If you’re like me, there are probably things you notice in writing that set your teeth on edge. Today, I’m going to vent a little bit about “as previously mentioned”.
“As previously mentioned” is an example of “metadiscourse” – writing that’s about the writing. We use metadiscourse to help readers find their way through what we’ve written – “signposting” is a less formal term. I’m actually a big fan of metadiscourse, because when used well it helps writing be crystal-clear. If you’ve ever written something like “There are three hypothesis to account for this observation. First… Second… Third…”, then you’ve used metadiscourse to help readers keep their place in your argument. This simple example has lots of company: consider “we believe…”, “surprisingly…”, “on the other hand…”, “in summary”, and many more. It’s unlikely that anyone ever writes a scientific paper without using some metadiscourse, and if they did, I’d surely recommend that they put some in.
But I hate “as previously mentioned”. In my books*, “as previously mentioned” is used in three different ways, and each of them indicates a problem with writing.
First,** it’s used as padding – in situations where the reader doesn’t actually need a pointer to a previous mention. This often happens when something has been “previously” mentioned just a sentence or two ago. Padding phrases can actually play a useful function in spoken language, where they give the speaker time to organize thoughts for the next phrase and the listener time to decode the last one. But in writing, where there’s no set pace of delivery to the reader, we don’t need padding. At least, not in the finished product. If in producing a first draft, a writer finds it helpful to record stream-of-consciousness thinking as a way of not losing momentum, that’s perfectly fine. But at the first revision, wield the scalpel.
Second, “as previously mentioned” is used to camouflage a problem with paragraph structure. Here, it often begins a paragraph, and refers to material mentioned in the previous one. This often happens because a writer thought a paragraph was getting pretty long, and simply inserted a paragraph break without engineering a change in topic. Well-constructed paragraphs each treat their own topic. They can certainly build on ideas developed earlier in the text; indeed, they usually have to. But they don’t simply continue discussion of a topic from the last paragraph.
Third, “as previously mentioned” is used to “fix” a problem with organization. If the idea that was previously mentioned is fairly distant in the text from the phrase reminding you of it, then what’s happening is an attempt to connect two pieces of writing that probably ought to be connected more clearly and simply by being placed together! I’d be willing to bet that when someone uses the phrase, they’re even – perhaps subconsciously – realizing this, but rather than doing the hard work of reorganizing, they reach for the “as previously mentioned” bandaid. It’s not a very effective bandaid. Without the kind of clear organization and structure that would make “as previously mentioned” unnecessary, and without any specific pointer as to where “previously” is, the phrase is just an admission that the reader may have to re-read everything that’s gone before. They’re been asked to go on a frustrating hunt for a connection that was really the writer’s job to furnish.
Does “as previously mentioned” ever serve a useful purpose? I guess I’d hate to rule it out, but I’m skeptical. Is “as previously mentioned” a writing sin that rises to the despicable level of “utilize”? No (and really, not much does). But it’s a sin that’s relatively easy to stop committing. Shall we?
© Stephen Heard October 19, 2021
Image: Pet Peeves For Sale © Zara Gonzaelz Hoang via flickr.com CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
**^Ooh, look, that’s metadiscourse! Which makes this footnote metametadiscourse. And now you’re lucky I don’t know how to footnote a footnote in HTML, or you’d have the dubious pleasure of discovering the word meta