How not to not write

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The first of 14 tips from Zachary Foster ("How not to write: 14 tips for aspiring humanities academics", Times Higher Education 7/7/2016):

Titles. Once upon a time, scholars thought titles should be succinct and descriptive. Now we know better. Instead, introduce your work with an unintelligible phrase such as “Interrupted Modernity”, “Sovereign Emergencies”, “Overthrowing Geography” or “Violent Accumulation”. “Bodies that Speak” and “Empires without Imperialism” also make for great titles, even if bodies cannot speak and empires cannot exist without imperialism. Everyone knows that confusion attracts attention. Obscure quotes also make for great titles, especially if they include grammatical errors or antiquated speech. “Oh motherland I pledge to thee”, “What does not respect borders” and “Fortress Europe in the field” are good examples.

The article notes that

Zachary J. Foster is a PhD candidate in Near Eastern studies at Princeton University and a product manager at He would like to make clear that all the examples of unintelligible academese given above are real.

The article is amusing, but I think that "unintelligible" is a bit strong — you can judge for yourself by searching Google Scholar for the cited title phrases.

Taking one at random, we learn that "empires without imperialism" has been used at least 46 times in the publications that Google Scholar indexes. Some of these seem to be reviews of Jeanne Morefield, Empires Without Imperialism: Anglo-American Decline and the Politics of Deflection, OUP 2014. But earlier, Isabel Moutinho, The Colonial wars in contemporary Portuguese fiction, 2008 writes

Wesseling (1986: 8) points out that the Portuguese and the Dutch 'colonial empires' were 'empires without imperialism… until the twentieth century', when their imperialism acquired new strength.

This refers to H.L. Wesseling, "Imperialism and Empire: An Introduction", in Imperialism and After: Continuities and Discontinuities, Allen & Unwin 1989.

Without further research, I can't tell what exactly Wesseling and Moutinho meant by this distinction between "imperialism" and "empire". But presumably they had in mind something like what Hobson (1902) and Lenin (1917) meant by the distinction, whereby the Roman or Mogul empires, or the European colonial expansions of the 16th through 18th centuries, could be distinguished (economically and politically if not etymologically) from what happened in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which they called "imperialism". And from the (admittedly opaque) hints in various reviews, I gather that Morefield's 2014 book addresses the idea that an analogous distinction applies to the more recent decay of the British empire and of American influence.

Whatever you think of the distinctions involved, it seems premature to rule them out on purely semantic grounds. Hobson and Lenin might have been wrong, but they're not wrong a priori — it's not true that "empires cannot exist without imperialism", at least as those words have been used for the past century or so.

So Foster is clearly correct in observing that puzzling or even apparently contradictory phrases are popular in book and article titles in the humanities (and social sciences). But I think he goes too far in describing such phrases as "unintelligible".

Update — Since there has been some discussion of title colons in the comments, I should cite James Hartley, "Planning that title: Practices and preferences for titles with colons in academic articles", Library & Information Science Research 2007, which includes this chart:

And for lagniappe, 19.3% of the 23,050 titles in the ACL Anthology (version 20160301) contain a colon, placing Computational Linguistics in between Biomedical Research and Forestry . . .


  1. mollymooly said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 10:26 am

    "Empires without Imperialism: What were they thinking? Number 7 will make you cringe!"

  2. Michael said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 10:47 am

    I was surprised by his examples of "grammatical errors or antiquated speech." One use of "thee" hardly seems to make his case for antiquated, and I can't for the life of me find anything antiquated OR ungrammatical about "Fortress Europe in the field." He may be a humanities major, but he needs to take a look at a broader range of historical and theological articles. A search of recent article titles from EBSCO for "thee or thou or thy" yields some real winners, like:
    "Thou shalt not covet thy roots"
    "Thou knowest not the time of thy visitation"
    "Oh thou seer: flee thee"
    "Without thy self, oh man, thou hast no means to look for, by which thou maist know God."

  3. Morten Jonsson said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 10:47 am

    If bodies can't speak, does that mean there's no such thing as body language?

  4. Aaron said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 10:50 am

    "They try to grasp how traumatic events influence and are influenced by norms, identities and interests. This signals you have mastered the passive tense, and that the passive tense has been mastered by you."

    I laughed at the intended joke here, but… passive "tense"?!

    [(myl) Right. An old mistake, and a common mistake.]

  5. Greg said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 10:59 am

    Bodies can't speak? Where does our language come from if not our bodies? Does he have any tips accounting for sarcasm? Because that might be helpful in interpreting the tip on titles. I think I might just flat out disagree with his point, though. Shouldn't the purpose of a title be to capture our attention and make us want to read on? The subtitle and keywords and abstracts of academic articles might be more appropriate sites for succinctly and descriptively capturing the content.

  6. Tim Leonard said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 1:30 pm

    I've done peer review for a lot of papers. I've read lots of peer reviews. I have never been asked to evaluate a paper's title as part of a review, even when I've been explicitly asked to evaluate other sections (abstract, illustrations, keywords, etc.). Nor have I ever seen anyone else do so in a review. If opaque titles are a problem, it's easy enough to ask reviewers if the title succinctly describes the subject of the paper.

  7. Y said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 1:53 pm

    Superimposed Periods: The Rise of the Separating Colon in Academic Publication Titles

    [(myl) There's actually a significant literature on this topic.

    But everyone should keep in mind that titles are just the first of Foster's 14 tips.]

  8. David L said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 1:56 pm

    Need(less) Parentheses: Signifying through cutesy punctuation

  9. Charles Antaki said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 3:34 pm

    Can I give a plug for Michael Billig's wonderful "How to Write Badly"? Subtitle: "How to Succeed in the Social Sciences", which gives you a flavour of the message. Write dull jargon and don't rock the boat if you want a job. (But he puts it rather more entertainingly.)

  10. David Marjanović said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 4:24 pm

    Superimposed Periods: The Rise of the Separating Colon in Academic Publication Titles

    Thread: won.

  11. Y said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 4:29 pm

    Alternatively, Colonization as Disambiguation: The Rise of the Separating Colon in Academic Publication Titles

  12. Rubrick said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 5:59 pm

    Once upon a time, scholars thought titles should be succinct and descriptive.

    Of course! Like Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects.!

    Perhaps the 18th century is not the time which once is upon?

    [(myl) And in the 19th century we have Charles Darwin's The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits (1881). But it's fair to say that these old-fashioned titles were certainly descriptive, if not especially succinct.]

  13. chris said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 6:11 pm

    I'm curious how Foster speaks without his body. Surely that would be far more unusual than the reverse.

    And saying that there can't be any empires without imperialism is just the etymological fallacy, isn't it? You might as well say I can't log in to a website without having a chunk of wood to toss over the side of my ship with a measuring line attached.

  14. Michael Watts said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 6:35 pm

    There's a lot of willful ignorance in the genre of what is and isn't logically possible to say.

    I recently encountered a very charming bit of language in the video game Shantae and the Pirate's Curse; a tutorial NPC has the following dialog (from memory):

    How about picking up an auto-potion from the store? That way if you die, you won't die!

    It would be pretty easy to make the complaint that this is logically nonsensical, but it's actually just clever wording. The intended meaning is logically coherent and perfectly clear.

  15. Aaron said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 7:09 pm

    @Michael Watts: I like that too. The more standard strategy in games seems to be draw a distinction between "taking lethal damage" and "dying". Of course, in the real world when you take lethal damage you invariably also die, but that need not be the case in a game. I suppose using different roots helps avoid feeling that one is contradicting oneself (or deliberately being cute, as in your example).

  16. Michael Watts said,

    July 12, 2016 @ 11:27 pm

    I suppose using different roots helps avoid feeling that one is contradicting oneself

    Eh. If you think "that way if you die, you won't die" is problematically self-contradicting, "if you take lethal damage, you won't die" is just as bad — you must necessarily die in any context after taking lethal damage, because that is the definition of "lethal".

    Rather, the condition expresses a counterfactual meaning ("if you would otherwise die") without being syntactically marked for counterfactuality.

  17. Francis Boyle said,

    July 13, 2016 @ 4:15 am

    Doesn't the ever present possibility of semantic drift allow 'lethal damage' to take on a (contextually defined) counterfactual sense? That sort of separation is more or less blocked where 'die' is simply repeated.

  18. David Marjanović said,

    July 13, 2016 @ 5:45 am

    Perhaps the 18th century is not the time which once is upon?

    Indeed not. Behold an author including himself, his titles and all his academy memberships (abbreviated) in the already long title of his book.

    100 years later we got On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection.

  19. David Marjanović said,

    July 13, 2016 @ 5:51 am

    The journal Nature, which has space restrictions on everything, publishes titles that are as concise as possible: Two feathered dinosaurs from northeastern China (1998), A Silurian placoderm with osteichthyan-like marginal jaw bones (2013).

    Scientific Reports, also owned by the Nature Publishing Group, has given us The largest Silurian vertebrate and its palaeoecological implications (2014).

  20. Ted McClure said,

    July 13, 2016 @ 9:15 am

    The colon in the title may have arisen from the AACR2 cataloging punctuation standard, where the title proper is separated from additional language in the title (usually a subtitle) by a colon. The complete title is then separated from the statement of responsibility by a forward slash. "That is the question : or, All's well that ends / by David Sheridan Spangler".

    Another trend I've noticed is the use of puns in article titles, taken I believe from the law review note tradition.

  21. David Fried said,

    July 13, 2016 @ 9:50 am

    A number of years ago, when I was a law professor, I grew very tired of "colonization" in academic titles, with the obligatory cutesy-poetic-strained introductory clause. I was determined to come up with the shortest law journal title ever, and managed "Rationalizing Criminal Forfeiture"–three words, albeit with 11 syllables. I particularly liked it because both senses of "rationalizing" were equally apropos to the argument.

    No one ever noticed, though.

  22. rosie said,

    July 13, 2016 @ 4:03 pm

    Do the authors get to choose how the paper's title is abbreviated in page headers/footers?

    One mathematical paper with a cute, albeit colonless, title is Zaphod Beeblebrox's Brain and the Fifty-ninth Row of Pascal's Triangle (American Mathematical Monthly, Vol. 99, No. 4, Apr 1992). The page footers abbreviate this to Zaphod Beeblebrox's Brain and Pascal's Triangle — the row number is omitted, to make space for Zaphod Beeblebrox's name.

  23. Y said,

    July 13, 2016 @ 6:01 pm

    Campbell & Taylor, No water, no granites – No oceans, no continents (Geophys. Research Lett.10:1061, 1983). An old favorite.

  24. Brett said,

    July 13, 2016 @ 7:38 pm

    @rosie: When I submitted an article to a journal that use shortened "running titles" on the page headers, I was asked to suggest a running title for them to use.

  25. Joyce Melton said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 2:40 am

    But can you have colonization without imperialism?

    [(myl) This is a matter of definition. Hobson, Lenin et al. use "Imperialism" to refer to developments since about 1870. Thus Hobson (1902):

    Quibbles about the modern meaning of the term Imperialism are best resolved by reference to concrete facts in the history of the last thirty years.

    And Lenin (1920):

    During the last fifteen to twenty years, especially since the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902), the economic and also the political literature of the two hemispheres has more and more often adopted the term “imperialism” in order to describe the present era.

    Or more specifically:

    As banking develops and becomes concentrated in a small number of establishments, the banks grow from modest middlemen into powerful monopolies having at their command almost the whole of the money capital of all the capitalists and small businessmen and also the larger part of the means of production and sources of raw materials in any one country and in a number of countries. This transformation of numerous modest middlemen into a handful of monopolists is one of the fundamental processes in the growth of capitalism into capitalist imperialism; for this reason we must first of all examine the concentration of banking.

    The fact that Lenin's title was "Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism" makes it clear that he (like Hobson and many others) wanted to define Imperialism as something different from the kinds of colonialism at issue in what Portugal and Spain did in Central and South America in the 16th century, and what Britain and France did in North America in the 17th century.

    As I wrote, you can argue that Hobson and Lenin and all were wrong, but not that they were wrong simply by virtue of etymology.]

  26. Rodger C said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 11:40 am

    Thirty-odd years ago I was conversing with a professor of Romanian origin who bristled at my use of the word "imperialism"–I mean the very fact that I let it pass my lips–because it was, he said, a specifically Marxist word. I was surprised and puzzled, and I changed the subject. I see now that he might well have known the word only in connection with Lenin (whom he indignantly quoted).

  27. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    July 14, 2016 @ 5:22 pm

    But can you have colonization without imperialism?

    In some sense of the terms, surely. I would find it quite natural to say that the Mayflower settlers were colonists but not imperialists, for instance (even if 'imperialism' is given a wider sense than Lenin's).

  28. GH said,

    July 15, 2016 @ 11:13 am

    I'm pretty sure Joyce Melton was punning on the sense of "colonization" Y and David Fried were using.

  29. Joyce Melton said,

    July 16, 2016 @ 3:02 am

    The language of the internet is a subtil beast.

  30. thunk said,

    July 16, 2016 @ 5:00 pm

    Colons also tend to occur in fiction as well (obligatory tvtropes link).

  31. Zachary Foster said,

    July 17, 2016 @ 5:36 pm

    Mark Liberman — I wrote the article in question. The last sentence after the bio was an editor's edition. I do not think the examples provided were unintelligible, only obfuscating. I appreciate the post. Thanks for looking into the history of those phrases. Fascinating!

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