Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Official Style Prose: Ability to Understand Environmental Issues

                A common form of writing in academia is known as the official style which is highly different from plain style or creative style. Characteristics used within the official style include, but are not limited to, euphemistic wording, passive voice, complex sentences, prepositional phrases, and Latinate diction. Authors Barbara R. Lyon and Thomas Mock published their article in a peer-review, research journal called, “Polar Microalgae: New Approaches towards Understanding Adaptations to an Extreme and Changing Environment,” in January of 2014 in Polar Microbiology. This article is written in the official style and discusses the newly discovered insights in polar microalgae and the benefits associated with them.
The two authors use official style to target a select group of scientists through diction and overall syntax. “Polar Microalgae,” for short, presents a prevalent environmental discovery that should be published in multiple venues at varying reading levels to ensure all types of individuals can understand the environmental concern rather than subjecting the information to a select audience. This particular article is written at an average grade level of 17.9 which dissuades a large audience from reading it whereas articles written at varying grade levels would ensure all types of individuals would be able to read and comprehend the material that is being presented (www.readability-score.com)
                Dissecting Lyon and Mock’s article can be problematic if you are unfamiliar with environmental terms such as polar microalgae, ephemeral nature, or oscillating polar environmental gradients. To fully comprehend the article you have to be able to clearly understand what each word or phrase means. More often than not, the average person will be unable to decipher what the above terms mean let alone put them into context. For example, the sentence, “Polar microalgae, which form the base of a largely bottom-up controlled polar food web [1] have successfully adapted to the extreme and oscillating polar environmental gradients,” would be difficult for anyone to understand unless they have a background in field specific scientific studies.  The previously mentioned terms show how the authors identified a target audience which is limited to scientific officials with a scientific understanding of the issue and excludes the people who only have a social understanding of the issue. A study conducted by the National Adult Literacy Study showed that the average adult only reads at the seventh grade reading level. The difference between an average adult’s reading level and this article is 10.9 years of schooling! This is a drastic difference.
                Another way in which Lyon and Mock targeted scientists was through their general syntax (which is not in fact general at all). After putting the first paragraph of the article into the readability calculator, I found a few interesting facts about the piece. First of all, the official style is typically written in long, complex sentences which have one or more subordinate clauses (a subject and verb that cannot stand alone like a dependent clause). The readability calculator’s text statistics show a few alarming numbers that demonstrate complex sentences. The average words per sentence in the article are measured at 25.2! After researching the official style I was able to come to the conclusion that the longer the sentences, the less inclined people are to read them. In addition to that observation though I discovered that even when some sentences are long people prefer reading them to shorter sentences if they flow smooth and are comprehensible. This statement prevails true to the first observation of the article on microalgae because the average words per sentence were 25.2 in a single paragraph. In addition to word count, the sentences contain strategies known such as relative clause and slow sentence opening. These strategies are often used with transitions which increase sentence length. Two specific relative clauses appear in the first paragraph. The first one states (relative clause in bold), “Polar microalgae, which form the base of a largely bottom-up controlled polar food web [1] have successfully adapted to the extreme and oscillating polar environmental gradients,” in which the bolded portion of the sentence is extra information and unneeded for the audience to understand the rest of the text. Relative clause is used again in the same format as, “…which have been well described in previous reviews…” In this case, additional information should not be necessary to understand the sentence in its entirety. Another way in which the official style is used is to provide extra words to the beginning of a sentence to increase the word length and draw out the emphasized portion of the sentence. The article has one slow sentence opening that stuck out to me in particular. It is written as (slow sentence opening in bold), “And only through advances in our understanding…” The beginning of this sentence is wordy and contains too many words. The sentence could easily have begun at “advances” rather than at “and only through.”
                Transitions were also used in the article to increase sentence length and provide some clarity between details and explanations. These three transitions were words such as, in addition, thus, and however. These three transitions are broken up into further categories of transitions. “In addition” falls under the amplification category which means the author uses it to develop worth and understandability for a science audience. “Thus,” on the other hand is the relationship between cause and effect while “however,” belongs in the category of compare and contrast. In this particular situation “however” fits precisely in the contrast category because it is comparing the dangers of global warming to the new advances of “resource for identification of new species, new physiological mechanisms of adaptation and new genes.”
Each of these strategies coincides with the writing associated with a scientific community. The article itself was published in Polar Microbiology, in order to provide other scientists with this newfound data, tracking the effects of polar microalgae.
                An easy way in which this article could have been written for the general public would be to explain what and how the issue relates to daily life. A short excerpt is written as, “Polar microalgae, which form the base of a largely bottom-up controlled polar food web [1] have successfully adapted to the extreme and oscillating polar environmental gradients,” could have been written as, “Polar microalgae, or algae found in sea-ice, is the base of a the food chain in polar regions. This type of algae has successfully adapted to the extreme changes in the Polar Regions. These changes can be caused from altitude, temperature, depth, etc.” The changes I made from the single sentence to my version is three times longer than that of the original sentence; however, my three sentences is written at an average grade level of 8.7 rather than the original sentence written an average grade level of 18.6. One struggle that comes from converting something with “high” official standing to something more plainly is that the material will be longer which could, in itself, deter people from reading it. In my experience though, I would prefer to read something at an easier grade level where I understand the material than try to read something in the official style that may as well be written in a foreign language.
                Scientific pieces should be published in multiple venues at numerous reading levels to ensure all individuals have the right and ability to understand what is going on the environment. This article caters to a select group of people in a complex way to establish credibility. However, even though these two authors are given credit for the piece and it was published in Polar Microbiology I can only find information on Thomas Mock whereas information background information on Barbara Lyon is limited if not impossible to find. I also found it peculiar the article is labeled under “open access” which means it is open to the public. I am curious as to why an article written at this level without including a basic explanation of the topic would be open to the public at all. I think this is another important aspect of the article because the use of the official style in the article has a specific audience of scientists. This could make the general public feel unintelligent after attempting to read the article since they would not have an understanding of the topic. I understand that the scientific community is constantly at odds with one another but excluding the general public from valuable information will deter the general public from putting in an effort when the issue is too advanced to come back from.
By: Shelby Jacobson

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