Thursday, December 22, 2011

Punctuating for prosody or for syntax—With a dash of the dash

My earlier discussion of heavy and light punctuation encompassed only today’s trivial differences in punctuation density, but the differences are much greater across the centuries. Samples from Ben Jonson illustrate the early 17th century’s predominant style of punctuation when writers punctuated based on prosody instead of syntax, marking wherever the reader should pause.

If you, my Sonne, should, now, preuaricate,
And, to your owne particular lusts, employ
So great, and catholique a blisse; Be sure,
A curse will follow, yea, and ouertake
Your subtle, and most secret wayes.
This earlier English literature shows exactly what’s wrong with the practice of punctuating whenever you hear a pause: by contemporary standards, you’ll over-punctuate.

The history of written English runs from heavier to lighter punctuation and from reliance on prosody to reliance on syntax. Logically, prosodic punctuation and heavy punctuation need not go together. To lighten punctuation, it's true you must omit punctuating some pauses, but in principle, punctuating for prosody allows degrees of punctuation density; presumably, you would punctuate the longer pauses and omit the shorter. Perhaps English didn’t follow that route because differences in pause length can be hard to ascertain reliably, but the reason for syntactic-punctuation’s lightness is clearer: an excess of syntactic punctuation confuses readers because syntactic elements are nested, whereas our means of punctuating allows only two levels within a sentence. Prosodic punctuation can be dense without confusion, since its only burden is telling the reader to pause.

The main reason punctuation is increasingly based on syntax is that writing is increasingly distinct from speech. How readers should render passages aloud matters less today; how readers should parse passages matters more. Although syntactic punctuation dominates, some writers disagree—and I don’t make any claims about the punctuation appropriate to fiction, dialog being peculiarly prosodic. Also, the purposes behind common punctuation practices conflict, with some accepted practices being based on prosody. The rule that a comma follows any introductory element is a prosodic rule, in contrast to a purely syntactic rule that would omit the comma after a restrictive modifier, such as an introductory “if” clause. Another example of contemporary prosodic punctuation is the use of a comma within a compound predicate where the verbs strongly contrast. A third example countenanced by some writers and grammarians uses commas for emphasis, a prosodic consideration that conflicts with syntactic rules under which commas set off nonessential, descriptive elements—usually amounting to de-emphasis.

Conflict between prosodic- and syntactic-punctuation practices sometimes confuses. The fundamental error of comma usage can be diagnosed as due partly to an appetite for prosodic punctuation: a reader often pauses before a coordinating conjunction. Another confusion leads to setting off restrictive adverbial clauses with commas. Still another prosodic temptation, which comes from the need to breathe when you read aloud, is to punctuate long passages. Temptations to separate a restrictive adverbial clause and to punctuate a long passage here reinforce comma-usage’s fundamental error of punctuating a compound sentence element. (HT: an old posting in

Maury licked his lips as Cherise, the dental assistant, leaned over him to adjust the table holding the sharp, shiny tools the oral surgeon would need, and wished his rotten old teeth were strong enough to pierce her lovely jugular.

The forum debated whether a comma goes after need. One commenter pointed out that it's ambiguous whether Maury or Cherise is the one wishing about Maury’s teeth, and the commenter suggested that a comma after need might clarify that it's Maury. A single extra comma doesn’t help, but a couple of commas—the other one after lipswould set off the adverbial clause beginning with as and ending with need. But we would be punctuating for prosody, using reading pauses to clarify meaning; from the syntactic standpoint, commas would improperly set off a restrictive clause. Creating prosodic breaks, such as interrupting sentence flow with a restrictive element, is the almost-exclusive function of the dash:
Maury licked his lipsas Cherise, the dental assistant, leaned over him to adjust the table holding the sharp, shiny tools the oral surgeon would needand wished his rotten old teeth were strong enough to pierce her lovely jugular.
If, as there’s reason to expect, the trend toward punctuating for syntax instead of prosody continues, the future will falsify prophesies of the dash’s demise. As writing detaches from speech, prosodic punctuation doesn’t disappear, but writers can quarantine it within dashes.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

“Decision fatigue”: Its implications for analyzing issues on appeal

A controversial theory from psychology, decision fatigue carries unconventional implications for brief writing. The theory holds that the act of choosing and other acts of self-control draw on a limited store of energy, which you can only fully replenish with a night’s sleep, although drinking or eating sugar brings immediate relief. When you run out of decision-making juice, you avoid choosing or you choose impulsively, and you are more apt to lose self-control, whether by raging at someone, failing to persevere at an unpleasant task, or (especially) over-eating. While people are depleted by too many choices and although people should economize on their decision-making, avoiding choice isn’t always the answer, since unwanted tasks also deplete the energy store devoted to self-control.

Decision fatigue explains some experiences of writers. The writing process is decision laden, which probably explains the paucity of words—estimated as low as 500—a writer can set down in good order on any given day. The replenishment sugar provides explains why writers tend to get fat—if they do—although I only get scrawnier.

These experiences were never terribly hard to explain, but you probably wouldn’t expect the following, which exposes a source of judicial bias. In an Israeli study, researchers found that decisions were favorable to candidates for parole in 70% of cases heard in the early morning, but 10% of cases heard in the late afternoon. Research reports emphasize that the judges react to depletion by opting for the default, but for lawyers’ purposes, the most important finding may be that the court’s default option is to deny a petition.

While the study dealt with only a single venue, it suggests that depleting the judge’s willpower disadvantages the petitioner—a result providing writers of appellants’ briefs with another reason to avoid issue proliferation—but the respondent may benefit from the judge's depletion. The effect is probably not as strong as in the Israeli parole hearings, where the risk of granting parole was much greater than of denying it; whereas in an appellate case, reversal is only moderately more risky than affirmance. The difference is enough to make affirmance the default alternative, experienced as involving less choice, mainly because the reversing court has to state publicly that colleagues erred.

If depleting the judge’s supply of willpower benefits respondents, they may help themselves by using a slightly subversive strategy. The respondent should try to increase the judge’s decisional load yet must also avoid confusing or antagonizing the judge by originating needless complexity. The respondent can sometimes achieve these often-opposed goals jointly by repackaging the issues presented on appeal. Knowing that that decision fatigue benefits respondents should reduce their worry that restating the issues to simplify their briefs complexifies decision-making by the courts, which, depletingly, must now consider competing issue sets.

The work on decision fatigue, undertaken primarily by Roy F. Baumeister and his colleagues, has been criticized by social psychologist Carol Dweck, who found that believing you have an unlimited supply of willpower can enable acting as if you have it abundantly. Although popular coverage of Dweck’s research has submerged the original findings, the Dweck research bears little practical significance. People can eke out painfully higher levels of willpower, but they don’t ordinarily want to.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The writer's ineffable "voice": The immutability of optimal sentence length

When a friend phones, you know her identity by the sound of her voice. This is the basis for the writer's-voice metaphor, but it’s only a metaphor. The features distinguishing spoken voices refer to the physical dimensions of the sound waves the vocal chords produce, and a pen’s scratch or a keyboard’s click are failed candidates for the voice that’s purported to infuse the scratcher or clicker’s document.

If the spoken voice is the usual metaphor, expression of the writer’s personality is the standard explanation, although it retreats to a murkier metaphor. A real explanation would link the specific characteristics of writing said to constitute voice to specific personality traits. Perhaps someone will someday link writers’ personality traits to expressive style, but before theorists can even speak of a linkage between personality and manner of written expression, they have to know the expressive traits voice comprises. When graphologists, for example, claim styles of handwriting are linked to the writers’ personalities, they have in mind connections like, “If the writer makes her dots above her letter ‘i’ like little circles, she will have histrionic tendencies"; or, “A rising baseline expresses an optimistic outlook.” Writing-voice exponents don’t specify any candidates for the expressive equivalents of circular dots or upward slope, never mind whether they correlate with personality.

Nobody knows how to talk about writers’ voice; yet, some writers manifest a distinct “voice.” Why should being specific about what they manifest be so difficult? My answer is that there’s an obvious solution, but it is, on second thought, obviously wrong—so obviously, that we don’t even consider it; but no other solutions are forthcoming. The obvious solution is that expert writers whose voices are said to differ write sentences distinctive in their length. The rebuttal is that, if voice is worth discussing—if writers can find their authentic voices—then voice can’t be a trait writers adopt as casually as making their sentences longer or shorter. Finally, the mistake the rebuttal commits is ignoring that an expert writer lacks the capacity to change his average sentence length without damaging his expressive capability: optimal average sentence length is immutable.

If you’re like me, when pressed for examples of distinctive voice you think of Hemingway and Faulkner, who are so unlike in the length of their sentences that it overshadows other differences. A second formal difference between them, preference for common versus esoteric words, accommodates different typical sentence lengths: to cohere, long sentences require abstraction. But problematically, average sentence length seems a matter of choice or preference, rather than an inherent personal quality. The idea that finding your voice means achieving stability at your optimal sentence length strikes, at first, as crudely reductionist. Writing teachers often advise students to shorten their sentences, and to the extent this advice helps, it would not seem tantamount to directing students to write in an inauthentic voice. Misleading in this scenario is that we’re talking about students who haven’t "found" their voices—and probably never will. Imagine telling Faulkner to shorten his sentences.

An element of commercial branding probably contributed to polarizing the Hemingway-Faulkner contrast, but I have an example of a professional writer being “told” to shorten his sentences. Science writer Steven Berlin Johnson—on whose casual research the present sentence-length theory of voice is based—found that Malcolm Gladwell’s average sentences were 6.5 words shorter than Johnson’s. His reaction is telling, Johnson declaring, “A 25% drop in sentence length has to alter the reading experience dramatically"; and he joked, “Clearly, the only things separating me from selling ten million copies of my books are those extra 6.5 words per sentence.” While this was overstatement—the writers’ topics no doubt affect their popularity—it probably isn’t entirely false, since a greater number of readers can understand short sentences than can understand long ones. This is why primary-school texts contain very short sentences! Yet, there’s no sign that Johnson—already an accessible writer—tried to make his writing still more accessible by using shorter sentences. Instead, Johnson’s posting focused on each writer's invariant sentence length—evidence that, for the expert writer, optimal sentence length is an immutable trait. For immature writers, the advice to shorten sentences nudges them toward their “authentic voice” or, at least, toward a degree of syntactic complexity they can manage, but it can be taken too far—and often is.

Expert-writers' consistency in their works' syntactic complexity is evidence that mature voice is optimal average sentence length; evidence against this hypothesis is that average sentence length has declined over the years, from 50 words in pre-Elizabethan times, to 29 in Victorian times, to 20 words per sentence, today. (William H. DuBay. (2006) Unlocking Language: The Classic Readability Studies.) If optimal average sentence length is voice, it shouldn't change over generations: if environments change it, then why not training regimens, so that Steven Berlin Johnson could train himself to write shorter sentences—to write more like Malcolm Gladwell?

The objection seems surmountable. In an era when a “good writer” was expected to average more than 30 words per sentence, one who could sustain only 20 would choose a different occupation; today, it can seem the reverse is true. With popular writing style ever increasingly that of marketers, it may seem that those whose genes cause them to write their best using complex syntax will be declared incompetent. But this is unlikely: the unity of language and thought suggests that well-managed syntactic complexity accompanies competent ideational complexity. Before mass advertising arose, the world might have found little use for the master of the simple sentence, but today's complex world still needs complex thinkers.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Misconstruing the compound as elliptical: The fundamental error of comma usage

I spend an outrageous amount of time cogitating about the comma. Not a specific comma, to which I rarely give a second thought, but about commas in general. These aren’t the most popular blog entries. What drives me is the sense that there’s something wrong—yet widespread—in comma usage and that my alternative isn’t quite right, either.

With the help of one of Mark Nichol’s daily postings, I think I’ve found the central grammatical error underlying problems in comma usage among educated professionals and professional writers. Mark, an editor, has a good eye for detecting writing errors and a remarkable fluency with examples; I’ve learned from his tips. This time, I’ve learned from his mistake; and I figure that if Mark can commit it, the error is common. Let’s start with Mark’s example (which, to be fair, will be put to use outside his posting’s topic, comma splice).
At times, it resembled the pitch of a whirring blender, and at other moments, an angelic choir.

I think the correct punctuation is:
At times, it resembled the pitch of a whirring blender and, at other moments, an angelic choir.

Grammatical analysis is significant here because it can dictate punctuation, since punctuation’s function is to parse text into units we can think of as chunks—to carve text at its joints. Under this view, the most fundamental use of the comma is to separate independent clauses that are combined by means of a coordinating conjunction, such as and, but, or or. This centrality makes it pivotal whether an element is an independent clause. The fundamental error of comma usage is parsing as a compound sentence what only involves a lesser compound (not constituted of independent clauses): a compound subject, compound predicate, compound object, or compound predicate complement. While I knew that before, what I now understand is that writers err in grammar by reading compound elements as elliptical when they commit this error in mechanics.

In Mark’s sentence, he takes (as he says in Comments to his posting) the words following and as being elliptical, which means that to understand the sentence’s grammar, you must assume that some words in the fully grammatical version were omitted. (The second sentence of this entry involves genuine ellipsis.) On Mark’s parsing, the fully grammatical version of his sentence would read:
At times, it resembled the pitch of a whirring blender, and at other moments, it resembled an angelic choir.
If this were the correct parsing, at other moments, it resembled an angelic choir could stand alone as a sentence, making it an independent clause. But this parsing is wrong; the sentence isn’t elliptical, as there’s nothing surfacially ungrammatical about it. The sentence with revised punctuation is fully grammatical because angelic choir isn’t the object of a second, elided, predicate, resembled; rather, it is part of a compound direct object of the original resembled. In skeleton, the sentence says:
It resembled the pitch and the choir.
When simplified, it’s obvious that pitch and choir are parts of the compound direct object, pitch and choir.

Tina Blue, an English-department grammarian, gets the principle right and gives examples of how the rule applies to the different kinds of compound element. She hedges on compound predicates: “Occasionally, however, if the parts of a compound predicate are unusually long, [sic] or if the writer feels the need for special emphasis, a comma can be used with a compound predicate. Such commas should be treated as a heavy spice, though, and used sparingly... If you use such commas frequently, then you have a stylistic tic that you need to work on.”

But for these special circumstances, the better solution might be rewriting the sentence as a genuine compound sentence. An example of sentence containing a compound predicate that Tina Blue thinks might stand a comma but that doesn’t require one is:
The last candidate spoke for what seemed like hours, and thoroughly bored them.

Compare with:
The last candidate spoke for what seemed like hours and thoroughly bored them.
And with:
The last candidate spoke for what seemed like hours, and he thoroughly bored them.

The first version disorients readers by leading them to expect the elements connected by and to have equal status; dividing a single predicate with a comma, moreover, leads readers to forget the sentence’s subject, when they need it to interpret the predicate’s second major word. The second version—the way I would have written this sentence previously—leads readers to expect a noun following and, instead of a verb. The third—at only slight cost in concision and euphony—is clearest. For legal writing, it’s the best choice.

[Correction (Nov. 20, 2015)] - I'm mistaken above in analyzing the first example, which is in fact elliptical. See comments. H/T Ben Tillman.]

Saturday, November 5, 2011

"Plain talk" writing: The new literary obfuscation

“Plain-talk” writing has replaced pretentious writing as the main stylistic mannerism impeding thought. More than a half century ago, George Orwell identified vague abstraction and stale imagery as contributors to political bedevilment: they are the means for making the vile acceptable by concealing its substance. The object of Orwell’s scorn hasn’t disappeared. Politicians and their sycophants still substitute high-flown cliché for penetrating depiction, but that form of literary dishonesty is, today, overshadowed by the abuse of cognitive fluency—by the cult of simplicity. This mode’s mainstay is the non-sequitur; its object of concealment, logical irrelevance; its mechanism, the short, plain sentence. When the new obfuscation becomes pedagogy, writing teachers present its virtue as that of writing as you talk; they call the style “conversational.” It demonstrates that concreteness and vagueness are entirely compatible.

Everyone knows you can’t write efficaciously the same as you talk. So, common sense revises the plain-talk project—using the simple and illogical expressional methods the advocates purvey. A writing blog, CopyBlogger, advises—to the applause of commenters—“Write like you talk, except better. Better words, better arrangement, better flow.” As if this advice were informative.

As a rule, no examples are given, and some of this style’s most ardent practitioners may deny their practice of “writing as you talk.” Writing teacher Wayne Schiess responded to Dr. George D. Gopen’s disparagement of this advice by calling his argument a straw man. Wayne had never heard this advice.

Blogger Luke Muehlhauser provides the rare express example of writing as you talk, and his example ably, if unwittingly, demonstrates how this approach to writing undermines lucid thought: (1), below, is Muehlhauser’s rendition of how a writer would ordinarily state a thought; (2) is Muehlhauser’s recommended rewriting, designed to combine the clarity of writing with the readability of talk:
(1) Perhaps the toughest intellectual work we must do regarding European reconstruction is to realize that it can be achieved through nonpolitical instrumentalities. Reconstruction will not be politics, but engineering.
(2) We have a tough job ahead of us. We need to figure out how to reconstruct Europe. It won’t happen with political forces. The European reconstruction will be a matter of engineering, not politics.
The plain-talk version, (2), is more cognitively fluent than is (1): it deftly hides the contradictions and vagueness baldly evident in (1). First, reference to “instrumentalities” in (1) impels readers to seek to identify them and calls readers’ attention to the merely negative characterization of the “instrumentalities” as “nonpolitical.” Second, the reader of (1) naturally demands to know how “we” are supposed to act through “nonpolitical instrumentalities,” when “politics,” after all, denotes our means for consciously coordinating the actions of numerous persons. Third, if realizing that Europe can’t be reconstituted through politics requires tough intellectual work (it actually was reconstructed through the very political Marshall Plan) the writer isn’t entitled to announce the conclusion in advance of the required work. These objections, occurring naturally to the reader of (1), make that version clear but hard to read. The reader tries to make sense of it, in the face of signals that (1) is false, and readers find known falsehood harder to understand than probable truth.

The “plain-talk” version, (2), expresses the same information contained in (1). The difference is that the clauses in (2) are poorly connected. Although (2) urges readers to figure out how “we” can reconstruct Europe, the inconceivability of collective action being nonpolitical is pushed from the foreground by replacing nonpolitical instrumentalities, through which we act, with nonpolitical forces, which happen. Furthermore, the unexpressed connection between, on the one hand, the conclusion about Europe’s nonpolitical reconstruction and, on the other, the intellectual work from which the conclusion follows, hides absurdity, that of announcing in advance a conclusion of work undone.

The integration fostered by (1)’s concision fosters skepticism of its flawed reasoning. The disjointed “conversational” style of (2) makes the flawed reasoning easier to overlook. Whether Muehlhauser prefers this outcome is unclear.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

How new is cognitive fluency?

Except for the Baker law-review article discussed in the Disputed Issues entry on cognitive disfluency, and the Disputed Issues entry applying cognitive-fluency principles to citation formats, the legal-writing world has paid scant attention to the spate of cognitive-fluency research, which appraises simplicity’s benefits and drawbacks for document reception. Plain-language blogger Cheryl Stephens captures what may be the chary outlook of many legal writers:

Scientific research has expanded so much in the last 20 years that plain language practitioners could not keep up. Money for research is needed to ensure that plain language procedures take advantage of current scientific discoveries. The most significant of these seem to be in the new area of study: cognitive fluency.

Another likely source of neglect is a prevalent belief that cognitive fluency is but a fashionable name for well-known effects. The cognitive-fluency results are new but not hard to understand, yet embodying the results in crisp recommendations is elusive, requiring an understanding of the tension between the writing Virtues Clarity and Concision, as their reciprocal modulation balances fluency and disfluency.

Cognitive fluency can seem like old hat because writers have long appreciated the value of minimizing mental effort for comprehension. Much of the recent findings’ novelty lies in in the advantages of disfluency; but even regarding fluency’s advantages, the research differs from traditional understanding, where avoidance of unnecessary complexity is based on the reader’s limited capacity to maintain multiple thoughts in a conscious state simultaneously, a rationale defining simplicity as well as justifying it. At least as long ago as 1852, when philosopher Herbert Spencer wrote The Philosophy of Style, this limited-capacity concept underpinned the rationale that the less capacity readers must allocate to decoding a communication, the more they can allocate to thinking about it. Readers were also expected to be less likely to misunderstand the simple, since it left spare capacity. The Disputed Issues entry “A rare shortcut to better writing” applied the hoary theory of limited-capacity attention to writing’s production, to explain how faster typing improves it. Science had seemingly vindicated the limited-capacity theory when psychologist George Miller published his finding that humans had a limited short-term memory capacity that varied between five and nine bits of information, as when a tester reads a digit series, one number per second, and few subjects will be able to remember more than nine or less than five. Miller’s finding this consistent limitation of conscious apprehension—Miller’s famous “magic number seven plus or minus two”—ensured that the digit-span test would remain part of standard intelligence testing, despite the low correlation with general intellect.

The past decade’s cognitive psychology retains the concept of working memory, but reconceptualizes it as the person’s skill in directing attention to recently conscious or related thoughts, which, hypothetically, are “activated” but unconscious. The subject’s preconscious thoughts—to use Freud’s term for ideation not conscious but amenable to being made so—are accessed in experiments where the subject is diverted from a memory task by subsequent attention-consuming operations. An easy test of this kind is given during standard psychiatric mental-status examinations, when the tester directs the patient to recall three words, which must be recited at the end of the examination, during which the tester elicits unrelated information. That the important component of working memory isn’t limited by fixed storage implies that we can’t deduce mnemonic efficiency from simplicity (which is to say, from cognitive fluency). Here’s an example—compare (1) and (2):

(1) Sentences can be short. They can also be long. This is a good thing. Lack of variety is wearying. It may drive you to distraction.

(2) It’s a good thing that sentences can be short or long, because lack of variety is wearying and may drive you to distraction. (H/T: Mark Nichol, Daily Writing Tips [for the examples].)

The four-sentence version (1) is simpler, its simple sentences bereft of complicating structural nuance. Speaking theoretically, the complex sentence (2) activates more unconscious ideas, inducing a more powerful working memory, not one limited to the simple sentences’ smaller ambit.

If the clearest prose isn’t the most fluent, if clarity is an optimum on the fluent – disfluent dimension, then the advantages of clarity aren’t those of simplicity. What, then, is the advantage of clarity? The answer might seem self-evident. Obviously, it might be thought, a writer wants to be clear so that he will be understood to mean what he does mean. Clarity means easily understood, the “obvious” thought continues, and the easier it is to understand, the more likely it will be understood. But this is fallacy. What requires less effort to understand is not, in logic or in fact, necessarily clearer, more likely to be understood—not if greater effort is forthcoming. This is the nontraditional conclusion on which cognitive-fluency and working-memory research converge.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Some writing skills can undermine thought. THE UNITY OF LANGUAGE AND THOUGHT. Part 3.

Earlier entries in The Unity of Language and Thought series:
Part 1. Can bad writers be good thinkers?
Part 2. Are good writers good thinkers?

The skills improving persuasiveness contribute unequally to thought; some may even detract: while good writing renders ideas more precise and manipulable, that’s not all it does. Distinguishing the thought-promoting aspects of persuasion prevents beguilement by rhetorical flair.

Ornamentation and convention contribute little if any to thoughtful quality. Ornamentation (which will consume most of our attention) increases a document’s emotional appeal. Euphony, dependent on surface qualities of expression—those which rarely survive translation—falls in this category. Alliteration, assonance, and consonance bear little relation to the quality of thought.

Also playing on affect are the rhetorical figures (excluding simile and metaphor, because they can make an important contribution to Clarity, a Writing Virtue). Law Professor Ward Farnsworth’s new book Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric abundantly illustrates the rhetorical figures, which invoke three types of pattern: repetition of words and phrases; structure, such as parallelism; and dramatic devices, such as rhetorical questions. Repetition serves adornment most single-mindedly; contrast with parallel structure, obligatory when the elements are logically parallel, as in lists and correlated conjuncts.

The distinction between clarifying and purely rhetorical devices is the difference between a simplicity due to efficient compression of information—as accomplished by any good theory—and simplicity for presentation’s sake. An example of the latter is Republican Presidential–candidate Herman Cain’s 9–9–9 tax plan, a proposal chosen for its sheer simplicity, unbolstered by reasons for taxing the three components identically. The difference is between scientific elegance and marketing catchiness.

This is not to say that the rhetorical figures are unimportant in legal writing. To the contrary, instruction is remiss in its neglect of rhetoric, since legal-brief writing, above all, is persuasive. The point is rather that the rhetorical-figures’ persuasiveness is irrational when it rests on the general qualitative correspondence between writing and thought. But factors besides the quality of thought help persuade judges; and judges, all too human, aren’t entirely rational.

This analysis of rhetoric’s somewhat unreasonable role provides another explanation for legalese, based on its function. Insofar as rhetoric is a means to persuasiveness neither reflecting the writer’s quality of thought nor enhancing the reader’s rationality of judgment, a legal system priding itself on procedural egalitarianism may seek to banish it. While identifying rhetoric by black-letter rule might be impossible, the “system” could approximate its goal by fostering a rhetorically unartful legal-writing style. At the same time, this style incorporates, as “substitute gratification,” formulaic rhetoric, such as trite doublets and triplets. (Notice the analogy between how the law staunches pomposity by supplying pompous forms that don’t make the lawyer look pompous and how it suppresses rhetoric by supplying rhetorical forms with an antirhetorical effect.)

Following arbitrary conventions is another major way (after ornamentation) to improve as writer without necessarily improving as thinker. An excellent speller can be an incompetent thinker. The same goes for other arbitrary conventions, such as capitalization and font choice.

Font choice brings us to the second reason for distinguishing those literary aspects enhancing thought from those favoring persuasiveness by other means. Over-valuing one’s own ideas is a pitfall when seeking objectivity and rationality. We’ve seen how writers—by sheer exposure—fall in love with their own style, but exposure also endears their self-produced content to writers’ hearts. Writers striving to think clearly and deeply can benefit from less persuasiveness in their private writing. This is perhaps part of the benefit of handwritten drafts and other formal variations decreasing documents' cognitive fluency, thereby increasing writers' self-criticalness—improving their logical rigor, representational accuracy, and intellectual honesty. Reviewing one’s writing cast in a more disfluent typography, such as 8-point fonts, produces the same effect. Varying the medium—screen or paper—also can contribute to a more critical attitude toward one’s work. These variations benefit private thought for the same reason they sabotage public persuasion.