Thursday, October 8, 2009

Banned phrases, according to Alice

Okay, so I won't be so demonistic as to actually ban phrases or ideas.  But I ask you to use the following ideas with caution and restraint.  To wit:
  • slippery time-related words, such as "nowadays," "traditionally," or "in the past" allow the writer to avoid specifying a particular time period in a particular context by relying on the reader's shared knowledge of the past.  The problem is that your readers will be diverse, and you should not rely on any shared knowledge, really at all.
  • "in my opinion" is a phrase that allows the writer/speaker to wiggle out of any criticism because of a shared value of pluralism.  For example, I can't contradict your statement that, say, "education is a public good" if you simply say it is your opinion. I can believe your opinion is wrong, but it makes our whole conversation a little shaky because it stays in the realm of individual belief.  However, if you simply say that "education is a public good," I can push you to support this statement - who says this? In what context? a good for whom?  are engineers part of the public? and so on.  Saying it is simply your opinion kills that conversation.
  • Please please please please don't start your essays with this kind of idea: "Since the beginning of time.... education/engineering has been a human endeavor."  The only time this would be okay is if you were writing an essay about the beginnings of education, or some kind of human essence, and you had lots of sources and citations to back up your claim of "how things were."  But it in general makes for a really overly general (read: boring) essay beginning.  Tell me a story, rather than pontificate about the beginning of humankind.
  • Gendered language as generic.  JEE doesn't accept it, and neither do we.  Talk about humanity rather than mankind, or talk about students rather than a generic student who is male, for example.
  • Be careful with the idea of "society."  Not everyone's conceptions of "society" are the same.  Do you mean a particular country? subgroup? time period? Try not to use "society" as a way of making a claim in the active voice but not actually knowing who the actor(s) is/are.
Thanks.  I'll enjoy reading your essays much more now.
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