Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Elegant variation: A pseudo-solution for repeated words, not repeated concepts

Rarely do positions on writing's disputed issues collide head on, but Mark Nichol's post, "7 Sentences Energized by Elegant Variation," advocates the elegant variation—avoiding proximal repetition by replacing the repeated words with synonyms—despised by writing teachers, who warn students against enticement by variety and euphony when they compromise clarity. Legal-writing teacher Wayne Schiess writes, "Even in other legal writing [besides drafting], precision and clarity matter, and since elegant variation can lead to imprecision and confusion, it is to be avoided. It makes readers stop to figure out what you're referring to."

Although elegant variation flops worst in legal writing, advisors on general writing agree with Schiess. Fowler inveighed against this "incurable vice" of "the minor novelists and the reporters." In Economical Writing, Deidre N. McCloskey defines elegant variation and discourages its use: "Simply put, elegant variation is using many words to mean one thing. For example: 'History is concerned not only with what happened but also with why events turned out the way they did.' The reader will interpret that 'what happened' and 'events [that] turned out the way they did' as two different things, when in fact they are the same thing."

Why does Mark Nichol disagree? Because he accepts the conventional analysis, that elegant variation's practitioners sacrifice clarity for a bit of "elegance"; he believes that uneuphonic repetition is the main problem elegant variation misguidedly addresses. This ignores the more basic problem of repeated concepts, untouched by elegant variation and illustrated by the revisions I reject.

Unenergized sentence: “Finding a job at 55 is much harder than finding a job in your 40s.”

Mark's revision: “Finding a job at 55 is much harder than landing one in your 40s.”

My version: Finding a job at 55 is much harder than in your 40s.
Mark's revision implies that landing a job, as opposed to finding one, is for younger aspirants. The real problem with the first sentence is using a single concept twice when once will do. You don't need to repeat the concept of finding/landing.

The company is launching a new shelter magazine aimed at women in their 30s, while American Media is developing a shelter magazine for women in their 20s and 30s.
The company is launching a new shelter magazine aimed at thirty something women, while American Media is developing a home-themed title for those in their 20s and 30s.

The company is launching a new shelter magazine aimed at thirty something women, while American Media prepares a similar offering for those in their 20s and 30s.
Mark gets rid of the repeated concept of "women," but in the last clause he substitutes a different term for the concept of a shelter magazine.

Mark's next correction is an egregious example of elegant variation.

Administrators requested waivers for regular students, special-education students, adult students, and students in continuation schools

Administrators requested waivers for regular students, special-education pupils, adult learners, and kids in continuation schools.

Administrators requested waivers for regular, special-education, and adult students as well as those attending continuation schools.
Students, pupils, and learners are alternative names for the same repeated concept, however labeled.

While noting that it's a solution to different problem, let's end with Mark's best revision, which eliminates repeated words without creating confusion.

When Brubeck chauffeured Milhaud, who didn’t drive, to the 1947 premiere, the composer drove the young musician to, as he said, ‘be true to your instincts’ and ‘sound like who you really are.

When Brubeck chauffeured Milhaud, who didn’t drive, to the 1947 premiere, the composer pushed the young musician to, as he said, ‘be true to your instincts’ and ‘sound like who you really are.'
Pushed replaces drove, a revision improving clarity, not just euphony, because the two instances of drove are different concepts. You should represent the same concept with a single word to avoid reiteration, but, as here, you should use different words for different concepts.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Linguistic "register" or What is formality in writing, and why do readers demand compliance with formality rules? Part 2. Levels of formality

To write informally imitate conversation. The chart describes the formality levels to prove that distinctiveness from speech sets each: Familiar (e.g., text messaging), Informal (blogs), Formal (academic texts and essays), and Ceremonial (ancient legal documents). The horizontal axis's first four columns correspond to the formality levels; the vertical axis displays their features, the more central toward the top. Column 5 categorizes the features in columns 1 to 4.

[Click to expand; preferably open in separate browser window]

The top (yellow) rows control core norms governing social distance, dictating vous versus tu and Mr. Davis versus Davis. Talkers (column 1) converse, directly and personally; whereas writers (columns 2 - 4) address their broad audiences impersonally (indirect personal reference).

As the green category reflects, writing more than speech conforms to syntactical rules; exaggerating and inventing them increases formality (hyper-grammatical rules).

Conversational speech is naturally prolix; formality emphasizes succinct expression (succinctness over naturalness).

Finally, talkers' propinquity encourages unique expression. Banishing terms known only to a profession or other special group, Formal-level writing aspires to literate universality, and the Ceremonial level appeals still more broadly to a humanity-wide quasi-musical sensibility (expressive universality).

The Informal level is more conversational than the Formal because difference from speech creates distance formality, but that isn't to prejudge any prescriptive questions. The next entry will answer questions like should legal-brief writers (or all writers) be as informal as the applicable social-distance norms permit?

Next entry: Part 3. Choice of register

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Linguistic "register" or What is formality in writing, and why do readers demand compliance with formality rules? Part 1. The two formalities

Level of formality, the main component of linguistic register, imposes an artificial ineffectuality on writing and is nothing but a pain for writers. Why must writers comply with the applicable register; more fundamentally, what is the substance of formality rules? Does a formality level consist of a congeries of purposeless admonitions? That implausible and useless assessment is implied by the style-guides’ treatment, but you can intelligently comply with general rules only by understanding their purpose. Then, why do style guides omit mention of what writers do when they adopt a register or why they should do it? This entire series explores the function and nature of formalities. Explaining their under-analysis is easier; “Formula and Formality” already has. Formalities recognize and reinforce norms of hierarchy and distance, an unpleasant topic for writers: who wants to think of himself as kowtowing?

The entry “Formula and Formality” identified the two dimensions of formality level, social status and social distance, but it only nodded toward the latter. The tests proposed in that entry detect “status formalities,” while this series deals with “distance formalities,” those less embarrassing, weaker norms governing intimacy rather than subordination. A legal writer who breaches a status formality challenges the judge’s authority, whereas one who breaches a distance formality seeks an unwanted intimacy. Writers should avoid either breach, but breaching a status formality is worse: the judge’s reaction is "moving against,” angry and aggressive, because you are, unwittingly, staging a rebellion. Breaching a distance formality, on the other hand, evokes avoidance of excessive social propinquity, as when one person stands too close in conversation, invading the other’s “space.” It elicits “moving away,” rather than “moving against.” Avoid either breach, but you can see which produces direr results. Still, full acknowledgement of distance-formality’s demands modifies some conclusions. We will discover, for example, that the use of contractions, which “Formula and Formality” showed irrelevant to status formality, may nonetheless breach the weaker defenses maintaining social distance.

“Formula and Formality’s” thesis was that status formalities, those literary norms that acknowledge one’s station in life, are governed by a principle prohibiting subordinates from lessening their own burdens at superiors’ expense. (See "Proofreading and Credibility.") Even seemingly arbitrary connections between status and its marker—as with the French use of vous instead of tu when addressing superiors—manifest the superiors’ entitlement to substitute subordinates’ effort for their own: enunciating the shorter but less distinctive tu form is the superior’s exclusive prerogative. The formula for distance formality takes another tack: face-to-face speech between intimates is informality’s model, and the features of written communication, stripped of similitude to speech, mark formality. Shifting effort to the social superior constitutes status-formality breach; failed hypertrophy of certain features distinguishing writing from speech constitutes distance-formality breach.

The next entry will consider specific differences between speech and writing accounting for distance formalities, to recognize them by example and precept.

Next entry: Part 2. Levels of formality

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Theories of the comma

Style manuals typically classify comma usage as either heavy or light, but that distinction isn't the fundamental divide, which concerns what to use the comma for, not how much to use it. Two approaches, we'll call them confusion avoidance and clarity enhancement, describe the major philosophies of the comma. The confusion avoiders (avoiders), basing their usage on case-by-case judgment, use commas when omitting them creates ambiguity, confusion, or miscue. Clarity enhancers (enhancers), in contrast, base their comma usage on syntactic units: commas carve sentences at their joints, grouping words belonging to grammatical units grasped whole.

I don't want to exaggerate the differences, which are fewer than the similarities. Both recognize a tradeoff between clarity (heavy punctuation) and concision (light punctuation) and appreciate the need to strike some balance. Both recognize the conditions where a comma is simply wrong, such as separating subject from verb or a verb from its direct object.

The usage patterns diverge in their systematism, but the divergence is one of degree. Enhancers, for example, usually conform to the rule that a comma should precede a coordinating conjunction connecting two independent clauses, whereas avoiders are indifferent to the rule and will more often omit the comma, but exceptions true to the philosophies abound. When the second clause begins with a nonrestrictive phrasal modifier, and punctuating both clause and phrase produces a punctuation surfeit, enhancers might omit the comma before the coordinating conjunction, as here:
This view is espoused by some determinist free-will deniers but as you would expect, the libertarians express the stronger views.
Analogously, avoiders put a comma before the conjunction to avoid sentence-specific ambiguity. Take the sentence,
We owe mass literacy to the printing press, and mass democracy we owe to its progeny, the newspapers.
Omitting the comma before and could be read as crediting both the printing press and mass democracy for mass literacy. To avoid the miscue, avoiders would retain the comma.

The following usage recommendation by an avoider further illustrates the approaches:
Knights wore metal shoes, and gloves called gauntlets.
Point in question, the comma after shoes. Mark Nichol, the recommender, points out that without the comma the sentence says shoes and gloves are called gauntlets. Since I belong to the clarity-enhancement school of thought, I find Mark's practice sloppy and obfuscating; I abjure sticking a comma wherever meaning preservation requires. Separating a group of words to avoid a specific confusion muddies the water elsewhere; here, it submerges the central assertion that knights wore both metal shoes and gloves. The author tries to employ a punctuation mark to do unsuitable work, work only words can perform. The sentence rewritten according to enhancer sensibilities,
Knights wore metal shoes and also gloves called gauntlets.
The contrast illustrates the respective strengths of confusion avoidance and clarity enhancement as systems. Avoidance offloads to the comma some of the semantic burden carried by words, achieving concision by compromising clarity.