The Rest Is Falsehood

Speaking of titular colonicity (a term that has entered my vocabulary permanently), as we were, there’s another universal constant in academic writing that sends shivers up my spine: “lies outside the scope of this paper.” (I just Googled it and got 335,000 sites.) It appears so consistently once in every academic paper that you couldn’t force me to write it with two thugs twisting my arm. And yet, when I wrote my article “La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano” for Perspectives of New Music, the editors inserted it: 

As one moves around the room, the audible overtones change markedly over the distance of a few inches, dependent on where one is among the nodes of pitches reinforced by the acoustics of the room. This aspect of the WTP is almost entirely unrepresented by the recording under average circumstances; since it is determined by room acoustics and position in space, no microphone can entirely convey the variety of audible phenomena the WTP generates. Analysis of such transient effects lies outside the scope of the present paper. (Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 31 No. 1 [Winter 1993], p. 149; emphasis added)

I never wrote that. I can just imagine the Perspectives editors poring over my paper, shaking their heads condescendingly, “He’s just a music critic, he forgot the all-important ‘lies outside’ phrase. Find someplace we can stick it in to save the poor guy the embarrassment.” They also found my paper lacking in sufficient five-syllable words and obfuscating dependent clauses, and kindly sprinkled in a few of those as well. That’s why I’ve always been reluctant to send Perspectives a second article: that one went in more readable than it came back. (Thank goodness they didn’t stick a colon in my title.)
For years I’ve wondered what the “lies outside the scope of this paper” clause signifies to the academic mind, since there is clearly no sane rationale for its mandatory appearance once in each paper. What possible purpose could it serve for every author to dutifully remember to refer to something he’s not writing about? I always rather assumed it was a conventional mark of scholarly humility, a ritual rolling over to let the other academics rub one’s belly: “I freely concede that there are aspects of the subject at hand that I haven’t covered here, that are left for other researchers.” But I’ve also wondered if it’s just the opposite, a dark hint that one knows significantly more about the subject than can be covered in the relatively modest space provided. I can’t decide. Young academics must pick up the phrase proudly, like a secret handshake, a token that they’re now part of the academic fraternity and eager to follow its hallowed customs to the letter. But even before I went through the rigorous process of getting academicisms expunged from my writing style by editor Doug Simmons at the Voice, the phrase grated on me like a sour note.


  1. Ernest says

    Can we also add “As we shall see” to the bonfire?
    KG replies: It’s in the flames. I’ve never used that one either.

  2. says

    I’ve always thought of that phrase as a kind of disclaimer. The writer has to show he really does realize that there are all these awfully relevant subjects to the minor sub-point he’s making and he’s especially addressing those readers out there who might know those things, too. So I think it’s neither humility nor a dark hint but something in between: it’s just there to cover your ass, a pre-emptive response to criticism.
    KG replies: Maybe that’s why I get so much flak, because I fail to continually remind readers that I’m not talking about what I’m not talking about. :^D

  3. says

    I think the award for Most Overused Word in Academic Writing About Music should go to “important.”
    Not only is its inclusion mandatory — its meaning is at best vague, and at worst non-existent.

  4. says

    This comic seems relevant:
    I sometimes see a third meaning in “outside the scope” comments–a sort of built-in excuse in case you’re relying on something outside your area: “this isn’t something I’ve actually studied, so you can’t get too upset if I’ve badly misused it.”
    KG replies: Even so, why not write, “This is an area into which my research has not yet extended,” or “To pursue this further would sidetrack the primary purpose of this article”? Why fill your writing with boiler plate? Why plug in “lies outside the scope” just because you’ve read it a thousand times, as though a scholarly article were some sort of mindless ritual? Isn’t the article itself supposed to be evidence that one is actively thinking? Why provide evidence to the contrary?
    [UPDATE] After all, part of the problem with the phrase is its flat, academic passivity. Something lies outside – no reason for excluding it is given, no rationale for including it implied. It deliberately conveys no information, since what *is* within the scope of the paper is obvious. It’s like those statements of policy given by bureaucrats to cut off negotiations without justifying, whose real meaning is, “You’re not important enough for me to have to come up with an explanation for my behavior.”