Writers of academic papers are cautioned against employing humor to communicate their points. The caution is well-intentioned, but outright prohibition of lightly humorous material goes too far. Humor is a valid method of communication and authors of academic papers should have every method at their disposal. This series of columns will describe how humor can be effective and acceptable in scholarly writing. Each part in the series will be presented on the TPS Fan page before being compiled.
1st Humor Guideline – Use it Carefully
One of the rules laid out for writers of serious papers is… don’t try to be funny. There is wisdom in such counsel. It indeed is wise not to try to be funny. Every comedian who has died on stage when his humor falls flat can attest that nothing is more painful than failing to connect with an audience. Academic writers often present their material to an audience of one, who grades the material even more mercilessly than a nightclub crowd. So, yes, if humor is not your forte, don’t try to force it on your professor. But if you do have talent for turning an amusing phrase, use it.
Nearly every person—of course, some don’t have a clue—knows whether he is amusing in his expression. Yet even those who have such talent don’t always employ it effectively. They joke too much, and too much of any good thing usually is bad. They try to amuse people at inappropriate times, when solemnity clearly is preferred. They perhaps get too raw in their jesting or become slapstick in their delivery. Scholarly writers certainly will not impress anyone with any of the above. So, as much thought should be given to the context of humor as to the humor itself.
Knowing when to inject an amusing comment is even more delicate in academic writing than in show biz. That’s because the goal is not to amuse per se but to communicate a larger point. If a humorous expression distracts a reader from a thread of thought, it is detracting from the paper rather than contributing to its success. Therefore, in a paper as in every other venue, timing is important. A light comment should slip into the flow of thought as naturally as any other element of the writing and for the same reason: to move the reader toward a desired conclusion.
2nd Humor Guideline – Use it Seriously
Have you heard the one about the funnyman who became a surgeon? He left his patients in stitches. This joke might be amusing if the hearer of it is familiar with the colloquial phrase “in stitches,” which means laughing uncontrollably. If the phrase is unfamiliar, the stab at humor is only puzzling—and puzzlement is never a strength in an academic paper. Therefore, any writer making a comic allusion should be sure that the language of the humor is universal, or at least is in the vernacular of a grading professor. Puzzling humor is worse than leaden use of words.
你听过一个笑话吗？有个喜剧演员当了外科医生，结果病人都笑得阖不拢嘴（译注：这个笑话用了双关语，原文 He left his patients in stitches，stitches 有缝线的意思，「in stitches」指笑得停不下来）。如果听的人知道口语词「in stitches」是让人爆笑不止的意思，那这个笑话就很好笑。如果听的人不知道，就会看不懂原本的幽默，而看不懂绝对算不上学术论文的优点。因此，写作时如果要做幽默的比喻，要确定这种表达一般人都看得懂，或至少用的口语，打分数教授看得懂。看不懂的幽默，比沉闷的表达还糟糕。
More to the point, the insertion of a humorous aside or reflection always should help drive a narrative forward. It should help build momentum and add to a logical string. If it does none of that, it is doing t