© Nani, 2013

38. Might This Sound a Bit Pretentious?

Being pretentious is a bad idea for several reasons: it alienates people, it suggests you're smarter than perhaps you actually are, and it invites unfriendly scrutiny. Moreover, it's just irritating, ipso facto.

•  Bad Example: "Personal property such as weapons, kitchen ware and idols limn the civilization which made and employed them."


There will be two types of readers here: those who know what "limn" means and those who don't. The latter will be befuddled and either consult the dictionary, killing any momentum they might have had in absorbing the author's argument, or move on without the benefit of understanding what was said. The former will wonder why the author chose to use so obscure a term when "show," "demonstrate," or "outline" would serve just as well. That group is really the more dangerous foe here in that, when the author then goes on to say "Primary sources are a key source to knowledge of the convictions, habits and religions as well as the authors intentions," where he repeats words (7), does not mark a possessive properly (13) and uses the wrong preposition (6b), those who know what "limn" means and were ruffled by such pretentiousness will pull out sharpened swords and set to hacking.


Closely related to this peccadillo is the demeaning perspective which leads authors to speak about the "peasant" or the "Babylonian" as a collective singular. While that may be the way Marie Antoinette saw things, she was not much of a historian. Condescension toward one's subject is just as odious as pretentiousness is in general. Avoid conveying any sense of your own superiority—which should be obvious from the quality of your writing, not because you impose that attitude on the reader.


•  Bad Example: “The historian should never ignore the value of geology to his own discipline.”


•  Bad Example: “The Mesopotamian farmer preferred the shaduf to carrying water on his gnarled back.”

  Both of these examples exhibit the same fault: in casting a generalization about a population that is not supportable by hard fact, you have created a pretentious tone in your writing that suggests you know so much about the subject you are able to explain the patterns of an entire group of people by the general actions of one representative of that group. I might equally say:

•  (yet another) Bad Example: “The USU Aggie wears blue on game days, studies hard, and drinks deionized water.”

  Clearly this is a stupid assertion. One, it borders on overstatement (section 3), and two, to clearly isn't applicable to every element of the whole subject. What if I'm an Aggie that hates blue, refuses to study, and drinks Mountain Dew? Am I actually not an Aggie, according to this statement? In logic, this error is called the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. In historical writing, it's called being a self-righteous prat. Don't employ generalizations by describing conditions using a single entity as universally representative of the whole.
In sum, pretentious writing forces on the reader some condition or argument, not through the strength of the evidence or rhetoric, but rather through the creation of some arbitrary standard. Yes, you should be forceful in your writing and be bold in your argumentation, but do so through the authority of the information and its organization, and not through subtle linguistic tricks that imply a sense of looking down your nose at the rest of your audience.
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