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.