Why do we have pretentious-writing? Should we delete it?
I can’t think of a constructive use of it. I vote for removal.
The tag should go.
Let's axe it.
It probably wouldn't have occurred to me to create such a tag, but I do think it could be useful.
Maybe it's not the best name - purple prose comes to mind as a possible alternative, for example. But we do get asked questions about "obscure" constructions used in such contexts.
Often it's precisely because flowery/pretentious writing includes features unfamiliar to non-native speakers that we get questions about them. But in many cases it turns out that from the average learner's point of view, the most appropriate answer is something along the lines of...
The grammatical feature/vocabulary being queried is a feature of atypical "pretentious writing", which should in general be avoided.
I can see there might be problems if people start throwing the tag around indiscriminately (and one must always distinguish archaic, formal from pretentious), but that's no reason to preclude using it at all.
I think we should axe it, but if I had realized it was there, I can think of several questions I might have been tempted to apply it to, questions that involved untangling the grammar of graduate-level academic writing, or archaism in poetry. Pretentious is not the right word, though. What I want is a tag meaning something like "not normal English", "triple black diamond language slope", "even native speakers struggle with this". Such a tag might be then useful for advanced ELLs, who wanted some challenging examples on which to sharpen their skills.
The tag's constructive use is to clearly identify questions about passages that are unclear or misuse jargon in order to feign respectability, which an EFL learner can naïvely think are normal, clear, or respectable English.
It's similar to the archaic tag, which identifies questions about vocabulary and grammar that are no longer in common use and consequently are poetic or obscure. A fluent speaker usually recognizes pretentious language and archaic language for what they are, but an EFL learner can't yet tell the difference from ordinary modern English. A learner can easily think that the reason they don't understand the passage is because of their own lack of knowledge of basic English grammar or vocabulary. Or they can treat the passage as a model that they should imitate, because they found it in a respectable-looking source.
I think it helps to have a name for this kind of writing. The term “pretentious writing” is a little clumsy, and it unfortunately excludes speech, but it also has a lot of established usage. I assume that the same phenomenon—people speaking obscurely in order to sound wiser than they are—occurs in all languages. Tagging it helps an EFL learner see the similarity with pretentious writing in their own language.
Pretentious writing often backfires: it makes the writer appear stupid or dishonest in the eyes of people who know the topic, though it can also make the writer appear wise in the eyes of the ignorant. EFL learners should know what they're getting into if they use this kind of language.
The tag wiki provides a helpful explanation that a question-answerer can link to just by adding the tag.
Some comments objected that pretentious writing can’t be defined: “I’ll know it when I see it.” “One reader’s ‘pretentious’ is another reader’s ‘ornate‘ and yet another’s ‘poetic’.”
Actually, incorrect use of big words is pretty clear-cut in many cases. For example:
Wolfgang von Heisenberg, the penultimate quantum mechanician, proved resolutely by rigorous tangential methods the volutional structural consciousness which is indisputable (as Noam Chomsky facetiously observed in his own pioneering studies) by all the most educated scientists and physicists.
gets Heisenberg’s name wrong, misuses “penultimate”, misuses “resolutely” for “absolutely”, uses the malapropism “volutional” for “volitional”, uses “structural” with no apparent meaning, misuses “facetiously”, etc. Overall, it doesn’t really mean anything despite the big words and name-dropping. The sentence tries to sound very formal and credible, and unwittingly invites snickers. It could have been written by a native speaker unwittingly demonstrating their ignorance, or by a non-fluent speaker struggling to get respect for an idea, but either way, it comes across as phony and inflated and it doesn’t convey any clear meaning. Part of learning English is learning to recognize that.
Overcomplicated syntax is less clear-cut, but take a look at the example in the tag wiki and see if you don’t think that’s unmistakably obscure. A simple test is if rewriting the passage in plain English reduces the meaning to almost nothing. I was inspired to create the tag when I saw this question, which contained an extraordinarily dense paragraph that turned out to mean only a triviality.
(By the way, if I quoted you above, it doesn't mean I think you've decided against the tag. It means I think this objection deserves a serious answer.)
A possible problem with this tag is that people might start using it to tag pet peeves about individual words. For example, some people don’t like saying “ascertain” instead of “find out”. I’d prefer that the tag be limited to questions about passages that are hopelessly obscure, and which an EFL learner should not even bother trying to unscramble or imitate.
My overall feeling right now, though, is to let the tag stay, see if problems develop, and figure out how to address them when and if that happens. I've tried to word the tag wiki to keep the tag limited to its use for EFL learners.
About whether anyone would search for the questions: I've encountered a number of EFL learners who unwittingly sound pretentious (and unknowingly suffer for it). I can't say for sure that it would be useful to tell them "look over some of these questions", but I understand pretentiousness to be something like register and grammaticality: obvious to a fluent speaker who knows the topic but hard for a naīve reader to perceive. It's an important aspect of language, which many basic writing guides explain (examples).