Michael S. Weisbach has just published The Economist’s Craft: An Introduction to Research, Publishing and Professional Development. If you or a loved one are either young economist–defined here as a graduate student or assistant professor–or responsible for advising young economists–it’s worth a look. As the editor of an economics journal, I was of course drawn like a moth to flame to the chapter on ‘Writing Prose for Academic Articles.”
Much of the chapter is given over to familiar advice that can’t be repeated too often: find prose stylists worth admiring in your field and compare your writing to theirs; avoid the passive voice; eliminate grammatical errors and sentence fragments; leave yourself time not just to write a paper, but also to reread and revise it; and so on. But one snippet that particular caught my eye was Weisbach’s comments on the use “this” as a crutch in academic writing. Weisbach writes:
“This.” One of my pet peeves about writing is the use of the word “this” to refer to a general idea, an argument, or virtually anything else the author has in mind but isn’t specifying. I constantly correct students and coauthors who use “this” in this manner, sometimes multiple times in the same paragraph. My view is that using “this” to refer to an idea you have just described is symptomatic of laziness. The author couldn’t quite think of what to say when describing his idea, so he says “this.” It doesn’t require any thought and the reader can usually (but not always) figure out what the author means.
Simply put, the pronoun “this” is a modifier, So do not use it as a kind of place-holder noun, no matter how many other people do. To keep it simple, make sure that whenever you use the word “this,” there is a noun after it. If you tempted to use “this” as a noun, think about what you are actually referring to as “this” and use that word or term instead. Try to treat this rule as a hard and fast one, and if you don’t allow yourself to violate it, your writing will improve.
My quibble with Weisbach is that “this” can in certain cases be appropriate as a shortcut pronoun in common speech. “This is your pilot speaking,” which more literally means “This voice which just erupted ut of the speakers is your pilot speaking.” “Is this your hat?” which more literally means, “Of the collection of hats present on this shelf, is the one to which I am pointing the one that belongs to you?”
But written academic communication doesn’t come with the same cues as a particular spoken context. The classic guide to writing, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, lists the issue of “this” in its chapter on “Misused Words and Ideas,”
This. The pronoun this, referring to the complete sense of a preceding sentence or clause, can’t always carry the load and so may produce an imprecise statement.
Visiting dignitaries watched yesterday as ground was broken on the new high-energy physics laboratory with a blowout safety wall. This is the first visible evidence of the university’s plans for modernization and expansion.
Visiting dignitaries watched yesterday as ground was broken on the new high-energy physics laboratory with a blowout safety wall. The ceremony afforded the first visible evidence of the university’s plans for modernization and expansion.
In the left-hand example, this does not immediately make clear what the first visible evidence is.
It’s common in academic writing to have one or more long sentences with a wealth of terminological and logical detail, followed by a sentence that starts “This is …” In this usage, the word “this” is pretty much devoid of specific content, except for a general waving of hands back to the big black box of all that stuff which came before. “This is …” is fine for rough first drafts. But as subject/verb combination, it’s a vague and weak way to start a sentence. As Weisbach writes: “[T]hink about what you are actually referring to as `this’ and use that word or term instead.”