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I also offer personally-tailored, individualized English conversation practice (including etiquette) and coaching in writing techniques. Finally, I edit texts such as magazines, business proposals, memorandums, emails so they are presented in English which does not embarrass you or your organization. For further details, please mail me at: language.etiquette@gmail.com

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17 February 2012

Etiquette issues #1: verbosity

The opening paragraph of this article in the journal Canadian-American Slavic Studies is a classic of the type of academic verbosity which is common to most countries, but perhaps more so in America than elsewhere. It is especially interesting since Charles Halperin, from the University of Indiana, is a brilliant scholar of medieval Russia who generally writes clearly and interestingly. His book, Russia and the Golden Horde: the Mongol Impact on Medieval Russian History, is a classic which I am glad to have on my bookshelves. However this essay was written when he was just beginning his academic career, and it shows.
     This is the paragraph in text form:
“Specialists in medieval Russian history often have to contend with an aggre­gate source base of such paucity that it is quite understandable that they should devote relatively massive amounts of time to articulating principles of source criticism and to evaluating interpretations of specific texts as sources about par­ticular problems. Sometimes—more cautiously one might say rarely—such an ob­session with sources entails too narrow a definition of historical problematica. In at least the one case with which this article will be concerned, stepping outside a narrow debate about sources to pose a broader but unasked question induces an uneasy emotion hyperbolically described as akin to insisting that the emperor has no clothes.”
     Apart from the unnecessary elaboration of the language, there are several specific grammatical points:
1.       What does “relatively massive amounts” mean? Why not just “a lot”?
2.       Is it “sometimes” or “rarely”? Perhaps he simply means “occasionally”?
3.       How can you answer an “unasked” question? An “unspoken” one is one which is not stated explicitly but is understood to exist, but an “unasked” one means that no-one has asked it, and therefore it must be asked first if it is to be answered. Otherwise, I might say “25”, and no-one would understand unless I first said, “What is five multiplied by five?”
4.       What are “historical probelmatica”? (I presume this is the plural of “historical problematicum”. What on earth is that?) At least, how do they differ from “historical problems”, a phrase which everyone understands?
5.       “Hyperbolically described as akin to insisting” is meaningless as, if you look closely at that sentence, the word which “hyperbolically” is qualifying is “akin”. How can a word which means little more than “like” be used in a “hyperbolical” way?

Trying to tanslate his paragraph into comprehensible English, without losing any of the points I think he wanted to make, I came to this. 
There are so few sources for medieval Russian history that respectable specialists have to spend a disproportionate amount of time describing how they evaluate particular texts. Occasionally the carry this process too far. An example discussed below … [There I had to give up. I am honestly not sure what the final sentence means. Who is the emperor? Is Professor Halperin saying that it is impossible to ask rational questions about so narrow a source base, or does he mean that he will end up criticising himself to the point were he can no longer write about this subject?]
    Writing may be good or it may be bad, which means it may convey its meaning clearly, concisely and vividly, or it may not. But if it fails to convey any meaning at all then it is not “writing” but mood music in verbal form. That may be appropriate in certain circumstances, but not in an academic essay.
     Here, by contrast, is an example of mood music which is so clearly written that it makes perfect sense, even without punctuation. There is not a word wasted, nor any doubt about what the author is saying, even when some words, like “stole a kiss” and “turn of a mile” , are used in an unconventional way. It is the opposite of verbose. The author is another Charles from the mid-West of America, though he is better known as “Chuck” Berry. He is a more competent writer than Professor Halperin—and he can play the guitar, too.

     Riding along in my automobile
     My baby beside me at the wheel
     I stole a kiss at the turn of a mile
     My curiosity running wild
     Crusin' and playin' the radio
     With no particular place to go....

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