for those locked in the English they were born into. I want to be considerate of these adventurous readers who maneouvre through wider linguistic terrain. But this raises the spectre of language being clipped for smoothness: how much can you cut away before it becomes too thin?

Partly, theoretical contructs govern. Those who strive for objectivity bat aside individuation of language, swatting language vagrancy down. I’ve come across several doctoral students who sternly purge even the harmless (and more precise) range of words for ‘says’ or ‘said’. They have claimed that their supervisors advise them to uniformly use ‘suggests’ and avoid straying into anything that might be construed as opinionated.

Although I appreciate supervisors’ fear  that students will show questionable evaluation, in the end you have to show critical evaluation. Whether you say Brown (2013) ‘argues that,’ or ‘shows that’ or ‘found that’ or ‘claims that’ signals your own evaluation of what it was that Brown was on about. And be alerted that ‘claims’ has pejorative connotations….

But word choice is also about the academic identity under construction in every act of thesis-writing.

It seems to me that if you are someone who supports doctoral students with writing across campus, you could stay alert to the discipline with its underpinning epistemological preference while fostering students as they find their own voice, including when this involves a wider, more textured use of language.

Some scholars, both students and academics, prefer to keep their vocabulary closely straight-jacketed. Then the criteria for word choice is simply a matter of clarity at its baldest. Doctoral writers then could consider during revision whether critical evaluation needed to be more visible.

I know I am heading towards the rogue end of the spectrum in my own keenness for little-used but intriguing words. I almost expect to be reprimmanded by reviewers and made to trim my sails. I almost expect in my own article revision to be obliged to remove words that are red rags to the reviewing bulls.

Somewhere, though, is there a happy medium? Or is it always a balancing act? Do you have an opinion on this?