List Addiction, Cont’d: The Dyad

List addiction is an epidemic among academic writers. I have a blog post about the subject (which I knew nothing about prior to my work in TPII), and I refer at least 50% of clients to that blog post at one point or another.   What is it with listing?  I don’t get it (well, I say that, but I suspect I had the same tendency back in my own early days of academic writing, for the reason noted by the first commenter below).

Anyway, there is a subsidiary brand of list addiction, which is the dyad addiction.  Apparently some clients “fix” their listing habit by removing the third element, but keeping the first two.  The dyad, when it is repeated, is still problematic.  And dyads have a particularly hypnotic effect in prose.

See the following, from actual client documents (thank you, clients!)

My role as teacher is to enable students to develop their artistic vision and aesthetic literacy through an informed and sustained practice of traditional and contemporary artistic methodologies coupled with critical study of art history and art theory.  I see in the rigorous study of art history and art theory an important tool for challenging students to go beyond the parameters of their initial understanding of formal and conceptual frameworks of art. Furthermore, I want my students to understand the importance of a perceptual approach in art making not only to create opportunities for direct investigation of media and subject matter but also to challenge the very conventions of art discourse.


Two principles drive my teaching: first, engagement follows from a direct understanding of the relevance of coursework to one’s life; second, in order to learn and grow students must be empowered to direct and own their learning. This requires targeted guidance from the teacher, since it often entails encouraging students to rethink their ideas about education. I present and model a paradigm of education in which the teacher maintains authority but is also open to student direction, and one in which students are encouraged (sometimes to their chagrin) to develop self-sufficiency within a safe and supportive environment.

To this end I set the stage for student engagement from day one, informing students that our course may be very different from what they expect, describing in detail my high expectations of their investment, and explaining the personal and professional benefits of this approach. In my Asian literature course for non-majors, inspired by the meditative traditions we study, we start every class with a few minutes of meditation and silent journaling about the reading assignment. I situate this practice in the context of my expectations for insightful contributions to class discussion and engagement in activities, and explain that students need to transition into the classroom setting, quieting their minds and preparing for our academic community. Instead of listening to a lecture on the meaning of passages from the Tao te Ching, students practice guided literary analysis of assigned passages, applying background knowledge from earlier lectures on general themes and context, to construct and challenge textual meanings in collaboration. At the end of the semester, I ask students to reflect in writing about their growth: what they can do (better) now that they couldn’t do before, how they will use some of the skills or material we learned in the real world, and what they have come to appreciate or understand about themselves through our work together.


The content of these paragraphs is sound.  It is the hypnotic repetition of adjectives and nouns (in the first case) and verbs, adjectives and nouns (in the second) that is so striking, and so peculiar, and that drags down the energy and dynamism of the prose.

The occasional dyad, just like the occasional list, is fine.  But if you have more than two lists or two dyads in a single document, you probably have too many.

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List Addiction, Cont’d: The Dyad — 11 Comments

  1. I think this has to do with dialectical thinking, which we are trained to do throughout higher education, often without it being called that. It’s about avoiding placing too much emphasis/explanatory power on any one thing: so, not just art history, but also art theory; not just traditional, but also contemporary, etc. No golden calves and all that. And it is an extremely difficult pattern of thought to break, especially, as you note elsewhere, by younger scholars who may have a fear of staking a large claim.

  2. Thanks for that! Just weeded a bunch of dyads from my text and it is much improved.
    My problem, in case this helps someone else, was with the lit review where I was trying to say something like ‘geographer x and historian y addressed the issues of z and x by investigating t and p’. Just breaking this into two sentences made a huge difference in readability.

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  4. Due to this post, I now can’t help but notice the rampant use of dyads in nearly every text I come across. It can be a little distracting at times, but I’m finding this to be an extremely helpful tip for bringing improved clarity to my own writing. Thanks, Karen!

  5. If you read medieval texts, you’ll often find the same thing said over and over and over in different ways — two, three, four times. If you’re reading the text in edited form, it can be amazingly tedious. It isn’t until you go back and read the actual manuscripts that you realize this is verbosity with a purpose. The manuscripts are often heavily abbreviated, meaning that you can say the same thing three times over, abbreviated, in the same space you could say it once, unabbreviated. But there’s a point to it: Since these texts are copied by hand, and it’s very easy to miss a word, or even miss a line, when copying, the repetition serves a function of ensuring that the meaning is still present even if a word or a phrase (and some cases even a line) is accidentally omitted. If you say “artistic vision and aesthetic literacy” and someone comes along and copies your text and misses out, say “vision”, resulting in “artistic and aesthetic literacy”, doesn’t change the overall meaning that substantially.

    Essentially, the verbosity acts as a check sum to ensure that the content is maintained, even if individual words are omitted, and since it the physical representation is highly abbreviated, you don’t lose any valuable space by being verbose.

    It’s actually rather awesome.

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