Saturday, December 22, 2012

A comma puzzle: The false-interjection error

If you enjoy puzzles about the comma—and who doesn’t?—here’s an elegant but very difficult one, courtesy of Daily Writing Tips where Mark Nichol proved it’s difficult indeed by getting it wrong, as did my wife, a short-story author with a postgraduate degree in English. But it’s not impossibly hard, since the first commenter on Mark’s blog got it exactly right. (I’ll delay the link so you can try it.)

In the form I’ll use, the puzzle requires you to choose the two correct versions:

Version 1. Residents decide driving, and shorter trips to places like Canada are safer options.
Version 2. Residents decide driving and shorter trips, to places like Canada, are safer options.
Version 3. Residents decide driving, and shorter trips to places like Canada, are safer options.
Version 4. Residents decide driving and shorter trips to places like Canada are safer options.

My wife chose Version 4 alone.

Mark Nichol chose Version 3 and Version 4.

The correct answer is Version 2 and Version 4 (with Version 2 the more likely intended meaning).

Everyone agrees that Version 4 is correct; the questions are why does Mark erroneously think Version 3 is also correct and why does my wife fail to recognize that Version 2 is correct? Mark’s explanation supports my previous claim that among grammatically literate writers the most important comma errors derive from or at least implicate grammar errors. My grander claim is that comma errors create useless cognitive disfluencies, since they affect the reader’s grammatical parsing. In fields like brief writing, where the highest levels of clarity are advantageous, repeated comma errors—even if they’re subtle or controversial—summate to undermine Clarity.

Mark’s reasoning expresses a more straightforward error in grammatical analysis than the error I analyzed in The fundamental error of comma usage, as Mark claims that the string, and shorter trips to places like Canada, in Version 3, is an interjection, but an interjection (like Oh!) is grammatically isolated from the rest of the sentence. If the string were an interjection, the clause’s verb, are safer options, should be singular rather than plural. Since there’s no way to punctuate the sentence to make the verb singular, the italicized string, which must form part of its clause’s subject, can’t be an interjection.

But Version 2 is the correct answer if you’re allowed only one choice. The difference from Version 4  is that to places like Canada is a restrictive modifier in Version 4 and a descriptive modifier in Version 2, and the descriptive meaning is more probable. Read closely, Version 4 advises shorter Canadian trips, whereas the writer almost surely intended to advise limiting the length not just of trips to Canada (and similar places) but trips in general.  

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Emphasis by brevity of sentences, paragraphs, and sections

To emphasize an idea, put it in a short sentence. To emphasize a sentence, put it in a short paragraph. To emphasize a paragraph, put it in a short section. In general,

Readers will give information relative emphasis in inverse proportion to its density.

I haven’t seen this principle articulated, and it only became apparent to me through the lens of construal-level theory; although the tip to use very short sentences for occasional emphasis is a commonplace, to use long sentences for de-emphasis isn’t. That the principle hasn’t been generalized might be because the effect is often subtle: it is only one of at least five means of emphasis, but a more interesting reason that the effect has gone unnoticed will emerge, in that the construal processes explaining emphasis by brevity also explain why writers aren’t apt to notice.

I’ll begin with an example at the sentence level. Compare this very long sentence to the constituent propositions:

With capitalism’s evolution, a decreasing proportion of the value produced is constituted of labor directly employed, an increasing proportion from labor already concretized in capital goods, since mechanization of production is the fundamental means to increasing economic efficiency, where capital goods contribute to the value of a product to the extent they are consumed in its production. (Context: Juridical Coherence.)

The simple ideas the sentence contains, such as that mechanization of production is the fundamental means to increasing economic efficiency, are commonplace ideas others have expounded at length. To subordinate their importance to the ideas I deemed novel, I demoted them by including them in one complex sentence.

Construal-level theory explains why emphasis by brevity works, by the low granularity of far-mode. The theory predicts and experiments find that reading occurs in far-mode, whereas writing occurs in near-mode (I conclude that the latter is lamentable), where far-mode apprehends in global units as we see from afar. In far-mode, each sentence has equal value; the more thoughts occurring in a sentence, the less the relative value of each. The theory also explains why emphasis by relative brevity isn’t common knowledge. Even while writing in far-mode, the writer is nearer his work than the reader because the self-other axis is a major dimension of construal level, and in near-mode, the longer sentence is more important than the shorter, rather than the reverse—near-mode adds when far-mode averages.

The phenomenon of emphasis by brevity confirms some standard writing advice and rebuts other standard advice. Commentators have expressed surprise at the degree to which variation in sentence length improves comprehension, suggesting more is at work than maintaining interest by variety. Varying sentence length makes writing clear by informing the reader how important the writer regards each component idea.

The misguided advice includes limiting sentences to one idea, implying writers should avoid compound sentences (and semicolons). Compound sentences serve to de-emphasize the ideas they contain, so their avoidance sacrifices emphatic contrast. Other misguided advice concerns paragraphs. Consistently short paragraphs have the same leveling effect on importance as consistently short sentences. And routine use of separate paragraphs for transitions between paragraphs is bad practice because the merely transitional usually doesn’t merit emphasis.

For a document’s sections, one all-too-common practice gravely offends against construal-level theory. A conclusion is almost mandatory in legal briefs and is necessarily short, but nonetheless, the emphasis it receives is often bestowed on a platitude with an initial “whereas,” in all caps no less. The better practice is to reserve a memorable idea for the short concluding section.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Emphasis by typography

Attorneys often use boldface (and italics) to emphasize arguments, an overdone practice if it should be done at all. Yet typographical emphasis seems effective in blog writing. Exploring the reason for the difference might help refine the usage of typographical emphasis in briefs—or preclude it.

Bloggers use typographical emphasis effectively to highlight key claims, but claims are rarely key in a legal brief. Blog writing is an exercise in originality of conception, so it’s incumbent on the blogger to draw attention to those original conclusions, whereas legal briefing should seek to minimize the appearance of being original. What warrants emphasis in briefs is argument, not conclusion. Succinct conclusions are easily emphasized. But every part of an argument is equally important objectively, and which part is most important subjectively depends on the reader, so emphasizing part of an argument typographically creates a sense of non sequitur, since the bolded argument doesn't pull its weight. Various parts of the argument are more important for different readers, the emphasized passage or words miscuing them. Typography is too crude a technique for emphasizing parts of an argument, which must display the precise relationships among its parts in nuanced fashion.

Legal writers usefully emphasize headings typographically, but bolded headings must function as headings if they are to avoid the heavy-handedness of bolding parts of arguments. Rather than state part of the following argument, they should summarize or describe the section of text they govern.

There’s also a more speculative reason why bolding body text might always be a bad idea for legal briefs: it may subtly offend the judge by violating a status formality, an informal rule designed to protect the judge’s status. One of the common demands of rules of status formality in courtrooms is that lawyers must always avoid making their own work easier at the expense of making the judge’s work harder. Since it is actually a bit harder to read boldface than roman text, this status formality might apply, the author having other means of emphasis that don’t burden the judge. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Avoiding irrelevance and dilution: Construal-level theory, the endowment effect, and the art of omission

Deciding what to omit (omission) is one of three fundamental writing skills—besides fluency and cohesiveness—supporting the two major Writing Virtues: Clarity and Concision. Although omission is a sophisticated skill not acquirable through panaceas, it is unique among the three fundamental skills because a single roadblock causes most of the congestion. The roadblock is the writer’s innate aversion to deletion; the aversion derives from a universal cognitive bias called loss aversion, meaning we’d rather maintain the status quo than bet a significant amount on the flip of a coin. (See D. Kahneman, Thinking, fast and slow (2011).) The most dramatic expression of loss aversion is the endowment effect: owners will sell property only at a much higher price than they would pay to acquire it. Loss aversion explains an impressive part of wordy or irrelevant writing because it makes adding matter easier than deleting it.

Construal-level theory is a theory about decision and judgment that explains loss aversion and teaches us how to avoid it in writing. Construal-level theory deals with the biases the distinction between practice and theory introduces into our thinking. When our objectives are immediate, the information available rich, and time bountiful, we analyze in a way of thinking called near-mode, which uses high-grain, concrete concepts and attends to incidental features. When our objectives are long-term and the information or time scant, we analyze in a way of thinking called far-mode, which uses low-grain, abstract concepts and focuses on the essential.

Construal-level theory furnishes an explanation of loss aversion and the endowment effect. (D. Kahneman, supra.) Consider a standard example of the endowment effect: a holder of concert tickets costing $50, the most the concert-goer would have paid, refuses to sell for $300. More usually, we value property about twice as much just because we happen to own it already. Construal-level theory explains loss aversion by the tendency to give greater importance to the near than the far. Analogously, we over-value what we’ve written because it’s near, and we’re loathe to part with it.

Construal-level theory has unearthed another source of our reluctance to cut inferior matter: the audience reads in far-mode, which is global, but legal writers often compose it in near-mode, which is sequential. The consequence is that the audience averages the quality of the documents’ parts, whereas the writer is apt to add their quality, meaning that, for the audience, subpar arguments detract from overall quality but, to the writer, they may seem to increase the quality. (K. Weaver et al., The presenter's paradox (Oct. 2012) 39 Journal of Consumer Research 445 [Hat Tip: Overcoming Bias].)

Construal-level theory provides insights to help writers overcome the biases implicated in writing in near-mode for an audience reading in far-mode. Writing systems involving different roles for the author, such as the roles of writer and editor, serve to vary the author’s mode. Specifically for brief writing, Bryan Garner has advanced a more elaborate system of roles, which are distinctively near and far. (B. Garner, The winning brief (1999) at p. 3) The chart below displays the Flowers roles, their typical activities, and the mode mainly engaged.

Flowers-paradigm role
Typical activities
Mode from construal-level theory
Brainstorming, “Deep thought,” background research
Outlining, planning, detailed research
Primary writing
Editing, proofreading

Madman is far because it encourages intuition, a far-mode product. (See G. Gigerenzer, Gut feelings: The Intelligence of the unconscious (2008).) Architect is near-mode because it accentuates logical relationships, which depend heavily on sequencing, a near-mode activity. Carpenter is far-mode because it attempts to make ideas intelligible to others. Judge is near-mode because it involves close reading for error.

The alternation of phases is powerfully effective in engaging both modes without causing the mutual interference to which they are prone when combined simultaneously. It is so effective that the modes can be seen to alternate within roles. Although Madman is predominantly far-mode, it includes periods of near-mode activity, such as close reading of selected cases. Judge, although mostly near-mode, may include far-mode phases, such as hearing the document read aloud. Carpenter and Architect usually alternate more than once, because Carpenter excels at abstraction and Architect at sequencing.

Construal-level theory offers far-mode as the remedy for excess. Because of the relationship between the endowment effect and near-mode, cutting excess is performed most effectively in far-mode, and typical problems in legal writing occur when lawyers compose their briefs in near-mode, often because they write their briefs while they read cases closely. The result is not only the absence of the big picture but also an accumulation of excess. To avoid much of this excess, learn to write in far-mode, and master the research in near-mode in the Architect phase.

Some common advice is misguided because it contributes to excess. Writers are often instructed to be Madmen in the Carpenter role, but although both Madman and Carpenter are far-mode, Carpenter provides the opportunity to pare down irrelevant matter generated in the Madman phase, and the advice to suspend the critic when doing primary writing sacrifices the main opportunity to trim excess. This shouldn’t be left to the Judge, as editing is a near-mode activity, and among the errors the Judge isn’t good at correcting is excess. The erroneous advice comes from seeing an alternation between writer and critic rather than between near-mode and far-mode.

Both far-mode phases are good for trimming excess, as the writer can take steps to stem excess in the Madman role despite heeding the advice to suspend the critic. Although this advice applies to Madman, not to Carpenter, when applied to Madman it admits critical comments. To take advantage of the Madman to combat excess, treat critical ideas related to scope and breadth just as you would any other ideas. If you’re brainstorming, if you think you’ve come up with an idea of doubtful relevance, you should note that thought alongside the idea itself. Having added exclusion as an idea, you will later be unable to avoid discarding one idea or the other, the marginal thought itself and the imperative to disregard it. Therefore, near-mode’s reluctance to part with sentences will resist rejecting the idea to discard as much as it resists rejecting the idea itself.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Uncomfortable ideas and disfluent expression affect us similarly

Cognitive fluency
Integrating the research on cognitive fluency and cognitive dissonance can enrich our understanding of the cognitive strain (or excessive disfluency) produced by convoluted expression. I’ve extensively discussed  research on cognitive fluency-disfluency, whose basic lesson is that when a message is understood effortlessly it is more believable. Daniel Kahneman in his landmark work in cognitive psychology, Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) at pp. 62 – 64, provides the following advice on minimizing cognitive strain in persuasive writing:

Cognitive dissonance
The term now part of the vernacular, cognitive dissonance, a social-psychology research program started by Leon Festinger in 1956, refers to our aversion to disharmonious ideas, but there’s unfortunately no quick way to understand what disharmonizes ideas. You have to grasp the concept from key experiments. I present two, displaying the breadth of the cognitive-dissonance concept:

In the “$1 and $20 experiment,” subjects performed a boring task, which they understood as the experiment’s real purpose, and they then sought to persuade another subject to participate on the ground that the experience was interesting. One group was offered $1 and the other $20 for their persuasive efforts (today’s values would be inflated by a factor of 7.5). Both groups subsequently evaluated the boring task’s enjoyability. The then-surprising result, as Festinger predicted, was that the subjects receiving $1 rated the boring task more interesting than did the subjects receiving $20. The counter-intuitiveness of the results is what made cognitive dissonance the most popular research program in social psychology in the 1960s: under the reigning reinforcement theory, the subjects in the $20 condition should have rated the task more interesting, since they were reinforced (rewarded) more for claiming it was interesting. Festinger had predicted the results by reasoning that the subjects in the $1 condition would experience more cognitive dissonance due to the disharmoniousness  between the two beliefs: 1) they had misrepresented a boring task and 2) they had done it for a mere dollar.

In another study, Festinger observed a group of fanatics who believed the end of the world was nigh and sought to prepare for it. When the world didn’t end, rather than relinquish their belief, they elaborated and deepened it by explaining away the disconfirmation and becoming yet more fanatical. To make their beliefs more harmonious, they construed the apparent disconfirmation as confirmation.

While my concern is to apply cognitive-dissonance research to cognitive strain, which is directly relevant to writing persuasively, cognitive fluency also clarifies cognitive dissonance, needing clarification because defining the harmoniousness that reduces dissonance is elusive. Social psychologist Eliot Aronson had proposed that cognitive dissonance comes from conflicts with self-concept, but recent research hasn’t supported this interpretation: choices affect beliefs even when the earlier beliefs are forgotten. (See Coppin et. al, I'm No Longer Torn after Choice: How Explicit Choices Implicitly Shape Preferences for Odors (2010) Psychological Science 21(4) 489 ‒ 493.) Cognitive-fluency theory suggests that disharmonious (dissonant) beliefs are beliefs whose understanding takes effort. They are disfluent beliefs, although the disfluency arises not from the manner of expression, as in cognitive-fluency research, but from the content of the beliefs.

Just as cognitive disfluency is useful in persuasion, so is cognitive dissonance, although the uses of dissonance, like those of disfluency, have been largely overlooked. To discourage the error of ignoring dissonance’s uses, I’ll offer a few obvious examples supporting the position that just as there’s an optimal level of fluency, so there’s an optimal level of dissonance needed to maintain a reader’s interest. It’s well known that skilled readers of fiction prefer complex to simple characters; paradox can be useful in exposition; and implausible beliefs and even logical contradiction have helped make religions popular—as with the Trinity doctrine.

Lessons for persuasive writing
Now for what cognitive dissonance research implies about cognitive fluency. The research on cognitive dissonance conceives it as a drive to reduce an unpleasant arousal state: we’re motivated to reduce dissonance. (Kiesler and Pallak, Arousal properties of dissonance manipulations (1976) Psychological Bulletin, 83(6), 1014 ‒ 1025.) Cognitive-fluency researchers haven’t considered the motivation behind the preference for cognitive ease, but if cognitive-dissonance reduction is due to the motive that also enhances the believability of fluent messages, that has lessons for writers. The difference is that cognitive strain's unpleasantness motivates the reader to reject the disfluent expression, not only to find the fluent more credible. The analogy to cognitive dissonance suggests that when we disbelieve the disfluent, it’s because believing the disfluent is uncomfortable. Since we must believe to understand, unpleasant affect associated with the effort to understand prejudices the reader against the proposition itself even when it’s later expressed clearly.

The implication is that persuasive writers should avoid unwarranted disfluencies even when they're immediately clarified. If a concept is hard to understand without examples, prematurely presented conceptualizations undermine subsequent understanding. It's better to introduce the examples before the proposition they support.

Cognitive strain's unpleasantness supports using the method of successive approximations for introducing complex ideas. To use successive approximation, the writer presents a simplified concept that is subsequently elaborated in a series of changes, each simple enough to avoid cognitive strain.

Monday, July 16, 2012

You, too, have an optimal sentence length

Plain-writing proponents advise you to check your documents’ average sentence lengths to guarantee against excess: Bryan Garner recommends an average of 20 words per sentence, and some plain writers recommend 15. Since every writer has an optimal average sentence length, the better advice is to use your own optimum rather than an arbitrary standard. I find, in fact, that when the average sentence length departs from my average, the document needs more work. Nobody has previously explained why writers consistently prefer a certain average sentence length, but inasmuch as “writer’s voice” is mostly sentence length, an explanation could help writers find their “true voice.”

I assume excellent writers prefer their strengths to their weaknesses, and I hypothesize that optimal sentence length is a trade-off between two abilities integral to writing: abstraction and sequencing. Typically, we construct sentences by abstraction and paragraphs by sequencing. Constructing a coherent sentence requires abstracting a suitably deep idea, but linking sentences to form cohesive paragraphs requires attending to their sequential relations. Long sentences capitalize on the writer’s ability to entertain a complex abstraction to be stated in words. Short sentences capitalize on the writer’s ability to link ideas in successive sentences. To make the most of their ability to entertain complex abstractions, writers strong on abstraction compared to sequencing will write long sentences, and to make the most of their ability to sequence thought, writers strong on sequencing compared to abstraction will write short sentences.

The distinction between abstraction and sequencing sounds somewhat like right and left hemisphere, but it isn’t. Here, we’re not talking about whether the internal processing is simultaneous or serial but whether the output is a unified abstraction or a sequence. The dimension of relative strength in abstraction compared to sequencing most resembles construal level: abstraction being far (resulting from abstract construal) and sequencing near (resulting from concrete construal). Personal consistencies in tendency to think far or near are shown, as in the finding that people who wake up late and prefer to work at night (“night owls”) tend to think far.

One educator’s questionnaire estimates your position on what amounts to far versus near thinking, conceived as Global-versus-Sequential learning style. (Hat tip: Words, Ideas, and Things.) I’d be interested in anyone’s results measuring their sentence lengths and testing their Global-Sequential position. My average sentence length is 25 and Global-Sequential learning-style score is 7 (moderately high Global). 

If you apply this test, bear in mind these caveats: 

1. Short documents will diverge from your average due to random statistical fluctuation.

2. Some documents should diverge from your optimum when the need to write in a particular voice outweighs achieving your highest literary quality.

3. Any document will not only be more interesting but also clearer if you vary the sentences' length. 

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Emphasis: Prosody or Grammar

Various devices can impart emphasis:

1. Emphatic and de-emphatic language
2. Specialized punctuation (dash and colon)
3. Short-sentence exceptions
4. Typography 
5. End (stress) position in sentence
6. Hierarchic grammatical relationship (supposedly)
Numbers 5 and 6 are this entry’s concern.
The end position in a sentence was dubbed the stress position by Joseph M. Williams, according to whom the two most important parts of a sentence are its beginning, where the reader expects the sentence’s topic grounded in old information, and its end, where the reader expects new information. Written language’s acknowledgement of the orally emphatic end position is a concession to prosody; sentence position rather than grammatical relationships determine written as well as spoken emphasis. Although grammar trumps prosody on punctuation, prosody trumps grammar on emphasis.
Joseph M. Williams best explains the connection between sentence position and emphasis, but he isn’t alone in concluding that the end position is emphatic. Citing six supporting authorities, Bryan Garner counsels, “To write forcefully, end your sentences with a punch.” (The Winning Brief, 36.)
To Garner I turn now for the view that subordination connotes de-emphasis. Garner replaces the meaningless demand to limit every sentence to a single idea with the formalistic one to limit them to a single main idea, which Garner equates with the sentence’s main clause—where Garner advocates putting important information. For Garner, subordination is de-emphasis:
As Trimble suggests, convert a “starveling”—a short sentence that says little—into a subordinate clause and merge it with another sentence. (The Winning Brief, 40.)
Elsewhere, Garner derogates subordinate clauses when he advises giving them separate sentences if they state important arguments.
One reason to question that grammatical relationship imparts emphasis is that its doing so conflicts with number 5, using the end position for emphasis, since that's where (supposedly de-emphasized) subordinate clauses usually occur. Garner’s four examples of combining sentences by subordination avoid the conflict by moving the subordinate clause to the beginning. But this surprising word order shouldn’t be routine.
Putting the main clause in the stress position, as in Garner’s rewrites, comports with Garner’s teaching that the main clause should contain information more important than the subordinate clause contains. But the following example shows that the subordinate clause can rightly be more informative, while Garner’s analysis, equating “subordinate” with “less important,” leads to putting it not in the most forceful position at the sentence’s end. Garner’s rewrites reveal the problem with Garner’s approach: a subordinate clause may properly contain a sentence’s most important information, and then it usually belongs at the sentence’s end. Consider one of Garner’s rewrites:
The original. Third, there are no extraordinary circumstances to support setting aside the court’s judgment. Consequently, there is no basis either to reconsider the Court’s decision or to grant Reynolds leave to amend his complaint.

Garner’s rewrite. Third, in the absence of extraordinary circumstances, the Court should not reconsider its decision or grant Reynolds leave to amend his complaint.

Garner misplaces the emphasis. Instead, stress-locate the subordinate structure:

My rewrite. Third, the Court should not reconsider its decision or grant Reynolds leave to amend his complaint in the absence of extraordinary circumstances.

Despite its subordinate grammatical status, “in the absence of extraordinary circumstances” receives the greatest emphasis. This seems right, since it’s a trivial move from no extraordinary circumstances to the lack of basis to reconsider.

Garner’s approach reveals the harm of equating subordination with lesser importance. If, like Garner, you also recognize that the final element is stressed, you’ll be reluctant to put subordinate elements at the end of sentences, with two adverse consequences: 1) you’ll overutilize a sentence pattern that doesn’t start with the subject, and 2) you’ll underutilize the stress position.

The language has good reason to accord emphasis to the stress position rather than to main clauses; grammatical hierarchy has another function, that of expressing factual and logical dependence. In the example above, “No exceptional circumstances” presents as a condition limiting a legal rule, and the rule belongs in the main clause because it's logically fundamental. But the condition, “no extraordinary circumstances,” is the argument’s real point, and it belongs in the stress position, despite being grammatically subordinate.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Last Word on Procrastination: An integration of ego-depletion theory, construal-level theory, and the irreversibility of writing

With the elements I’ve previously introduced—Baumeister and Muraven’s ego-depletion theory, Trope and Liberman’s construal-level theory, and my irreversibility-of-writing theory—we can discern the outline of a general explanation of why we often procrastinate. Both ego-depletion theory and construal-level theory have been separately applied to procrastination, but my explanation combines the theories, which I’ll summarize here only insofar as they directly apply.  

Ego-depletion theory says that we have a physically limited daily supply of willpower for implementing our decisions, but we perform habitual acts effortlessly. Researchers in ego-depletion theory advise that we should strategize to utilize our limited supply of willpower efficiently by devoting our efforts to forming productive habits.  

Construal-level theory says that we can conceptualize tasks at concrete or abstract granularities. Abstract construals induce future orientation, and they create and inform our goals and plans, disposing us to seek and implement them later

Irreversibility-of-writing theory says that writers’ block may arise from unconsciously apprehending that you’re unprepared to write.

Theories combined
Explaining procrastination requires understanding how construal level interacts with the allocation of finite willpower, but these are separate research programs, yet unintegrated. Despite the lack of direct experimental evidence, common observation and inference from other research suggest linkages:
  • Concrete construals allocate willpower. We expend willpower—whether to accomplish specific tasks or form habits—through concrete construals.
  • Abstract construals foreshadow habits. Formed through abstract construal, goals—varying in strength—cause our concrete construals, long-term.
The more controversial contention is that goal setting through abstract construals drives concrete construals and the resulting productive effort, a contention conflicting with the common recommendation  to self-impose the use of concrete construals: focus on the details and the next action. The recommendation is issue begging, since the whole problem in procrastination is that we resist entertaining concrete construals when we engage in pleasurable mental acts of abstract construal. 

Abstract construal gets a bad rap in this commentary; to its derogation, one prolific commentator explains abstract construal as having evolved for the hypocritical manipulation of social signals, but there’s evidence that our abstract construals direct our future concrete construals: childhood ambitions foreshadow adult achievements.

To minimize procrastination, you must form the right kind of strongly motivating goals. The right kind of goals for forming habits demand immediate action, as do goals constituted by habits, necessarily weakened by delay. If you want to write a book, a more effective goal than completion or publication is becoming a hard-working writer. Since the goal entails altering your personal traits, virtue ethics is a useful framework for forming productive habits, since it fosters the abstract construal of habits as goals. 

Goals coherently expressing your true purposes are strongly motivating, and for the most part, goals arise naturally from self-knowledge. Powerful goals rooted in deep self-knowledge engender strong habits, but they should do so only to the extent that regimentation is help more than hindrance. The point of my irreversibility-of-writing approach is that writers should limit their self-regimentation. But when habits are few, last-minute production is the well-practiced fallback habit. You must balance regimentation’s efficiency against lost opportunities for “deep thought.”

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Euphony and etymology

Roy Peter Clark proposes that writers can improve on Euphony by mixing hard Anglo-Saxon sounds with soft French-derived sounds. (Hat tip: Ray Ward.) Is this advice applicable to legal writing?

The short answer is probably “no,” but absence of an example hinders evaluating Clark’s proposal, as his evidence consists of poems Clark deems effective due to the poet’s word choice from one or the other etymology: Clark doesn’t demonstrate the effectiveness of combining etymologies. Readers might allow the possibility that both pure and mixed etymologies can promote various purposes, but Clark doesn’t give any examples of the combinatory technique he espouses.

In legal writing and most nonfiction, Clarity and Concision usually outweigh any Euphoniousness that mixing etymologies creates. Alternative expressions may relevantly differ in meaning, which should lead the writer to choose the precise meaning intended. More often, the semantic difference is irrelevant, and the shorter string is better because succinct expressions are easier to entertain.

Clark’s advice can be deleterious by bolstering a writer’s temptation to use the more verbose form, and the lure of informality often tempts today’s writers to verbosity. The longer forms sound natural by resembling speech, and a long tradition of oral culture beckons the writer to sound like a talker. “Plain-talk writing” can be a quick route to popularity but obstructs intellectual influence. Plain-talk’s intimations of chumminess help blog writers assemble a fan club, but verbosity detracts from intellectual compellingness by impairing the text’s cohesion and obscuring its implications.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The profession's disdain for "fine writing": The sociology

More than two centuries ago, bench and bar were already contemptuous of “fine writing.” When James Boswell filed a brief—particularly well written because Samuel Johnson assisted—the judge advised Boswell that excellent writing was wasted effort. The profession’s literary philistinism has been ignored by commentators on the sorry state of legal writing; only a judge as outspoken as Richard A. Posner is prepared to describe the profession’s attitude:
Many judges and lawyers are disdainful of fine writing. They think it unprofessional, "literary," affected, overrefined. (R.A. Posner, Judges' writing styles (And do they matter?) (1995) 62 U. Chi. L. Rev. 1421.)
Previously, I’ve invoked the distinct talents of talkers to explain the dearth of writers in a talking profession. The distinction reaches still deeper. Lawyers aspire to and admire oral eloquence, yet the most that’s usually hoped for legal writing is that it be plain. Also, while lawyers value eloquence in addressing juries, eloquence is rarely encountered in oral argument. Although more competent in speech—even before judges—than in writing, lawyers don’t diligently rehearse oral arguments to courts as they do statements to juries. 

The vast difference in expectations under law and in legal culture between judge and jury explains the different assumptions about the importance of stylistic persuasiveness. The difference is expressed legally in the presumption that the judge isn’t influenced by prejudicial information, a presumption necessitated by judges’ gateway function but a presumption that appears increasingly distant from reality.

In the popular imagination and even in the beliefs of many trial attorneys, the judge is a mere umpire—so the attorney needs only state the facts and cite the law. Any surplus persuasiveness is illegitimate—it shouldn’t work and is presumed and assumed not to work. The penchant of popular consciousness and even jurisprudence to deny the power of judges also causes lawyers and courts to deny the power of style; for if style is persuasive, judges’ decisions manifest discretion—which, of course, they often do.

The obscurity, prolixity, and cacophony of legalese ruin it for persuasion. In a sociological sense, this is the very point of legalese: it prevents one side from gaining an unfair advantage through rhetoric. Rhetoric is part of the persuasion process, and the myth of the powerless judiciary tacitly denies there’s any proper persuasive work to be done when lawyers argue the law to judges. In a perverse sense, legalese is democratic: it levels the field between represented parties who use it.

This part of the explanation of legalese—it may not be the most important part—is both encouraging and discouraging for legal writers. We may be discouraged that the profession devalues our craft. Fortunately, judges aren’t experts on what really persuades them: Boswell should have disregarded his judge’s advice. Among other biases, the judges themselves are prone to uphold the myth of the powerless judiciary. What can encourage some legal-brief writers is that the profession’s disdain for fine writing means excellent writing will be rare, hence exceptionally persuasive, when it competes against the standard legal fare.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The dialectic of clarity: Cognitive fluency vies with cohesion

Joseph M. Williams, my favorite writing authority, advises:

Some argue that the harder we have to work to understand what we read, the more deeply we think and the better we understand. Everyone should be happy to know that no evidence supports so foolish a claim, and substantial evidence contradicts it. (Williams, "Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace" (9th ed. 2006) p. 221.) [HT: Vlastimil Vohánka, Comment to Cognitive Fluency: Simpler Isn’t Always Better.]

Williams’s summation is outdated after researchers reported that difficult texts promote better learning. (See Diemand-Yauman, C., et al., "Fortune favors the bold (and the italicized): Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes." (2010) Cognition.) Williams errs because he confuses Clarity, which measures the likelihood that the message succeeds, with fluency, which measures the effort the reader must expend to receive the message.

Social-psychological research points to two reasons for the divergence between Clarity and cognitive fluency (also called simplicity or cognitive ease). First, some matters are more intelligible and some beliefs more malleable when they engage an abstract (or “far”) construal level rather than a concrete (or “near”) construal level. Then, disfluent items will be more comprehensible. (“Construal-level theory: Matching linguistic register to the case's granularity,” in this blog, and “A taxonomy of political ideologies based on construal-level theory,” in Juridical Coherence, discuss construal-level theory.)

Second and more important practically, a trade-off between fluency and cohesion should discourage writers from always opting for the most fluent sentences, which must be bought at the expense of cohesion. The second reason explains disfluent clarity in legal writing better than the first because the writer should approach messages calling for abstract construal amelioratively, by imposing greater cohesion or greater Concision to complexify the text.

Joseph M. Williams himself best pinpoints the tension between fluency and cohesion.

The problem—and the challenge—of English prose is that, with every sentence we write, we have to strike the best compromise between the principles of local clarity and directness and the principles of cohesion that fuse separate sentences [ideas] into a whole discourse. But in that compromise, we must give priority to those features of style that make our discourse seem cohesive, those features that help the reader organize separate sentences [ideas] into a single, unified whole. (Williams, Style: Towards Clarity and Grace (1995) p. 48 [emphasis added].)

My change—“ideas” for “sentences”—emphasizes that consolidating the information contained in several sentences into a single sentence can contribute to cohesion.

The diagram below depicts the interactions leading from their causes to the two substantive Writing Virtues. (I save for another day the interaction between cohesion and omission, causing Concision).
Open in separate window

The diagram shows that writers must balance fluency and cohesion for Clarity; omission and cohesion for Concision. The centrality of cohesion, which contributes to both Clarity and Concision, helps explain why Williams is correct to stress cohesion over fluency (“local clarity”).

Confusion of fluency with Clarity—or at least, emphasis of fluency over cohesion—is the main technical deficiency promoted by the “plain writing” school.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

“For Who [sic] the Bell Tolls”: Who-Whom and the native-speaker dogma in descriptivist linguistics

Usage of "whom" instead of "who" for grammatical objects is declining in written communication and has almost vanished from oral communication. Should writers continue using "whom"?
The Writing Virtues framework provides standards for assessing this disputed issue, which concerns Clarity. Warranting use until it has become so rare its presence distracts, each semantic and syntactic distinction the language affords can help readers grasp the writer’s intention precisely and quickly. Sentences with whom for grammatical objects are more cognitively fluent than sentences with whom replaced by who: the distinction informs the reader earlier of the word’s grammatical role. Whom isn’t distracting in legal writing, and unless the m receives butler-like stress, it’s not distracting even in ordinary talk. Writers cripple themselves when they abandon a distinction that’s neither redundant nor distracting.

The dispute on the fate of whom and the best practices concerning its use arose when Twitter announced a feature called “Who to follow." Not being a reader or writer of Tweets, I abstain on whether Twitter ought call it “Whom to follow,” but I contest some of the claims made by descriptivist linguists, who would prematurely erase whom from the lexicon. The key issue in this debate should be Clarity, but neither side realized it; none related usage to the cognitive-fluency research, which demonstrates that modest changes in reading ease produce dramatic effects on retention and persuasiveness.

Besides possible ignorance about the cognitive-fluency research, whom’s antagonists seem biased against whom due to how they classify it. They treat the who-whom rule as what I call a hyper-grammatical rule; in fact, they’ve applied the term. But hyper-grammatical rules—such as the rules not to start a sentence with a conjunction or end one with a preposition—are Formalities, whose occasionally necessary observance muddies the message, whereas whom clarifies it by marking a syntactic distinction.

Their discussion of this point reveals a certain dogma among descriptivist linguists. Because whom is used rarely in speech, writers must sometimes expend a moment thinking about which form to use; but the descriptivists claim that native speakers intuitively know their language’s grammar. This descriptivist contention is unpersuasive because many grammatical distinctions sometimes require a moment’s thought. The similar distinction between I and me fails to be entirely intuitive, although—unlike who-whom—it’s still common in talk. And a verb’s number can be unintuitive, so writers may err on subject-verb agreement.

Descriptivists commonly offer a compromise: only use whom after a preposition. The compromise illustrates the neglect of Clarity: when used after a preposition, the whom form informs less than it does when the preposition ends the sentence. If the main complaint about whom is that it makes writers self-conscious, then the best solution for writers could be always using whom in the conventional manner, as inconsistency induces hesitation. Writers of German or other highly inflected languages don’t hesitate in speaking their language’s pronoun forms.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The unity of comprehension and belief and the common failure to grasp opposing arguments

Legal briefs should rebut opposing arguments, but often trial attorneys handle opposition by reiterating or at best buttressing their affirmative cases. Since the skills for arguing and rebutting are probably identical—as shown by the interchangeability of attorneys experienced in suing or defending—weak rebuttals aren't due to unbalanced skills. The formulaic character of nominal rebuttals suggests attorneys don't fully understand their opponents' legal arguments. An illuminating explanation comes from the psychologist Daniel T. Gilbert's research on the unity of comprehension and belief, according to which understanding a text or utterance requires, minimally, its momentary acceptance as true.

Comprehension induces belief

Gilbert and his colleagues have corroborated a theory of what I call the unity of comprehension and belief :

  1. To understand any message, the recipient must suspend disbelief and accept the message as true.
  2. Unless the recipient rejects the message—by a subsequent conscious or unconscious decision—the recipient will continue believing.

These are momentous conclusions: psychologists had agreed with common sense, which says we can neutrally evaluate a contention and delay accepting or rejecting it. Gilbert's evidence comes from scientific experiments, but one rationale from evolutionary psychology helps clarify why it should be so: conceptual belief is an extension of perceptual belief, and we consider our perceptions true until we have reasons to doubt them.

False confidence impresses juries

Another theory from evolutionary psychology is needed to understand the importance of the unity of comprehension and belief for appellate and motion practice: the theory of self-deception, which the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers sets out in his new book, The folly of fools: The logic of deceit and self-deception in human life (2011). People aren't objective about their own prospects; clients, for example, have excessively optimistic anticipations about the results of litigation. According to Trivers and evolutionary psychologists, humans evolved self-deception because it facilitated deceiving others, as in a bargaining process in which parties can bluff more effectively if they fool themselves too; the bluffing party "honestly" overvalues its claim.

Trial attorneys confident of the righteousness of their clients' causes are often more persuasive with juries, and true to theory, they often manifest a biased confidence in the cases they are prosecuting or defending. Regardless of whether they realize it, they commit to maintaining their confidence. Attorneys may think their confidence isn't threatened by strong arguments from opponents because, on the common-sense view—rejecting the unity of comprehension and belief—they needn't evaluate the argument, only find the best answer. Didn't law school teach them how to argue both sides of a question? But the unity of comprehension and belief bars the attorney from emerging unscathed from genuine argumentative engagement, and at some level, trial attorneys learn this. To understand the argument, they must believe the argument, at least temporarily, but once they believe, they're at risk for being unable to disbelieve it later. We aren't free to believe what we want, except by refusing to comprehend what we reject. People generally fail to understand attacks on their core beliefs, and attorneys are unlikely to understand arguments undermining their confidence.

False confidence creates ostriches

A publicized case of incompetent lawyering illustrates by providing a good example of a trial attorney’s incomprehension: the appellant’s reply brief failed to rebut dispositive case authority, and the appellant's attorney attained notoriety after Judge Richard A. Posner's opinion represented him pictorially as an ostrich. Judge Posner speculated that the attorney was forum shopping by avoiding mention of a panel he sought to avoid, an unlikely explanation, since the 7th Circuit has long had a bullet-proof system of random case assignment. Judge Posner might have unwittingly achieved his second purpose—besides denouncing the attorney's omission to warn other attorneys—pitching the efficiency of visual matter in briefs and opinions. The ostrich picture was a more plausible depiction than the verbal speculation, in that appellant’s attorney truly didn't believe the omitted case was relevant.

The attorney that Judge Posner ridiculed had served as trial attorney below. What saves legal disputation is that the advantages of self-deception pertain to oral communication, where observers, such as jurors, can detect the involuntary cues—facial, tonal, and postural—betraying the dissimulator. The importance of thoroughly comprehending an argument to refute it argues for a division of labor between talkers and writers.