Hostname: page-component-5d59c44645-jb2ch Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-02-28T02:46:37.069Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Piled Modifiers, Buried Verbs, and Other Turgid Prose in the American Political Science Review

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 August 2021

Peter DeScioli
Stony Brook University, USA
Steven Pinker
Harvard University, USA


Academic writing is notoriously difficult to read. Can political science do better? To assess the state of prose in political science, we examined a recent issue of the American Political Science Review. We evaluated the articles according to the basic principles of style endorsed by writing experts. We find that the writing suffers most from heavy noun phrases in forms such as noun noun noun and adjective adjective noun noun. Further, we describe five contributors that swell noun phrases: piled modifiers, needless words, nebulous nouns, missing prepositions, and buried verbs. We document more than a thousand examples and demonstrate how to revise each one with principles of style. We also draw on research in cognitive science to explain why these constructions confuse, mislead, and distract readers.

© The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Political Science Association

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



Fowler, H. W. 1926. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
Garner, Bryan A. 2003. Garner’s Modern American Usage. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Gigerenzer, Gerd, and Hoffrage, Ulrich. 1995. “How to Improve Bayesian Reasoning without Instruction: Frequency Formats.” Psychological Review 102 (4): 684704.10.1037/0033-295X.102.4.684CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gowers, Sir Ernest. 1954. The Complete Plain Words. London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office.Google Scholar
Grice, Herbert Paul. 1975. “Logic and Conversation.” In Syntax and Semantics, ed. Cole, Peter and Morgan, Jerry, 4158. New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
O’Connor, Maeve. 1991. Writing Successfully in Science. New York: Taylor & Francis.Google Scholar
Orwell, George. 1946. “Politics and the English Language.” Horizon 13:252–65.Google Scholar
Pinker, Steven. 2014. The Sense of Style. New York: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
Rosch, Eleanor, Mervis, Carolyn B., Gray, Wayne D., Johnson, David M., and Boyes-Braem, Penny. 1976. “Basic Objects in Natural Categories.” Cognitive Psychology 8 (3): 382439.10.1016/0010-0285(76)90013-XCrossRefGoogle Scholar
Stageburg, Norman C. 1968. “Structural Ambiguity in the Noun Phrase.” TESOL Quarterly 2 (4): 232–39.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Strunk, William Jr. and White, E. B.. 1959. The Elements of Style. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.Google Scholar
Sword, Helen. 2012a. Stylish Academic Writing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
Sword, Helen. 2012b. “Zombie Nouns.” New York Times, July 23.Google Scholar
Sword, Helen. 2016. The Writer’s Diet: A Guide to Fit Prose. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.10.7208/chicago/9780226352039.001.0001CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Tversky, Amos, and Kahneman, Daniel. 1974. “Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases.” Science 185 (4157): 1124–31.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Twain, Mark. 1880. “Letter to D. W. Bowser.” Scholar
Walsh, Bill. 2000. Lapsing into a Comma. New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
Williams, Joseph. 1990. Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Zinsser, William. 2006. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. New York: HarperCollins.Google Scholar
Supplementary material: PDF

DeScioli and Pinker supplementary material

DeScioli and Pinker supplementary material

Download DeScioli and Pinker supplementary material(PDF)
PDF 508 KB