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I want to explain to one of my students why this usage is so common in scientific or academic reports but not (as far as I can see) elsewhere:

This represents the best evidence to date of [whatever].

This represents the highest rainfall ever recorded in the region.

In every case I can think of, this could be altered to:

This is the best evidence to date of [whatever].

This is the highest rainfall ever recorded in the region.

On the other hand, no examples come to mind that are non-academic/non-scientific.

This is the best party ever.

*This represents the best party ever.

Is there a specific reason for this usage? My mind is skimming around the notion that it is because science is reluctant to make definitive statements, but I can't seem to form the entire thought.

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I'm no stranger to downvotes on SO sites, but a quick comment letting me know why might help me improve the question. Is it too broad? Too specific? Is there a duplicate? Any comment would be more helpful than none.... – David John Welsh Feb 25 '13 at 6:33
Don't worry about downvotes. There are phantom downvoters here who seem to get their jollies from downvoting questions they don't like. They never explain, so it's pointless to ask. – user21497 Feb 25 '13 at 8:12
up vote 4 down vote accepted

I always change "X represents Y" to "X is Y" in technical papers unless X is a symbol If X is the mean value of three independently run experiments on three separate groups of rats, then I change it to "X is the mean of three independently run experiments". The pretentious phrase "X represents Y" is very, very common in biomedical papers.

The usage is common because academic writers imitate what is published on the assumption that if it's published, it must be good English, especially if it's been written by a native English-speaker. Trouble is that it's not always possible to tell whether the first author is a native speaker of English & not always good writing even if it's been written by a native English-speaker & copy-edited by a native English-speaker.

If you're a poet or a painter or a composer, for example, you can give someone one of your representative (typical) opuses and say that "This is representative of my best work these past few months", but not, except very informally, "This represents my best work these past few months". The proper usage is: "This is John. He's my lawyer. He represents me in civil suits" and "This is a voodoo doll. It represents the person you want to put a curse on".

Google NGRAMS viewer shows no hits for "This represents my best", and a normal Google search shows that most sentences with represents talk about symbols or agents (e.g., lawyer or power of attorney).

If, as one hit says, "Please note this represents my 'best guess' on when they would do it", it should be "Please note that this is my 'best guess' on when they would do it".

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Actually, that makes a lot of sense. It is sort of a self-fulfilling cycle - everyone writes it because everyone else writes it, so everyone writes it. I know I tend to imitate whatever the style is of the last thing I've been reading, at least until I realise and make myself stop. It'll make an interesting explanation for the student, I think. Nice to be reminded that even native speakers are not perfect. – David John Welsh Feb 25 '13 at 8:21
Thanks for the follow-up edit, it helped a lot. – David John Welsh Feb 25 '13 at 8:46

This is probably because of the high level of diction present in academia. Academic papers are often written in the most arcane of style (read: not necessarily all that well-written).

As a result, thoughts are often written using as many syllables as possible.

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I understand that academic language is verbose, often for the perfectly acceptable reason that clarity is usually required. I agree that it's often a chore to slog through, though :-) However, I don't think that is the factor at work in this case. For one thing, as far as I know, there is no definition of represent that matches that of is. – David John Welsh Feb 25 '13 at 6:45
@DavidJohnWelsh: Much language is verbose for clarity, but academic verbosity exists for other reasons. Clarity is easier when the language is simple, but many academics believe that they have to show off their erudition by bloviating. It's their way of telling the reader that they're smarter than you are. Pure pomposity and pretension. – user21497 Feb 25 '13 at 8:30
@BillFranke Well, I certainly won't argue that that is often the case. I do however think it stems from the fact that (at least in science) clarity is more readily achieved through the use of more complex words that can denote very subtle shades of meaning. The article may be hard to understand if you don't know the meanings, but once you do, it should make it impossible to misinterpret. The word "should" is of course essential in that last sentence; I've read a fair amount of academic papers myself, and there is no shortage of "pure pomposity and pretension", to be sure. – David John Welsh Feb 25 '13 at 8:45
@D: I've edited thousands of biomed papers in the past 16 years. My technical vocabulary (passive) is very large. I understand that sometimes abstruse technical terms are required, so I don't change them because I know that most readers will also understand them: it's their professional jargon too. I hate ambiguity in technical writing. But academic writers can often (not always) achieve the same clarity with simpler words & shorter phrases than they normally use. It all depends on the sentence & the context. – user21497 Feb 25 '13 at 8:56

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