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Williams’s summation is outdated after researchers reported that difficult texts promote better learning.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).
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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.