Essays


A Strunkian Manifesto (Muhlenberg Magazine, Winter '14)
Cut through academic jargon. Know what you are talking about. Know what your words mean.

Peyton R. Helm
President, Muhlenberg College
Dean’s List Convocation
November 3, 2013

Good morning, new members of the Dean’s List.  Now that you have achieved this level of academic distinction, I hope you will make a habit of it.  So, I am sure, do your proud parents and grandparents whom we welcome here today.

Your intellectual prowess takes many forms, I know, but I suspect that your facility with words is fundamental to your success, and it is words about which I wish to speak with you today.

Humankind is not the only species which makes tools or communicates with sounds and gestures.  We may be alone in writing poetry, though who knows if the song of the humpbacked whale or the howl of the gray wolf may not qualify – at least to other whales and wolves. 

But I think I am safe in saying that, as a species, we have the largest vocabulary.  Estimates for the number of words in the English language – a moving target -- range from 250,000 to almost a million, and while English may be the wordiest language yet developed, some sources claim that there are approximately 6,900 other languages which, of course, have their own vocabularies.  However you count it, that’s a lot of words.

Quantity, of course, does not imply quality – and it is the quality of your vocabulary and how well you deploy it in your intellectual pursuits which concerns us this morning.

Homer tells us (Iliad 3.239 ff.) that

“When wise Odysseus got up to speak,

he just stood, eyes downcast, staring at the ground.

He didn't move the sceptre to and fro,

but gripped it tightly, like some ignoramus—

a bumpkin or someone idiotic.

But when that great voice issued from his chest,

with words like winter snowflakes, no man alive

could match Odysseus.”

I readily confess that I am no Odysseus.  As a third grader, I proudly brought home a book report on which my teacher, Mrs. Walker, had written a long word beginning with the letter A.  I didn’t know the word, but I knew that “A” was good.  How embarrassing when my parents explained to me the definition of the word “atrocious.” 

A year or so later, I was pleased to report that my Sunday School teacher had praised me with another impressive word, which I pronounced “abnoxious.”  Again, I was abashed to learn its real pronunciation and its meaning. 

In fifth grade I gave a ten-minute speech to my class on the fascinating subject of “The Sue-X Indians.”  It was not until I sat down that my fellow students let me in on the secret that the name is pronounced “Soo” (Sioux).

These mishaps taught me an important lesson: words matter.  Don’t use them if you don’t know what they mean (and if you don’t know how to pronounce them). Later, I would learn to use them economically.  Say what you mean, say it clearly, and say it succinctly.  Then stop.  This is how I teach my students to write, and last year it resulted in Becca Diamond ’15 calling me a “Strunkian” – that is, a disciple of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.  It is an adjective I claim with pride. Like I said, I am no Odysseus – don’t expect me to produce a blizzard of words.

Why do I focus on this topic with you of all people.  After all, it is a fair guess that you are on the Dean’s List because you already write with eloquence and precision.  Perhaps, but I wish to take the lesson a step further.

It is possible to use words eloquently and say precisely nothing.  Or to devise an argument so elegant and intricate that your professors will give it the right kind of “A”.  Intricate and elegant arguments are a favorite vice of academics, along with an excessive deployment of fashionable words and syntax.  “Interrogate”, “binary,” “problematize,” “intertextuality,” “intersectionality”, “paradigm shift,” “hegemonic,” “globalization,” “multiple modalities,” “lens,” and “unpack,” are just a few of the words I (and an unscientific sampling of our faculty) are personally ready to dispatch to the retirement home for overworked academic jargon (1).

The use of a catchy participial phrase followed by a colon, followed by the real subject of an essay is another cliché that wearies me.  “Jumping off a Cliff: A Preliminary Analysis of the Law of Gravity” for example.  I urge you to use colons in your writing as if you were spending gold coins sparingly and wisely."

But the most dreadful intellectual sins of all are:

First, to proudly articulate a theory without actually understanding it – that is to say, without being able to provide clear examples of how it works and of its limitations. 

Or,

Second, clothing an obvious statement in the garments of profundity.  I can thank Professors Kate Richmond and Alan Tjeltveit of Psychology for this example:

[the separate chapters were created to]

“reflect the increasing evidence of these disorders’ relatedness to one

another in terms of a range of diagnostic validators as well as the

clinical utility of grouping these disorders in the same chapter.”  

Translation:  “we think these disorders look alike.”

My message to you Dean’s List recipients then is fairly simple and I will try to convey it with Strunkian succinctness:

Know what you are talking about. Know what your words mean.  Use them frugally and precisely – not to impress others or yourself, but to share ideas worth sharing.

You are our best and brightest –I hope this advice will be useful as you continue to pursue not only knowledge but wisdom.

Thank you, and, again, congratulations.

____________________________________

1 Thanks for great suggestions and hilarious commentary from professors Trevor Knox (ABEF), Chris Sistare (Philosophy), Jeremy Teissere (Neuroscience), Mohsin Hashim (Political Science), Tom Cartelli (English), Pat Helm (Music), and Kate Richmond (Psychology), as well as Dr. Cecilia Conrad (MacArthur Foundation) and Rebecca Tuite (graduate student at Bard Graduate Center in New York City).