16

I often see people write the following:

this book will discuss...

or

this paper has discussed...

I once wrote in a paper in English class that had the sentence: "this article discusses..." My teacher told me this is wrong explaining that people discuss things, not articles or papers.

Was my teacher correct, or is it fine to write

this paper will discuss ...?

It's something I see fairly often.

11
  • 18
    I think that any teacher who insists that one should avoid 'discusses' is in the same league as those who insist that you can only use possessives with animates (the leg of the chair v. the chair's leg) and complain about the death of adverbs. Just ignore them and their bleating and use 'this paper will discuss.' (I would suggest that you write 'in this paper, I will discuss...', but in my experience purists like your teacher are also against I/we in formal writing. So just do what your teacher wants and complain about it under your breath) Jan 11, 2023 at 9:37
  • 9
    @EdwinAshworth Sure I can see your point. But in that case the vast majority of questions here would be unnecessary because you could find answers to them with through research. Instead of making research myself I instead went here and asked a straightforward question which had not been asked before, and got useful answers which will be useful to others in the future as well. Isn't that a lot of the point of this forum? I think it is quite damaging to this forum when people are made to feel bad for asking questions relevant to the theme of the site. Consequently probably won't post here again.
    – Pame
    Jan 11, 2023 at 16:32
  • 5
    Your teacher is simply quite wrong. As this QA discusses in detail. And this is an excellent question, thanks for asking.
    – Fattie
    Jan 12, 2023 at 15:27
  • 8
    Hi @Pame This is an excellent question. You can ignore the complaints above. :) Awesome answers here too BTW.
    – Fattie
    Jan 12, 2023 at 15:29
  • 6
    @EdwinAshworth Is "my teacher told me" not showing research?
    – wizzwizz4
    Jan 12, 2023 at 20:59

6 Answers 6

32

When it means to deal with or treat a subject, discuss does not need an animate subject. Collins explains that discuss can mean:

to treat (a subject) in speech or writing

  • The first three volumes discuss basic principles.

AHD also agrees, defining discuss as meaning:

To examine or consider (a subject) in speech or writing:

  • The book discusses the challenges that journalists face today.

In the same way you can say that an article or book argues, debates or disputes. There are plenty of such examples, so I don't see why your teacher is strict in using this structure. Even if you do correct the sentence according to your teacher's recommendation, keep in mind that it is nevertheless correct.

3
  • 3
    As described in Sebastian E's answer, these definitions depend on metonymy, whereby one concept (the volumes, the book) is used to refer to a related concept (the author[s] thereof). Jan 11, 2023 at 23:35
  • 3
    +1, and a bit of tactical advice: if you run into a teacher like this, just say "oops! you're right, thank you for catching that", change it in that paper and subsequent papers in their class, and ignore it outside of that class. In other words: the teacher is wrong, but it's easier to just pretend they're right for their class.
    – yshavit
    Jan 12, 2023 at 15:26
  • 2
    @yshavit: NOO! Pull out the dictionary and show it to them! Jan 13, 2023 at 19:42
11

While examples from dictionaries with inanimate objects were provided, it could be argued that a book (or any other inanimate object) can not really "discuss". However, it's idiomatic and "Book" can be understood as a metonymy for the author(s).

The Metonymy of AUTHOR for TEXT provides an in-detail historical discussion that enables AUTHORS to be read, instead of their texts.

Another closely related example for a metonymy that enables a "book" to do something (progress) would be "Product for process: This is a type of metonymy where the product of the activity stands for the activity itself. For example, in "The book is moving right along," the book refers to the process of writing or publishing." (Lakoff and Johnson 1999, p. 203)

The "White House", e.g., can also not do many things it regularly does since it's a house.

If you look at the definition of "to discuss" in Collins Dictionary: "If you discuss something, you write or talk about it in detail." with example "I will discuss the role of diet in cancer prevention in Chapter 7". Depending on who you ask, personal pronouns are a no-go in scientific literature, so using a metonymy helps.

10
  • 2
    Just to be argumentative: what if the article was written by ChatGPT?
    – David K
    Jan 12, 2023 at 3:54
  • Ist ChatGBT just a metonomy? Jan 12, 2023 at 10:51
  • 1
    diet can prevent cancer ?
    – Fattie
    Jan 12, 2023 at 15:30
  • That depends, of course, on whether there is an example to be found that prevent may be used as such in any of the available dictionaries. Jan 12, 2023 at 15:43
  • What is the meaning of the capitalisations "AUTHOR" and "TEXT" (not a rhetorical question)? Jan 12, 2023 at 16:15
7

This is presumably not the main point of your question, but I would not write, as you suggest, "this paper will discuss" unless the paper has yet to be written. Simply say "this paper discusses" if it already exists. Likewise you would not normally use the past tense unless you are emphasising that a work predates one being discussed in the present (e.g. "Paper A discusses using left-handed widgets for this purpose. Paper B had previously considered right-handed widgets.").

1
3

A quick google search offered the below and similar definitions. It is also something you often hear, so I don't think you could emphatically say it is incorrect to do so in formal writing, either.

discuss

To talk or write about a subject in detail, especially considering different ideas and opinions related to it:
The later chapters discuss the effects on the environment.

(dictionary.cambridge.org)

2
  • The question is about "the book" talking, writing, discussing, etc.
    – Greybeard
    Jan 11, 2023 at 11:09
  • The standard English is always "book below", not "below book", although the latter is common among non-native writers.
    – David
    Jan 12, 2023 at 22:25
1

The TLDR is that there's nothing wrong with your usage, as others here have argued. A number of responses have shown that using discuss metaphorically is widely accepted. That means professional writers, English experts, and average people likely use it all the time. Should you use it in class? Why poke the bear; go along and get along. But outside of class, feel free.

Teachers generally have good intentions. But teachers are often poorly educated.

There is a certain tension as a teacher between directing students to use language clearly to help them communicate and get a job, and just giving them rules that are either passed down or are personal pet peeves that have nothing to do with helping the student. While the latter category isn't really worth discussing, the former is. Here is a list of common misconceptions about English language usage. The current use of English possessive with "'s" started out as a misconception amusingly enough.

That makes it tough for a student to know which rules are rules worth keeping, and which aren't. For instance, I fastidiously observe the subjunctive use of were, but many people do not. "Were you to remember the detail, it would be useful to share it." Often time, the choices of rules you follow often identify you with a group of people, and sometimes one group has more power and influence. In linguistics, this is called prestige.

Develop your own style, and keep paying attention to criticisms and weighing them. If you're serious about writing, then you might want to pay attention to the famous psycholinguist Steven Pinker who has taken a look at English rules and has his own analysis of them in The Sense of Style. It's contemporaneous and rooted in cognitive research and builds upon Strunk and White and others.

-2

The poster’s teacher was correct if he was attempting to instil in him a critical attitude to language. In education we learn the norm and then later learn that there are deviations from it. If you try to do it any other way the student will go mad.

Once the student (poster) becomes mature enough in his intellectual outlook to accept this, then he can observe how language is used and decide for himself what he prefers, according to the context and audience, without insisting that his decision is “correct”.

For what it’s worth, I would avoid “the book discusses” myself if possible. But it’s not worth a lot to anyone except me.

N.B. This general principle assumes that, as in this case, there is no ambiguity in alternative expressions. If a journalist in the Financial Times writes “genetic code” instead of “genome” I feel like strangling her.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.