January 18, 2007

Words in titles redux

Now that Geoff has opened the door on hated words (words of hate?), I have a list of my own that I'd like to get off my chest. It's a really long list, though, so I'll have to do this in installments.

This week's installment -- and I'm not hereby suggesting that I'll have a new installment every week -- are words that I'll never write in a title of an academic paper (or book, or whatever). This follows up on a side comment Geoff makes in his post:

It's like the fact that I will never (I hereby pledge) write an academic paper with "revisited" (or its Latin verson "redux") or "whither" in the title, or write a blues song that begins with the words "Woke up this morning".

And you may have already figured out that the list of words I love to hate in titles does not necessarily overlap with Geoff's.

And the words are: status, nature, and role (esp. when written rôle).

Yes, the list is short, but the words in it share certain crucial things in common that are at the root of what I hate about them, so I can imagine expanding the list to include other, similar words. What I hate about these words is perhaps specific to works that I've read with these words in their titles. Call me crazy, but I think that when I pick up a paper or book with a title like "The status of such-and-such" or "The nature of such-and-such" or "The rôle of such-and-such", it is reasonable for me to expect to learn something about the status, nature, or rôle, respectively, of such-and-such -- namely, what the author(s) think(s) the status, nature, or rôle of such-and-such is, and what arguments they will put forth to support their thinking. Invariably, though, I come away from reading works with these kinds of titles feeling quite unsure of what I've learned about the status, nature, or rôle of such-and-such. I think this is because there's a sense in which anything you say about such-and-such says something about the status, nature, or rôle of such-and-such, and authors who use these kinds of titles know this. But in that case I wish they'd use more specific words in their titles: if you're only going to say one thing about such-and-such, say what that one thing is in your title. Don't give me this promise that you're going to say everything about such-and-such when you're really only saying one thing.

At this year's secret annual cabal of linguists, I told a few friends about my strong distaste for these words in titles. One of these friends expressed concern that they may have to look over their old titles to make sure they hadn't committed an offense. But they shouldn't have worried: it's just me who hates these words in titles. (In fact, some of my favorite linguists have used them.) But if I've succeeded in convincing my friends (and I include all of you Language Log readers here) to hate these words in titles, too, then by all means: commence not using them.

I can't leave without saying something about Geoff's pledge to never "write a blues song that begins with the words 'Woke up this morning'". I would ordinarily agree with such a sentiment, but in this particular case I happen to wish it had been me rather than my good friend Derek Gross who had come up with the following lyrics to the world's shortest blues song:

Woke up this morning / went back to bed

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at January 18, 2007 03:53 PM