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GRE Article of the Month – October 2014

Why Academics Stink at Writing
An article by Steven Pinker for “The Chronicle of Higher Education”

In an attempt to promulgate the instantiations of high-ordered English as they tend to be recapitulated in eminent publications, I hope to both guide and edify those GRE-aspirants who are under the not totally unsurprising notion that the development of a robust English lexicon depends not so much on the raw acquisition of definitions but the way in which said words are deployed in an ostensibly academic context…

Translation: Here is an article that uses helpful GRE words, so you can learn vocabulary in context.

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9838692335_517a8e8542Photo by 55Laney69

Hopefully, you didn’t read the entire first paragraph, which was a torrent of unmitigated rubbish (my apologies if you did). But it is a perfect segue for October’s Article of the Month, in which the renowned Harvard professor Stephen Pinker explores the question: Why is academic writing often so inscrutable?

The answers he provides are hardly pat (they’re just trying to sound smart) and illuminate the very idea of what it means to write.

I should add that Pinker isn’t talking about the writing on the GRE, which is a filled with complex ideas and stylistic panache. He is placing the blame on the all too common instances of writing, much like that above, that fills reams and reams of academic journals currently being published.

Here is some important vocabulary to look out for:

  • Conspicuous
  • Turgid
  • Bamboozlement
  • Argot
  • Entrenched
  • In lieu of
  • Disinterested
  • Template
  • Co-opt
  • Flibbertigibbit (okay, this one is just for fun)

Photo Credit: 55Laney69

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10 Responses to GRE Article of the Month – October 2014

  1. Tyler Durden February 11, 2016 at 2:39 am #

    This article is restricted to subscribers only!!!

  2. Mireille October 21, 2014 at 6:32 am #

    … I wish I had answers to at least a few of your questions, but instead, even before starting reading the article itself :D, I have already a question of my own — is there a male equivalent for that… “flibbertigibbet” out there?! 🙂 I mean… really?!…it was not enough it was ‘foolish’, but it also had to be… ‘female’…

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele October 21, 2014 at 12:04 pm #

      Interesting question 🙂

      You know, I have seen that connotation of the word before, but upon looking it up just now only two out of about eight resources mention it. I’m guessing it is dated. Interestingly, there are quite few words that relate specifically to women and their manner of talking:


      …and perhaps my favorite, just for the sheer absurdity:


      It seems words that are reserved for men are much fewer. Cuckold comes to mind, but that doesn’t relate to speaking.

      Anyhow, thanks for the question that sparked this whimsical and desultory comment 🙂

      • Mireille October 22, 2014 at 7:44 am #

        Thanks for the…reassurance! 😀 Yes, my bad, I had to ask — then I had lots of looking up to do! LOL

        Well, I might have a hypothesis — most of those words most likely were “invented” by men, sitting nicely and cozy at their freshly dusted and polished desk, sipping carelessly on their coffee and thinking hard how they can best help this world! 🙂 Women, on the other hand, obviously did not get much chance to sit at The Sacred Desk and pop up words per minute. My guess is, they might have been a bit tired of: raising kids, cleaning houses, preparing meals, doing laundry and (unsuccessfully) trying to please the Implacable Men. 😉

      • Vatwani June 19, 2017 at 8:04 pm #

        Interesting! Thanks Chris. Never thought of such complex words that could be gender specific only. We’ve all come across the conundrum of calling a man “beautiful” only to hear a vitriolic come back.

        • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
          Magoosh Test Prep Expert June 21, 2017 at 1:25 am #

          On Chris’s behalf, you’re very welcome 🙂

  3. Sriram October 14, 2014 at 4:26 am #

    I could not agree more with what the author conveys. I sometimes cringe at the need one feels to use inscrutable language, putting the readers through needless grief. Technical jargon, viewed liberally, is perhaps pardonable, but what joy does a writer get by infusing difficult words into text forcing a reader to constantly have a dictionary for companion? For example, if something seems artificial, call it artificial, why label it ersatz and patronise the reader? I sometimes truly wonder if this notion of “dense writing” is an attempt by the writer to expand his own ‘clique’, holding to ransom the credulous reader and leaving him or her no choice but to get themselves familiar with the verbiage. A concluding thought – if only the academia had broken protocol and focussed on simplistic language to convey their thoughts, the verbal sections of all competitive exams, which cause untold misery to students, would perhaps cease to exist.

    – Sriram.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele October 14, 2014 at 10:28 am #


      I couldn’t agree with you more on the first part: academic writing is often needlessly dense, it’s practitioners–as Pinker points out–trying to be taken seriously at the expense of clarity.

      But many of these people aren’t professional writers in the journalistic sense. Much of the writing that pops up in the GRE, GMAT, and LSAT, while dry and dense, seems to adhere to a writerly standard that most academic writing doesn’t (this is not always the case, of course). And while it is true that many standardized tests could be made clearer, I wonder if something is lost stylistically in paring down prose to the level where it is clear to just about everyone. Your writing (above), my writing (hopefully), and the GRE TC/SE (mostly) represented sophisticated and intelligent prose that isn’t trying desperately to sound intelligent, and thus coming across as an ersatz Text Completion (thought I’d throw that word in there :)).

      The specimens that Pinker has chosen are flat out inscrutable, have zero stylistic know-how, and break more than a few grammar rules in the process. Even at it’s worst, I’m not sure if the same could be said about the GRE.

      Your thoughts?

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