and while we’re at it, i can do without mr. webster too

Another of my pet peeves is starting an academic paper by referring to the dictionary definition of something. “According to Webster’s Dictionary, X is defined as…” How many times have you read that sentence in your life? I suppose it is a lousy, boring, but minimally acceptable way for an undergraduate to start a First Year Composition paper (even then, could you possible get any less original?), but I think by the time grad school rolls around, it’s time to give old Noah the “it’s not you, it’s me” speech.

And when you are submitting a paper to a journal? Please. It is no exaggeration to say that at least five papers have been submitted to my journal this past year that began with a variant of that sentence. No one reading an academic journal cares one whit about what Webster thinks the definition of insurgent, revolution, stratification, racism, competition, or any other important sociological concept is.* It’s irrelevant, and by using this device, the author reveals that they don’t realize it is irrelevant and thereby communicate an ignorance of a literature that defines such concepts in much more complex, nuanced, specialized, and, in most cases, varied and contested ways.
* Although I SUPPOSE, and I say this with eyes rolled because there are a million better ways to establish this, you could get away with it if you are trying to do something akin to critiquing popular understandings of a word. But even then…

10 thoughts on “and while we’re at it, i can do without mr. webster too”

  1. Well starting a paper as such would be a bad thing, but it is true that the dictionary (or rather certain dictionaries) provide an authoritative description of what words actually mean in their normal usage, and their multiple meanings. Remembering this before getting lost in a bazillion pages of academic jargon might not be a bad thing, though it will look bad to those following the heuristics used to judge journal articles.


  2. It’s strange that I’m in the middle of reading a book published at a respected university press that cites both a Wikipedia entry and the Merriam-Webster dictionary on the second page of the introductory chapter. It was awkward.


  3. My experience is similar. I stepped out of grad school with a PhD six years ago and became an editor of academic papers. For six years I have wondered why people with similar qualifications insist on starting any piece of writing with “Nowadays it is . . .” When else would it be if you’re writing in the present tense?


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