Too Smart For Own Good

Near the very end of Claire Cain Miller’s New York Times story, “When Wives Earn More than Husbands, Neither Partner Likes to Admit It”, there’s a powerful illustration of why academic writing often sucks.

Consider two of the last few sentences. First Cain Miller’s clear, specific, easily comprehensible one:

“. . . . Women who outearned their husbands were more likely to seek jobs beneath their potential, they found, and to do significantly more housework and child care than their husbands — perhaps to make their husbands feel less threatened.”

Immediately followed by Marianne Bertrand’s, a University of Chicago Business professor, attempting to communicate the exact same idea:

“‘When the gender norm is violated, there is some compensating behavior to try to undo some of the utility loss experienced by the husband.”

That contrast is the problem of academic writing in a nutshell.

Bertrand’s use of more sophisticated vocabulary, “gender norm is violated”, “compensating behavior”, and “utility loss” muddies more than it illuminate’s Cain Miller’s previous point. It would be nice if doctoral economics programs, no make that doctoral programs of all sorts, required a class in journalism.

Academics would be well advised to follow Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s advice to her writing students.

“She tells them to avoid inflated language—’never purchase when you can buy.'”

Amen to that.

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