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Logic in writing

I want to share some thoughts on a trend in academic writing (and other writing) which is a bit concerning. It has two aspects.

First, non-living objects such as tools, techniques and written texts are described as if they were human. The person actually using these tools or writing these texts is not mentioned. So the human is excluded, even though the human caused the action.

Second, humans and their lives are described as if they were non-human.

Because this newsletter is for researchers, I am focusing more on common but illogical expression in academic writing.

Things replace people

Here are examples where people are replaced by what they made:

This study reveals…

The report found…

The technique investigates…

The literature reports…

These four examples are very common in academic literature but they do seem rather odd if you think about it. People create studies and reports. People use techniques.

So what alternatives give a clearer picture?

This study reveals…                            Researchers reveal…

The report found…                              Findings include…

The technique investigates…             The technique is used to investigate…

The literature reports…                       Researchers report…

Why do such expressions exist? There has been a longstanding effort to make writing more active and engaging. In this, passive forms for verbs have become unpopular and unfashionable, even when what replaces them makes no logical sense.

This trend applies to many kinds of writing, not just academic writing. Here are more examples from journalists:

Textbooks are increasingly adding content on environmental issues.

Police report that the car lost control and hit a tree. (This was not a driverless car!)

It is obvious that a human of some sort is definitely needed for these sentences to make sense:

Textbook authors are increasingly adding content on environmental issues.

Police report that the driver lost control of the car and hit a tree.

I hope I have convinced you to avoid writing about things as if they were people.


People seem like things

The other aspect of this trend to blend the human and non-human is that writers are describing people as if they were not human:

The best version of myself

(Is that an update of a previous version?)

Reboot your life

(Is your life a computer?)

These expressions reflect how we think about ourselves. They probably illustrate something about how we live, whether we like it or not!