In a series of posts, I have identified several of my academic-writing pet peeves, including the phrases “interesting,” “perhaps,” and “I think,” as well as my rules for tweeting. Add one more to the list: “As Professor Smith has written . . . ” At first glance, this commonly-used phrase may seem innocuous and anodyne, but in fact this usage often serves as a crutch to hide a lack of analysis.
Consider the following passage:
X v. Y was incorrectly decided. As Professor Smith has written, X v. Y was poorly reasoned.
The emphasized phrase conveys three important pieces of information. First, Professor Smith is some sort of authority on X v. Y. Second, Professor Smith is correct that X v. Y was poorly reasoned. Third, the author agrees with Professor Smith (why else would he cite him?). All three of these points are buried under the phrase “As.” In other words, it is undeniable that Professor X is an authority, Professor X is correct, so therefore, the author agree with him.
Consider a nearly-identical passage, without the word “As,” and “has written” is changed to “wrote.”
X v. Y was incorrectly decided. Professor Smith wrote that X v. Y was poorly reasoned.
My response to this second passage is, “So what?” Who is Professor Smith? Why do I care what he thinks? How do I know he is correct that X v. Y is poorly reasoned? And does the author agree with Professor X? Why is the emphasized sentence even in the passage?
The word “as” does so much work–you likely never even noticed it. But in this sentence, “as” serves as a crutch to hide a lack of analysis.
A far better approach is to separately answer the three questions. Consider this revised passage:
X v. Y was incorrectly decided. Professor Smith is an authority on X v. Y because he wrote the leading treatise on the topic. He wrote that X v. Y was poorly reasoned because it failed to reconcile the Court’s prior precedents. Professor Smith’s conclusion is well-founded, as the majority opinion did not even mention, let alone distinguish, Y v. Z.
This third passage conveys all of the information that the first passage implies, but does not state expressly. It is vastly superior.
One possible exception to this rule is the Supreme Court. Compare these two sentences:
As Justice Smith has held, X v. Y was correctly decided.
Justice Smith held that X v. Y was correctly decided.
I see no meaningful difference between these two sentences. Both of these usages are acceptable. Why?
A citation to a statement in a Supreme Court majority opinion automatically answers each of the three relevant questions. There is less need to do so expressly. First, the Justice is important because she is a Justice. Second, Justice Smith is correct because she was in the majority. Third, it doesn’t really matter whether the author agrees with Justice Smith, because she was in the majority. But for everyone else not on the Supreme Court, drop the usage.
Without question, I’ve used the phrase “As Professor Smith has written,” in the past, but in the future, will try to eliminate it from my usage. I’m sure I’ll slip–I apologize in advance.