The scholarly pretentiousness of “the way in which”

The way in which. The way in which. The way in which…

I hear this turn of phrase so often. It’s what academics often say when they mean “the way that x.” There is often, as far as I can tell, not much difference in meaning between saying “the way that x” and “the way in which x,” except that the latter is a much more academic usage. The way that(in which) academics use this expression bothers me. It seems gratuitous. It seems wordy. It creates barriers to communication with non-academics that don’t have to be there.

In case anyone’s not sure that “the way in which” is a specifically academic usage, I’ve compiled some handy evidence from Google that clearly shows “the way in which” to be more scholarly than popular. On regular Google, “the way in which” returns 180 million results, versus 839 million for “the way that.” In other words, in the general Google corpus, “the way that” is about 4.66 times more frequent than “the way in which.” On Google Scholar, on the other hand, there are about 2,420,000 hits for “the way in which,” versus 1,080,000 for “the way that.” So among scholars, on the contrary, “the way in which” is 2.24 times more frequent than “the way that.” Or put otherwise, scholars use “the way in which” about 69% of the time, versus only about 17% of the time for the general population.*

Let’s take some examples of this usage, drawing at random from the academic articles on my computer.

From Merle Curti’s 1955 “Intellectuals and Other People,” an interesting analysis of American anti-intellectualism: “Some intellectuals, however, have continued to invite resentment by the way in which they hold their learning.” Curti could have said the same thing, as far as I can tell, by writing “… continued to invite resentment by the way that they hold their learning,” or even “continued to invite resentment by the way they hold their learning.” Admittedly, it’s less formal if we omit the relative pronoun, but then, questioning formal language is precisely what we’re here to do.

From Gregory Price’s interesting-looking “The Idea of a Black University,” on my list of stuff to read: “The reduced likelihood of a typical HBCU [historically black college or university] producing a cultivated intellect that Martin Luther King, Jr. represented underscores the way in which the typical HBCU, with its nonliberal emphasis, catalyzes the decline of black America.” Here he really could have written “the way that” without any change in meaning.

From Jeffrey Williams’ 2008 “Teach the University“: “While Graff prescribed a plan for education overall, he was responding to the particular development of literary studies and the way in which the literary curriculum had morphed over the past thirty years, split into the fiefdoms of theory, such as structuralism, deconstruction, feminism, Marxism, and so on.” Williams is a known advocate of plain, clear scholarly writing, and one can only conclude from his use of this deeply scholarly phrasing that it has seeped into our collective unconscious, becoming something we scholars can say without thinking about. Here too, I think Williams could just as well have omitted the “in which” altogether, writing “the way the literary curriculum had morphed,” without doing much harm to the sense of his sentence.

It’s striking that even scholars like Williams or Curti, who are trying to write against spurious divides between scholars and everyone else, use this phrasing. So we have to ask: what are we doing, we scholars, when we say “the way in which”? A number of hypotheses come to my mind. We may be:

  • Creating a spurious sense of precision. In some ironically vague way, “the way in which x” just sounds a lot more precise than “the way that x,” at least according to my scholarly intuition. (My scholarly intuition is itself a social product.)
  • Establishing that we scholars are different and better than ordinary people.
  • Establishing that we speakers (or writers) are members of the in-group. By implication, by using this phrasing, we are also blessing our audiences as group insiders, people worthy enough to dignify with good prose. (Would you say “the way in which” if you were talking to your bartender?)
  • Taking longer to say, thus showing that we scholars possess leisure time to waste on communicative niceties. (See Thorstein Veblen’s analysis of scholarly language as a form of conspicuous waste.)
  • Showing that we value decorum and formality for their own sake.
  • Inserting a normally written register into the realm of spoken language (at least, when we are speaking and not writing). This kind of transposition of the most formal written register into less formal or oral discourse is, I think, characteristic of many scholarly circles.

Needless to say, every professional milieu has its own professional jargon, its own professional vocabulary, its own professional lexicon. I’m wondering, though, if all professions have their own syntax? Or is that the special province of academics? Maybe other professions use specialized vocabulary without trying to distinguish themselves in terms of gratuitously elaborate grammar…

It’s hard not to be struck by the way (that/in which) academics inflate their language into something more than language, into a realm of self-congratulation that ultimately obscures, that ultimately divides them from any non-academic group that might have been their public. Is “in which” an expression that, by itself, does anything so terrible? No; it merely contributes to a larger linguistic world that academics inhabit and which separates them from others. Williams writes at one point: “we should have a better ear for the freight of the words we wield and estrange them from their commonplace usage.” To which one can only add: it’s not only the words we use, but also the way we connect them to each other, that estranges us from the laity.

* A few additional points of data: Interestingly, if we strike the definite article “the” from my search queries on Google Scholar, we find 3.25 million results for “way in which,” as opposed to 3.68 million for “way that.” So while “the way that” is much less common than “the way in which” in the scholarship searched by Google, “way that” is actually slightly more common than “way in which.” When we add the definite object, in other words, we get much more differentiated results. I surmise that “the way in which” is the full form of the specifically scholarly expression.

As a second point of data, I find that in my personal cache of academic articles (about 2800 PDFs), “way in which” produces 589 results, vs “way that,” which produces 755. “The way in which” produces 454, vs. 255 for “the way that.” This roughly corroborates the findings from Google Scholar.

5 thoughts on “The scholarly pretentiousness of “the way in which”

  1. (Retrospective note: I observe in hindsight that I’ve used this expression myself on this blog on at least one occasion. I suppose I should avoid it in the future, for consistency’s sake…)

  2. Great post!! I am glad to see I’m not the only one who finds the constant use of “way in which” rampant among scholars. It is almost like an academic tic (academtic?).

    I’ll throw in another one: I often see “to the extent that” stuck into any sentence unnecessarily to make it appear high falutin.

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