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.”