The conquest of ambiguity
Language is inherently ambiguous, but the classic-prose writing style entails minimizing conceptual ambiguity. Because precluding foreseeable confusion is the essence of communication, the highest form of clarity is univocality (unambiguousness). This isn’t widely understood, as this anecdote illustrates:
In a Stanford artificial intelligence theory class, while the prof tried to present relatively precise claims, students constantly asked if he was really trying to say distantly related claims X, Y, or Z. My exasperated friend cried "Why can’t they just treat it like math – assume nothing you are not told you can assume!" ("Against Disclaimers.")
To treat natural language as if it were an artificial language, as the anecdotal lecturer demanded, is an unhelpful suggestion because readers can comprehend only by drawing on information that seems relevant, and apparent relevance depends on the reader’s background information and intelligence. But it also depends on the writer’s univocal expression. Since more able to detect them, the intelligent reader may be particularly confused by ambiguous cues.
The quest for univocality isn’t confined to avoiding words with unwanted associations (and issuing the necessary disclaimers if that isn't possible). It rests primarily with emphasis, through means such as the new topic/stress principle, the brevity principle, and unobtrusive repetition. It also involves avoiding every manner of self-contradiction.
Varieties of clarity
The great irony in contemporary writing advice is that all extol “clarity” but none is clear on the term’s meaning. The consequence of the nearly universal failure to appreciate the different varieties of clarity causes writers to ignore some of them—particularly the most central, univocality.
These are the three varieties of clarity in writing and their definitions:
Fluency: Understanding the argument’s detail with minimal effort.
Rigor: Understanding the argument’s detail with high effort.
Univocality: Conceptually unambiguous understanding at all effort levels.
These distinctions are pragmatic rather than logical. They describe varieties of clarity furthered by different strategic choices, which advance one variety of clarity and often undermine another.
Clarity and construal level
You may be struck more by the dissimilarities between the varieties of clarity, and you will then wonder why anyone would use the same term for all of them. The common element in all varieties of clarity is their reference to the amount of relevant information conveyed, the distinctions between them concerning the amount of effort required (low or high) or the kind of information (detail or disambiguation). One obstacle is that we seem only to think of clarity as meaning one or another of its varieties, the most common interpretation of “clarity” being fluency: clear writing is understood with ease.
An analogy might help. A drawn picture will show clarity of the fluent variety when the details can be taken in with a glance; of the rigorous variety to the extent it contains all relevant information, leaving little to guesswork or intuition: and of the univocal variety if it doesn’t look like anything other than intended.
The varieties of Clarity have a peculiar structure predictable from construal-level theory (as I’ve construed it). The theory varieties of clarity can be generated by crossing required effort with construal level:
Since effort—allocated in near mode—doesn’t vary in far mode, univocality depends only on construal level being abstract. The features of each variety of clarity point to how each relates to effort level and construal level. Cognitive fluency is promoted by simplicity; I’ve previously discussed its limitations and offsets. Rigor must be applied selectively. Readers use subjection to rigor as a guide to meaning, so being unnecessarily rigorous about some point distorts. Rigor is governed by two of the philosopher Paul Grice’s Maxims:
2. Don’t be more informative than is required.
Univocality is the highest stage of clarity which—its skills developed later—comes to govern the other varieties. I’ll conclude with the starting topic, the disclaimer, which has been the victim of some bad connotations due to its legalistic abuse. Disclaimers serving only to comply with (supposed) legal requirements are deplorable from the standpoint of univocality: conceptually superfluous disclaimers are not innocuous, as they distort the intended meaning.
Whether due to skill limitations, audience resistance, or nuanced message, sometimes univocality is furthered by disclaimers. Artificial intelligence, the anecdote’s subject, exemplifies a topic subject to both resistance and preconception, where conceptual disclaimers further univocality. An example of a disclaimer occurs in the present entry under the subhead “Varieties of clarity”: “These distinctions are pragmatic rather than logical.” Readers can judge whether it was helpful.