• September 4, 2015

'It Can Thereby Be Shown ... '

Writing Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

Uncle Seymour had been invited to the University of Oxford to give a talk. He was being shown around the colleges by a fellow academic, and they walked past a worker cleaning imposing gothic stone structures. His English companion turned to my uncle and said, with a wry smile, "They collect the dirt and send it to Yale so they can put it on their buildings."

Thirty years ago when I first traveled to Oxford, I noticed the ways in which American universities had borrowed from the English: The college system; the college ties (both figurative and fashion); the dining commons; the serious drinking.

Yep, it seemed pretty clear. We copied them. That was a long time ago. Why, then, do so many American academics continue to ape the Brits? To be more specific: Why do so many American professors, many of whom have never even been to England, sign off their e-mail messages with "Cheers"? How many of those people ever speak the word without a glass in hand? What is the meaning of this?

We underpaid professorial types like to affect trappings of worldly sophistication. As a way of finishing up e-mail messages, "Cheers" is harmless enough, I suppose. But I'm wondering if it's not a symptom of something else, something more pernicious in academic prose.

I'm thinking about stiltedness and pretension. I'm thinking about the use of words like "shall." Who says "shall" anymore? What red-blooded, baseball-watching, Levi's-wearing, Bud-swilling Americans say "shall"? Really, what tweedy, pipe-smoking academics speak it aloud? Yet they certainly use it in their writing.

I've overheard students joking about a cowboy-boot-shod professor who slips into a Shakespearean accent. Not just while quoting literature, but also when reading aloud his class attendance list and syllabus. It seems to be almost unintentional, perhaps unwitting.

And I have no idea how "spot on" became suddenly common in American speech, but it gives me the heebie-jeebies every time I hear it. I know that there's a phenomenon called "linguistic contagion" and that college campuses are good incubators for such viral explosions of expressions. But still, I wonder: Why do we want to sound British?

Perhaps there's some kind of class thing going on here. The minute an English person opens her mouth, a countrywoman can tell—or used to be able to—where she was born, if she went to university, and whether she's likely to make her living selling flowers. Americans have always had more fluidity in terms of class markers and regional speech, though, believe it or not, I still know people who think that anyone with a Southern accent sounds uneducated.

"Cheers" is like a toupee. If you look closely enough, you can see can the artifice. It's not doing the work it's supposed to do, which is, I think, to sign off with a kind of breezy sophistication. Instead, it's showing the effort of disguise. That kind of linguistic costuming is common in academe. Often we want to sound more aristocratic than our roots. And sometimes it goes the other way.

I knew a professor who not only held on to, but exaggerated, his working-class New Jersey accent (he's many decades out of the Springsteen 'hood) because it seemed to gain him street cred as a labor historian. Never mind that his father was a physician and that he went to elite institutions.

Another old friend, a world-renowned theologian, swears like a sailor. Whether he's talking to blue-haired Methodist church ladies or addressing an audience of dons at Cambridge, his language is the potty-mouthed cant of the bricklayer, his father's profession. He does this intentionally, he says, because he hates what the language of civility does to the poor.

Both men have been successful in their academic lives. There's some part of them that resists the pomp under certain circumstances, but their education and intelligence allow them to pronounce polysyllabic words with more than a whiff of authority. They are using their voices to insist that they have not been co-opted into a class system that makes them uncomfortable. It's the flip side of borrowing status by sounding Shakespearean.

But in academic writing, the charm of such quirky tics and accents often falls away. We tend to no longer sound like ourselves, and often move into stiff mimicking of works we read as graduate students. "It can thereby be shown" is a phrase commonly found in academic writing, yet hideous on so many levels it's not even worth discussing. Among others: "thus we can see," "ergo," "viz.," "in conversation with," "inasmuchas," "heretofore," "shan't." Look at your own work. How many similarly ugly words and phrases are you using?

In truth, I've dropped a couple of those bombs in my writing without thinking, or perhaps by thinking that they would make me sound smarter and more sophisticated. I have even resorted to using abbreviations in a dead language without knowing exactly what they stand for.

Look at your own work. How many similarly ugly phrases are you using?

It's fine to use words you would never utter aloud—as long as they are exactly the right words. It's great to deploy complex sentence structure, load up heaps of dependent clauses, build paragraphs that are as big as houses, as long as you are in control of the language and the meaning remains clear.

Often, when I work with academic friends on editing their journal articles or books, I get stuck and confused. I'll read a sentence aloud, and ask: What are you trying to say here? Or, sometimes, This is making my brain hurt! Then, if the person is a good friend, I will grab the computer and type in her spoken, off-the-cuff answer. It's always better and clearer. Lengthy Latinate phrases fall away. Passion comes into the prose. All the skills that serve her well as a teacher spring into action. Her explanations are lucid and don't sacrifice any of the intellectual complexity of the original tortured sentence.

When I'm doing editorial work on academic prose, I always ask: Why should I care about this issue? Always, my friends are able to tell me in ways that enable me to see the value in the work. When they are talking, they sound smart and funny and like the unique and delightful people they are. But when it comes to putting stuff on the page, some of them sound like academic drones.

Each of us has multiple personae. We all know plenty of academics whose selves before the Ph.D. were radically different from the people they became in graduate school. When in professional company, they drop the cadences of the West Virginia coal mines, the accents of the barrios of East LA, the twang of the Carolina Piedmont, and adopt the lingo of the professional scholar. And when they are relaxed, among friends, they fall back on the linguistic style that fits them most comfortably.

Obviously some material and disciplines lend themselves more easily than others to letting a voice show through the content, but scholarly work would be better if we encouraged people to write more like themselves, instead of in an unintentionally funny parody of what they think academic prose should look like. Sure, there are pieces of jargon and lines of coded language that you feel must be included so that your peers will know that you've done your time and deserve to be admitted to the club.

But that doesn't mean you have to sound like some inflated idea of a professor; you can express your complex and arcane ideas in ways that come naturally to you. And, yes, people who are not, by nature, casual or informal look as squeezed and uncomfortable as Wall Street bankers when they affect slanginess. Our prose should reflect who we are. Pascal wrote: "When we encounter a natural style, we are astonished and delighted; for we expected to see an author, and we find a man."

There are important distinctions that can be made just by using a term of art, an agreed-upon shorthand. There aren't that many ways to say "models" and "variables" and no good reason to reach for synonyms for the sake of felicitous prose. Technical language is an important part of many disciplines. I'm arguing here for a both/and, rather than an either/or, approach. Make it correct and precise for your field, but think a little about sounding like yourself—the best version of yourself.

Half a century ago, the sociologist C. Wright Mills diagnosed the problem of bad academic writing: "Such a lack of ready intelligibility, I believe, usually has little or nothing to do with the complexity of the subject matter, and nothing at all with profundity of thought. It has to do almost entirely with certain confusions of the academic writer about his own status. ... Desire for status is one reason why academic men slip so readily into unintelligibility. ... To overcome the academic prose, you have first to overcome the academic pose."

Trying to sound more like yourself and less like a clone would make for a better and more interesting array of scholarly writing styles. Don't contort your prose to conform to some idea—probably mistaken—of what academe requires.

And in writing e-mails—at least if you're writing to me—please sign off with "sincerely" (even if you're not being sincere), "best regards," "Happy trails," or my favorite, "xo." Unless of course you actually are British, or have a champagne glass in your hand—then feel free to write "Cheers."

Rachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University, in Spokane. Her Web site is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.


1. tkiedis - November 19, 2010 at 05:43 am

Great words for professors and preachers. Thanks.

2. andresloco - November 19, 2010 at 06:20 am

"Cheers" is not champagne...it is a pint in a pub. For informal and upbeat appeal to comraderie it beats the hell out of the all purpose self congratulatory sign off: "Sincerely"...which ought to beg the question of why one must make such a claim at the end of correspondence just as "I'll be honest with you" often and rightfully raises questions about veracity. Cheers is overused, I sure overuse it, not to affect the pose of a stuffy academic but as a virtual clanking of bottles together to bond or send good wishes and informal, well... cheer, in the other's direction, rather than pompously declaring one's own sincerity while underscoring "I really mean this and I am a sincere person" Perhaps "Cheers" is ingratiating...but the more pretentious and self serious among us are those dour sophisticates who sneer or raise a continental eyebrow rather than hold up their glass as well.



3. andresloco - November 19, 2010 at 06:26 am

Or those who see only glaring lack of pronoun antecedent agreement at conclusions of comments. (Wish I had scanned my comments before raising my virtual glass.)



4. mheffleychron - November 19, 2010 at 07:53 am

What does "ciao4now" make me?

5. nwslater - November 19, 2010 at 08:59 am

At first I wondered if "inasmuchas" was Spanglish. Then I figured it out. Even Chaucer wrote it as "In as muche as" (see OED), and while there are few people (including poor old Charlie Dickens, that hopeless stylist) who wrote "inasmuch as," I'm curious what evidence there is that anyone writes it all as a single word.

6. pokerphd - November 19, 2010 at 09:08 am

Were he alive today, George Orwell would be pleased to read this for two reasons:

1. it largely reaffirms a position he took > 60 years ago
2. it is not another Big Brother essay

P.S. Can my institution have some of that Oxford dust? I would imagine it's better for my eyes and nose than that of the seemingly endless new construction on my campus.

7. digiwonk - November 19, 2010 at 09:40 am

I love this -- thanks for writing it!

One reason that linguistic pretension afflicts so many graduate students, I think, is a basic confusion of "complex" and "complicated." Many beginning graduate students are reading scholarship directly, rather than through the gloss of a textbook, for the first time, and they know two things:

1. These writers are really really smart; that's why I have to read them.
2. I am having a hard time understanding any of it; it's much harder to read than what I'm used ot.

From this flows an error that leads to the deliberate creation of obfuscatory prose:

1. I want to be seen to be really really smart
2. Therefore, I should write things that are hard to understand and hard to read.

Aha! Me, I remember struggling with Donna Haraway, with Kate Hayles, with the later Judith Butler in grad school. I read those same pieces now and am struck by the clarity and force of, ahem, two of those writers. Their ideas are complex and so is their writing, but they key thing is that they try to be clear. Many scholars seem to try to be confusing. That's sad.

On the other hand, I've had more than one editor try to remove the fun from my prose, after my work is accepted for publication. The international journals particularly, want the blandest, most straightforward prose possible, mindful of their many readers for whom English is not the first language. As a literature professor, I find it hard to remove my personality from my writing in that way, but oh well.

8. books4jocks - November 19, 2010 at 09:51 am

"Cheers is like a toupe" -- OMG, yes, yes a thousand times yes. THANK YOU.

9. annai - November 19, 2010 at 10:23 am

Other English phrases in the "spot on" category:
Saying something is "brilliant" or "dodgy." Muttered with a slight Hugh Grant accent is best.

10. oioioi - November 19, 2010 at 11:13 am

Cheers is not at all implying the raising of a glass. In its correct usage it is 100% synonymous with "Thanks", which is how it's used in spoken English. By the people who use it in spoken English, which is not most Americans in any case. Not yet, anyway.

The use of British English (or, perhaps the better term is Global English or just - dare I say it - English) in America is an interesting phenomenon that is hardly limited to people who want to sound pretentious in academia. It's creeping in on many fronts. Taking just the world of sports - or sport, as some now call it: the use of the word "nil" to mean zero, "side" to mean team, and conjugating teams to be plural ("the team are well prepared for the match") are just the first three examples coming to mind.

It's part of the globalization - ahem, globalisation - of media and communications.

If this sort of thing annoys you, if you think we've perfected English here in the colonies, then prepare for waves of disappointment over your lifetime. English is a living thing.

11. thomaskdean - November 19, 2010 at 11:24 am

This is a bit askew from the topic, but I maintain that "sort of" is the intellectual's (or the intellectual poser's) "like." I hear it from academics a lot, as well as what might be considered more "intellectual" people on, for example, NPR. Next time you hear someone saying "sort of" frequently as an interjection, substitute the Valley Girl "like." It's exactly the same thing. Often there are comical results. I've often heard statements like "That's sort of precisely the point."

12. racheltoor - November 19, 2010 at 11:38 am

OMG. I sort of love ciao4now. Now that's an example of living language. Ciao was the cheers of the academics of my youth.

And it's "sort of" part of the same problem--it has to do with twitchiness around status; therefore the unwillingness to assert things clearly and directly.


13. abelragen - November 19, 2010 at 11:45 am

I believe Canadians have mocked Americans for using "inasmuchas" for decades. I recall a story from the distant past about a secretary in Toronto answer if his American English gave her any trouble by saying, "Only that strange Spanish word you like so much."

Americans are divided into those who find themselves turning red with shame when they first give directions in London including the words, "straight on" and those who feel rather proud of themselves. Anglophile though I am, I belong to the former group; when I hear members of the latter group talk, I wonder when the idea of educated American English "went missing" or, as I would say it, got lost.

14. crankycat - November 19, 2010 at 12:04 pm

I quite agree... Sorry - had to do that...

It's true - I just started revising a manuscript from start to finish, not because it was all that bad, but because I thought "*I* don't want to read this stuff - why the heck would anyone else?"

Academese is a language I would like to forget. (Outside of Richard Russo novels, anyway.)

15. tcli5026 - November 19, 2010 at 01:27 pm

Ah, c'mon. This sort of thing happens everywhere. I worked in the corporate world and had a colleague who used British expressions all the time (there have even been TV shows satirizing the tendency of wannabe snobs to use foreign expressions--especially French--to demonstrate their "class" and elegance). As for writing, every profession has their jargon, much of which appears intelligible to outsiders. It's a general tendency, not just an academic one. (And, don't forget the practice by many, many people to express their "superiority" in material terms--by buying luxury cars, huge houses, fancy vacations, etc. to impress others.)

Professors are just ordinary people with the same weaknesses, the same insecurities, and the same pretensions as everyone else.

16. tcli5026 - November 19, 2010 at 01:28 pm

... every profession has its jargon" (hate not being able to edit my comments)

17. dphphd - November 19, 2010 at 01:33 pm

So raise your glass if you are wrong, in all the right ways!


18. dank48 - November 19, 2010 at 01:45 pm

Rachel, great essay. I had a former colleague who had spent a couple years at Oxford and then spent several years mentioning that fact about six times a day. Aside from that, he was a really nice fellow. I think it comes down to snobbery.

"No pack drill." "Swingeing." "Put paid to." God, it just goes on and on.

I think it's High Society where Bing Crosby chimes in on the falsely exuberant greetings when the paterfamilias returns home: "Oh, capital! It's Papa!" [second syllable of "papa" stressed of course]

Better still, the scene in My Favorite Year when Benjy's mother greets the movie star Alan Swann: "Welcome to our humble chapeau." Benjy mutters, "Two years at the Sorbonne, and she still gets it wrong."

The dangers of this are getting it wrong and sounding like an ass and getting it right and sounding like an ass anyway.

19. racheltoor - November 19, 2010 at 04:43 pm

I can't wait to welcome someone to my humble chapeau.

20. worstprofever - November 19, 2010 at 05:48 pm

I like the idea but it doesn't work in practice. In my experience, writing in anything less than high academic rococo will get you (or at least junior profs) sneered at, and an unfortunate number of academics like using big words to make themselves feel smart. The emperor has no clothes...

21. cdbamford1 - November 19, 2010 at 07:40 pm

I think the author of this article is slightly snobby herself. Live and let live! If someone wants to use cheers, then let them; there's no need to pass judgment. Why be so condescending about how others choose to express themselves? Clarity in writing is a different thing altogether, and the author makes good points about writing less stilted prose. This doesn't justify the tone of the article, though, which is overly pretentious.

22. kweber - November 19, 2010 at 09:52 pm

Ok, I'll agree with the basic premise that people should try to express themselves in their own voice. But my understanding was that "shall" is the future tense, first person singular and plural form of the verb "will".

Just because I say "gonna" when I'm casually chatting with people doesn't mean I shouldn't write "going to" when I put pen to paper.

23. spirosdarlotts - November 20, 2010 at 07:40 am

I grew up in Canada, and "cheers" is used quite commonly for hello, goodbye, thanks, and so on.

It's a nice and friendly sign off for in person chats and emails. I use it, and am annoyed now that I've discovered that others think of it as a pose of some kind.

More reasons not to talk to people.

24. anonscribe - November 20, 2010 at 01:48 pm

Fakes, copies, clones....the rank stench of authenticity-speak. We learn by imitation. Was Frederick Douglass wrong to adopt the language he learned from the Columbia Orator? Are we only justified to speak the way we're socialized to speak in our childhood? Are we not allowed to change?

It's extremely difficult to learn to write good academic prose. Some never quite get there. It's not an issue of trying to use big words "to sound smart" or trying to obfuscate one's points because one has nothing to say. It's hard to write about Foucault and Melville. It's hard to write about Kant and Hegel. It's hard to write about Plato and Derrida. Some do it well; some do it less well. It's usually not pretension, fakery, or snobbery. It's people trying to fit in, get by, and get on.

As for getting frustrated with those you edit: that's the job of an editor - in academia or commercial publishing. Nothing to blow out of proportion.

25. bonefro1 - November 20, 2010 at 06:15 pm

I agree on "spot on," but disagree about "shall." My mother used to say it and I find it very useful, without having to "should." And don't you mean "underpaid professorial types like to effect trappingss"? Good article.

26. emilfriedman - November 20, 2010 at 10:24 pm

Sometimes a hard to understand journal article or book is just hiding the fact that it doesn't contain anything worth reading. By contrast, some articles make something truly novel seem extremely simple. Realizing the brilliance of such articles sneaks up on us afterwards.

27. emilfriedman - November 20, 2010 at 10:33 pm

In college & graduate school we tended to use as many words as we could. Upon becoming a research chemist in industry I had to completely unlearn my writing style because managers don't have time to read long-winded reports.

As a post script to my previous post, I suspect that some documents are intentionally long-winded because the author has to divulge something that he hopes nobody will notice.

28. profdave - November 21, 2010 at 12:15 pm

Interesting debate.

As for the "shall" discussion - the word 'shall' is unconditional and implies volition. 'Should' is conditional and/or normative. 'Will' is also unconditional but implies mechanism rather than volition.

I agree with clarity and simplicity in writing. It is why I appreciate the "...for Dummies" books so much. Many academic subjects would be easier to learn if we were allowed to write for "dummies" instead of the hoity-toity academic publisher audience.

As for signoffs, I am finished with my message, so I will just stop typing. Now.

29. profdave - November 21, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Interesting debate. I agree with the idea of clarity in writing. That's why I appreciate the "...for Dummies" books. Many academic subjects would be easier to teach and learn if we were allowed to write for "dummies" rather than for the academic publishing audience.

As for the word "shall," it signifies volition and is definite. It is an instruction. "Should" is not definite but more normative. It is a conditional prediction. "Will" is also definite but signifies mechanism rather than volition. It is an unconditional prediction.

Rather than using some pretentious signoff, I will indicate the end of my comments by stopping. Now.

30. daddyprof - November 21, 2010 at 06:49 pm

"It's not so much an afterlife as it is a sort of 'apres vie.'"
-Arthur Dent

31. utchron9 - November 22, 2010 at 12:15 am

I get the feeling that much language at the academic level is little more than pretentious BS disguised as being educated. Having to write in the academic BS lingo is truely a horror for many of us.

32. aaufacdev - November 22, 2010 at 01:24 pm

thomaskdean: Yes. "Sort of" is like everywhere.

33. freeassociate3000 - November 22, 2010 at 01:58 pm

Point well taken. However, as a creative writing professor, you more than anyone should know that people adopt linguistic personae to fit in to particular milieus. Why not tell rappers to quit referring to their cars, woman, or millions?
Would Othello have attained his stature if he'd sworn like a sailor? People clothe themselves in language just as they clothe themselves according to various social stations. Sure, it can be laughable, but its a fact of life, and all part of the human comedy. In essence, you want academics to wear linguistic jeans and t-shirts--because that's part of your posture as a 'salt of the earth' creative writing professor, who, in keeping with edicts of 20th century literary prose, wants to 'keep it real' by mimicking the vox populi.

However, by all means--clarity in speech.

34. theseus - November 22, 2010 at 10:04 pm

What the hell is wrong with "shall"? And why is "shan't" so supposedly much less elegant than all the other contractions? This article seems to be quite as pretentious and pseudy as the things it's complaining about.

35. phdincreativewriting - November 22, 2010 at 10:11 pm

Thanks for a great post. I responded (and also asked another question) on this pedagogy forum at the University of Cincinnati: http://profpost.uc.edu/2010/11/what-say-ye/

36. thirdcamper2 - November 23, 2010 at 04:46 am

I am in favor of retaining the word "shall."

37. music_librarian - November 23, 2010 at 08:19 am

I, too, can't abide "spot on." Also, I'm finding that more and more Americans have "gone missing" rather than just disappearing. Perhaps it's more mysterious that way?

38. gahnett - November 23, 2010 at 10:08 am

Speaking of twichiness...

How do you choose to pronounce things that have a new pronunciation when it is just a bastardization of the original?

For example, how do you pronouce "niche" or "allantois"?

39. onlineasllou - November 23, 2010 at 10:53 am

I find a few British phrases popping up in my casual speaking but not so much in my writing. I think it is because I watch British movies and television on a regular basis. To me, it seems a natural consequence of the globalization of our culture.

40. bookishone - November 23, 2010 at 05:33 pm

What's wrong with "put paid to"? It's a not-very-often used phrase, but it's not particularly British, is it? Should we all stop using any but the most commonly used phrases? I'm certainly in favor of getting rid of clutter and jargon in academic prose, and I root out great swaths of it regularly in my students' (and my own) papers, but part of the beauty and the fun of the English language is investigating and (properly) using its nooks and crannies. Learning the difference between pretension and "fun nooks and crannies" is a lifelong process and, as we see here, not a matter we all agree on.

And, like the commenter above, I consider "cheers" to be just a friendly greeting, not trying to be British or fancy. It's a useful term, much better than the stilted "yours truly" or "sincerely," more friendly than "best wishes," less clingy than "love," and much better than the coy "xo," in my opinion. Or "Happy trails." Sending cheer is not okay, but posing as some kind of cowboy is just fine? Sorry, Rachel, you're off base on this one in my opinion. I usually enjoy your essays, but this one disappoints me.

41. lightningstrike - November 26, 2010 at 04:32 am


42. cleverclogs - November 27, 2010 at 09:50 am

"Gone missing" is very popular in the American southern states and has been for hundreds of years. In fact, I was always under the impression that southerners and the British shared many linguistic affinities. You'll notice the British becoming more 'Americanized" in their speech as well - for example, saying "skedule" instead of "shezsual" (for "schedule" obviously). It makes me a little sad for some reason.

As far as academic prose, I actually find a fairly clear connection between the way people write and what they are interested in. Those things that I consider dull or prosaic in subject are often written in a way I find dull and prosaic. So perhaps it's not the academic herself that calls forth the prose, it's the subject matter?

43. okieinexile - November 29, 2010 at 04:58 pm

We all speak and write out of the idiom we are familiar with. I grew up in a religiously fundementalist atmosphere, so my language is peppered with Biblical phrases. Academic writing is the way it is because we pick up the lingo from what we read. Now that I am reading educational writing, I find I pepper my language with educationese.

God help me.

44. profdave - December 05, 2010 at 02:50 pm

Sorry about the double postings above. My browser gave no indication that the first one had been accepted.

45. bstevens - December 07, 2010 at 08:14 pm

People write stilted because they aren't good enough at writing to do it any other way. That's what separates the good writers from the mediocre writers.

46. copesan - December 09, 2010 at 09:36 am

There is a difference between stilted, bad, jargon-laden, obtuse, boring academic writing, and email sign-offs.
Not sure I can use "happy trails" with a straight face, and what about people who use "peace"?
Used cheers for years before spending considerable time in England. Have never said spot on. Still use the occasional "brilliant" though. Did learn to say "right" with many different inflections, but it really doesn't work in America without a British accent, and I am too busy hanging on to my honorable Midwestern one to learn a new one.


47. raymondjshaw - December 10, 2010 at 11:10 am

I agree with those put off by the "dissing" of "cheers." I sign off with "cheers" because I like to be cheery, not British. I originally copied it from my graduate advisor (who was a Scottish imigrant in Canada), but continue using it because (to me) it implies "cheer up," which I learned from my very American parents (who were married in Spokane, Prof. Toor) and because I like to spread good cheer.

Perhaps Prof. Toor has only lived in one linguistic community, but since one's language choices stem from one's life experience, it should be no surprise (nor reason for criticism) that some people (especially academics who may have travelled) use language styles that reflect their experiences.

Sure, some people do that sort of thing for pretence and for their own ego stroking, but I'd bet most of it is just adopting and adapting language experience. My speech is a mish-mash of Western US, East Coast US, Southern US, and Canadian that makes my Boston-area wife smile. So I'll stick with it despite the overgeneralized assumption of some people that I'm being pretentious.


48. crazyfrog - December 10, 2010 at 05:20 pm

Strange how a post critiquing writing kind of droned on a bit too long... And how a "creative writing" prof wants to establish "rules" about writing... Just saying.
I sign off my emails with "cheers." I am not British. I had no idea it was a "British" phrase when it was introduced to me in my early years of grad school. I say cheers all the time when toasting. The critique of cheers could easily be used to criticize "sincerely" which is much more awful to sign informal emails with. I even hate signing formal emails with that word.
To each his own sign off I say.

49. bigbookreader - December 10, 2010 at 11:36 pm

The only two people using "OMG" in these comments both condemn the use of "Cheers". I suppose it is preferable to imitate the language of pre-pubescent Americans.

50. ewuenglish - December 13, 2010 at 04:10 pm

Nice job, Rachel! We all could use some healthful navel-gazing at our styles of prose.

51. text0002 - December 13, 2010 at 09:47 pm

I've lived in Great Britain, but in Scotland, not England, where I did my junior year abroad at the University of Edinburgh. I've always had problems with Americans who play English. "Cheers" has always made me cringe. For me the problem has always been that Americans who play English think that England is Lord of the Rings, tea in the afternoon, and Agatha Christie. For me, England is bad central heating, sixties buildings that are much worse than ours, and the Boer War, not to mention the British National Party. Ick. Two summers ago, I was at the University of Liverpool for a seminar. One of the seminar leaders (who is English) and I talked and agreed that at the heart of the matter is that Americans who are Anglophiles are essentially creepy.

Nice essay.

Doug Texter

52. onewheeltom - December 14, 2010 at 08:52 am

So, sign off with "sincerely" even if you are not being sincere? Why should I write what I don't mean?

Go jump in a lake,

P.S. Cheers!

53. aclutz - December 14, 2010 at 01:21 pm

Language is a living thing. If you are a person who moves around a lot, you just pick up words and phrases here and there. Of course the environment where you live impacts how you speak whether you are growing up with a regional accent, living abroad for a long period of time, or even going to grad school. It all impacts you. Why should an accent and word choices based only on a certain period of early life be considered more "authentic" than ones based on a full lifetime of one's environment? If you live in a place for a period of time the words and accents of that place kind of sneak up on you unless you self consciously and rigidly maintain your previous way of speaking. For a person who moves around a lot or doesn't feel a strong connection to the accent of a region where they once lived, a mishmash of words and styles is more "authentic" for that person. And, sometimes it's just fun to use words from a place you lived during a period of life that made a big impact on you. When I was young and lived in Boston, I thought it was great that people called water fountains "bubblers" so I started calling them that too. It's just a more fun way of describing an everyday object. I still call them "bubblers" and when I do, I have a brief, fun recollection of my late teens when I first encountered that word.

54. interface - December 14, 2010 at 04:00 pm

Wow. I'm just trying to imagine what it would feel like to make such a ginormous (American enuff fer ya?) fuss over one little world. But I can't.


55. virmundi - December 14, 2010 at 11:12 pm

I find the author to be rather pretentious and condescending. Her assumption seems to be that you are a prisoner of your nation of origin and that to arrogate words and behaviors from other cultural milieux is in some fashion false arrogance. Utter claptrap.

An American

56. gsawpenny - December 15, 2010 at 09:19 am


English majors, talk about an unnecessary department taking up space on campus.

I found this entire article (and most comments) a waste of time.

57. tsylvain - December 15, 2010 at 02:19 pm

There was a rather silly article about email sign-offs in the New York Times recently. The author thinks "Carpe Diem" and "Be Fabulous" are good ways to end emails. Here's the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/07/fashion/07CULTURAL.html?_r=1&scp=3&sq=%22be%20fabulous%22&st=cse

I never thought of "Cheers" as affected myself, and "Sincerely" doesn't seem appropriate for a quick email. I've used it only with people with whom I have a very formal relationship. On the other hand, I have never used "shall" in speech or writing, and pompous-sounding words like "indeed" make me cringe.

I enjoyed reading this article, particularly the quotations near the end by Pascal and Mills. But I also find the criticism of people using British English expressions misplaced. English is, as many have noted above, a living thing, and it can be pleasurable to try out new ways of expressing oneself. I also am not sure what I think about Toor's arguing that we should all sound like "ourselves." If she means that we shouldn't let editors turn our livelier prose into something bland, I agree, but if she means we have to be true to our roots, whatever those are, her argument is assuming some kind of authentic self that sticks with us despite our educations, exposure to other cultures, etc.

58. accidental_academic - December 15, 2010 at 06:09 pm

I'm an English academic at an English university, and have never seen an email from a colleague signed cheers. We use it to say thank you informally ie cheers for that or as an acknowledgement, or when raising a toast. To sign off it's more often yours, best (I hate that - best what? Foot forward?) or a variation on regards - unless it's a formal email to someone you don't know, in which case it's probably a yours sincerely. It cheers me up to see Americans discussing the anglicising of their language - I sometimes feel I am fighting a one woman battle against pernicious z s in nouns, normalcy and dodgy prnounciations of words like controversy...

59. accidental_academic - December 15, 2010 at 06:10 pm

or even "pronounciations" - obviously traumatised by too many z s!

60. druce - December 16, 2010 at 03:22 pm

I disagree entirely.
Language is a tool. And a very powerful tool at that.
Consider, if you had your way, how we'd sound off in Congress:
"I oppose the African American Bro's idea of socialized programs..."
Instead of "I respect the opposition of the Gentleman from..."?
Or would the writer prefer another British tradition of duelling at dawn?
In other words, words help smooth out the conflicts between humans!
So, why not visit the Queens English and keep to the high ground? It's what you should expect from higher education.

61. qzxcvbnm - December 17, 2010 at 02:17 am

Great article!

Even "Best Regards" sounds vaguely British. Just use "Sincerely." It's American, it works, and it's so much snooty.

Presumably, if you're reading this, you're an American academic. Just act like one. Stop trying to be British. You're not, and your students will immediately know this. Take a little pride in American culture. After all, it produced you.

62. virmundi - December 17, 2010 at 03:41 pm

Is this is Rachel Toor's first step, I suspect, in proposing the restoration of sartorial laws as well as regulating speech based on place of origin and class?

63. bobpaver - December 17, 2010 at 09:00 pm

As a rule, we are poor communicators, even within our respective disciplines. The obscure vocabularies, jargon, and stylistic elements of discipline specific prose prevent mere mortals, even academics in other disciplines, from assimilating the thoughts of the author. Think how much better off we would be if everyone understood post modern thought without spending years in graduate school, just to understand the dialect?

If intelligent, educated readers cannot comprehend "academic prose," what benefit accrues?

Closings for typical e-mail messages are unnecessary and are often incongruous. However, if you feel the need, this web page has many to chose from http://www.writeexpress.com/letterclosings.html .

My favorite closing, from the USENET newsgroups days and only for the initiated, is


64. hanks - December 20, 2010 at 05:59 am


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