Adverbs in academic writing

My mind wandered to the question of frequent adverbs in academic writing today, especially for hedging and boosting (that is, making your claim stronger or weaker). A quick search of the Corpus of Contemporary American English reveals that some adverbs are considerably more frequent in academic writing that spoken English. For example:

  • perhaps (255 instances per million words vs 189)
  • clearly (177 vs 144)
  • presumably (27 vs 13)
  • significantly (203 vs 12) — probably because of the technical meaning of statistical significance
  • somewhat (76 vs 46)
  • theoretically (14 vs 4)

On the other hand, some adverbs are rather less frequent than in spoken English:

  • of course (143 instances per million in academic writing vs 414 in speaking)
  • obviously (42 vs 199)
  • maybe (31 vs 400)

That last word was more surprising: my guess is that writers use the modal verb  form (may + be) rather than the adverbial (maybe). It’s not surprising that academic writers use more tentative adverbs and fewer definitive ones, although it is interesting that words like of course, obviously, always, and never do occur with some frequency in the corpus. In Eli Hinkel’s study of undergraduate students’ texts, she found relatively little use of always, never, and ever in native-speakers’ writing, suggesting perhaps that these words are reserved for published experts who can more confidently assert that something always or never happens, or that it is obvious.

I’ll be posting more tricks of the academic writing trade like this in the coming months as I work on my forthcoming grammar textbook for graduate students. Stay tuned (but don’t hold your breath)!

Exaggerations, hedgings, and boosting

I recently read James Watson’s latest memoir, Avoid Boring People (he of Watson & Crick DNA fame), and one of his “remembered lessons” is this:

Exaggerations do not void basic truths

Books, like plays or movies, succeed best when they exaggerate the truth. In communicating scientific fact to the nonspecialist, there is a huge difference between simplifying for effect and misleading. The issues that scientists must explain to society … require far too many years of training for most people to take hold of them in all their nuances. Sciences will necessarily exaggerate but are ethically obliged to society to exaggerate responsibly. In writing my textbooks I realized that emphasizing exceptions to simple truths was counterproductive and that use of qualifying terms such as probably or possibly was not the way to get ideas across initially.

James D. Watson, Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science. Knopf, 2007, p.170

This is curious for many reasons: scientific writing demonstrates a balance between boosting (Watson’s “exaggerations”) and hedging (“qualifying terms” and other linguistic features). In most cases, scientists err on the side of caution and hedge their claims. Boosters are indeed used, but they are seen more in shorter correspondence and, I think, abstracts, including conference abstracts. Perhaps Watson is talking about science writing for general audiences, or at least for teaching purposes, because his most famous writing does not seem to follow his own advice! Continue reading “Exaggerations, hedgings, and boosting”