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As a task at my university, I am proofreading and commenting on an academic paper of my groupmate. I came across the word combination "damning problem" in the following context:

The most damning problem within the model is...

I am wondering whether the word "damning" is formal enough to write it in an academic paper. According to a number of online dictionaries, it has quite a usual meaning:

(of evidence or a report) suggesting very strongly that someone is guilty of a crime or has made a serious mistake

However, my search in the context brought me to some newspaper articles that, I imagine, could use strong colloquial expressions, and self-development books. Besides, it sounds to me like a curse "damn". All in all, the paper that I am annotating is mistakenly written in a rather informal way. This fact makes me suspicious about even slightly informal expressions.

Since I am not a native speaker, I would like to ask for the help of the ELL community. Is the expression "a damning problem" neutral enough to use it in an academic context?

  • Is it merely a bad problem or will the offspring of the offender be held in contempt for generations? Serious question. – Bruce Murray Jun 22 at 15:04
  • A sentence fragment doesn't provide much context. – Jack O'Flaherty Jun 22 at 15:27
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    damning is certainly a 'strong' word, but certainly not a 'bad' or swear word. – Mike Brockington Jun 22 at 16:19
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I don't think its meaning is clear with the context you've given us. I would take it to mean that the problem referred to is the worst problem, and also that the writer is neither writing formally enough for an academic work nor being careful enough with his words.

The word "damn" has religious connotations; the earliest uses I'm aware of, in the Bible, refer to an action by God against someone who had transgressed His laws or disobeyed him; people who were damned were condemned to Hell. I always thought the Biblical prohibition against "taking the Lord's name in vain" referred to an individual assuming God's prerogative of damning someone.

I've certainly heard of "the most damning evidence", usually in reference to evidence of a serious crime, and did not assume they were talking about God in those cases.

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    A book, a sentence, words can all be damning without religious implications. – Eddie Kal Jun 22 at 15:11
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I agree that "damning" is not a curse word in this context, but merely means "leading to condemnation" and so is not inappropriate in itself in formal writing. I further agree that it would greatly help if we were provided more than a fragment of a sentence. But I am quite disturbed by the word "within."

Can a model, let alone some part of a model, condemn something? I doubt it. It may contradict something, but I do not think a model has legal or moral authority. So "damning" may be an inappropriate word to express whatever meaning is intended.

However, the intended meaning may have to do with "condemning" the model or some part of the model for some reason. In that case, the sentence makes no sense. It should say something like "the most damning fault with the model." A model is good or bad; we do not say it is a good model except for the parts that are bad. I personally would not use "damning" here because it implies moral fault, but that is a style choice and so a matter of opinion. But "damning within" just seems meaningless.

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  • "In the representation of the war as a self-sustaining bureaucratic and technological machine, these writers presented a damning model of the workings of the modern material order." – Eddie Kal Jun 22 at 16:03
  • "Barbara Ching chooses another, equally damning model for Tosches's stature, noting that his book Country: Living Legends and Dying Metaphors in America's Biggest Music is "written with all the tedious bravado of a frat boy who knows..." – Eddie Kal Jun 22 at 16:04
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    "Wharton used the club movement's rich conceptual vocabulary and its damning model of social categorization to plot Lily Bart's fluctuating relation to an asymmetrical social..." Just to list a few examples from Google Books, all proper academic writing. It seems some people are too quick to condemn damning – Eddie Kal Jun 22 at 16:05
  • I made no objection to the word "damning." I do object to the idea of a model with moral authority. Three examples of over-inflated academic bumpf do not persuade me otherwise. – Jeff Morrow Jun 22 at 16:20
  • within the model is perfectly good grammar, only the most trivial academic models will it be so simple as to render it incorrect, otherwise its reasonable to assume that there are many facets, and this only refers to one of them. – Mike Brockington Jun 22 at 16:21

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