Tuesday, April 29, 2008


If other writing panaceas — short sentences and active voice — take a harsh toll in the Euphony Virtue, the concrete-words panacea strikes at Concision and Clarity. The recommendation to use concrete words and avoid abstraction arose as a desperate reaction to the pseudo-abstract, high-flown cliché that remains dominant in business and government. Vexing indeed to hear some real-estate agent expound what her issue is "relative to." Technical writing's increased importance and autistic spectrum disorder's surprisingly high incidence among that genre's readers may have reinforced and spread this business-oriented corrective. Even mild autism carries an inability to grasp higher abstractions.

That concrete terms are apprehended faster than abstract ones is a useful result of cognitive science. From this well-established result, it follows that where an abstract and concrete term convey the same meaning, the concrete term is better. The abstract and concrete term convey the same meaning in only a single circumstance, when the concrete term is the referent, and the abstract term is over-inclusive. Thus, if you refer to one person having "received communication from” when you mean "heard," your more abstract concept, "communication," is also over-inclusive, as it potentially includes writing. The concrete word, "heard," is better.

Even this limited rule has exceptions, one of them being cross-domain linkage. In a legal brief, substituting abstractions for concrete words is a way of linking your facts to law or an authoritative holding to the facts of your case. Linking court holdings to your facts through intermediary abstractions is often the threshold for a minimally competent brief, and the most damaging single omission in legal briefs is failure to characterize a statute or holding abstractly to relate it to the facts of your case. I blame the anti-abstractionists' advice for some of lawyers' failure to characterize. You can find a nonlegal example of the use of abstraction for characterization the Disputed Issues posting,
A Rare Shortcut to Better Writing, where occurs, "The physical aspect of writing is little considered, but the method used to transform thought into writing creates a bottleneck for thought, which draws upon a limited pool of cognitive resources, some used in the physical labor of externalizing thought." The abstractions "physical aspect," "bottleneck for thought," "limited pool of cognitive resources," serve Concision by linking specific contentions about typing to general concepts of cognitive psychology, while "transform thought into writing" and "externalizing thought" serve Clarity by maintaining a parallel level of abstraction throughout the sentence.

Abstraction can also improve Clarity, by unifying a document. A brief will contain a few abstract themes, often relating to your legal theory, and these terms should be strung through the brief to create a cohesive whole. In the present essay, “abstraction" itself is a key thematic unifier; in "Rare Shortcut," "resources" is the oft-repeated unifying theme.

Compared to the opposed defect, insufficient abstraction is the greater evil except in the most mundane business correspondence.

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