Friday, December 6, 2013

Psychological roots of writers’ resistance to clarity

Most lawyers disregard the most useful principle of advanced writing: put new important matter at the sentence end (the stress position). This neglect itself provides insight into the nature of the resistances to clear professional and intellectual writing.

We should first be exact about the degree to which writing authorities ignore the stress position. Bryan Garner represents the mainstream, and he cites six other authorities for this advice: “To write forcefully, end sentences with a punch.” (The Winning Brief, Tip 36.) Garner concretizes his advice in an injunction against ending sentences with a date, citation, client’s name, or qualifying phrase. (Garner, perplexingly, also suggests the test of exaggerating the last word in each sentence while reading aloud. “If the reading sounds foolish then the sentence probably needs to be recast.” Garner’s emphasis on how the sentence sounds will prove instructive, but even anticipating that Garner’s test will misidentify many bad sentences as good, it will also misidentify good sentences as bad—simply because the stress position is more extensive than the final word.)

Garner understates the importance of emphasis by limiting stress-position errors to missed opportunities; he ignores the more important errors of misdirection—as do his six supporting authorities. Emphasis is underappreciated (unemphasized) by most authorities; distinguishing the important from the unimportant is central to grasping meaning, never itself exact but capable only of approximation. Why is it hard to understand that misleading emphasis compromises not just “forcefulness” but clarity?

Since clarity arises from emphasis, forcefulness is clarity. Here may lay the problem: the quest for clarity is inevitably imbued with the human ambivalence toward exercise of power—of which influence is a kind.

Writing aspiring to clarity and to apportioned emphasis—regardless of whether it succeeds in either—is often termed “formal”; yet defining formality has proven elusive. One recent attempt is found in James W. Pennebaker’s book The Secret Life of Pronouns, which distinguishes from the analytic and narrative writing styles a formal style. But Pennebaker is able to characterize formality only pejoratively: humorless, pompous, and stiff; Pennebaker finds formal style correlated with aspirations to social status. The associations in Pennebaker’s work between clarity and power are striking: influence, status, emphasis, forcefulness, pomposity, even “stiffness.” Pennebaker expresses human ambivalence to power by defining “formal” writing by its failures.

Expressing this same ambivalence, writers who seek that variety of power called intellectual influence confront emotional impediments to mastering formal writing (“classic prose”). Resistance to recognizing the stress-position’s importance—stress or emphasis equaling force or power—epitomizes this internal conflict. Imprecision stimulates the affiliative appetite for conversation, a taste writers seeking legal persuasiveness or intellectual influence must forgo.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Constructing sentences for precise emphasis: The fundamental principle of advanced writing

A legal-writing authority advises:

 View your reader as a companionable friend—someone with a warm sense of humor and a love of simple directness. Write like you're actually talking to that friend, but talking with enough leisure to frame your thoughts concisely and interestingly. John R. Trimble, Writing with Style 73 (2d ed. 2000). (HT: Bryan Garner, Usage Tip of the Day, November 12, 2013.)

Some writers hail Trimble’s advice as profound, while others ignore it as meaningless, but I hold it is quite wrong. Legal-brief writing (like other efforts at exerting intellectual influence) differs from conversation not just in degree: influential intellectual writing differs from conversation in its guiding formal virtue. Whereas good conversation is (or seems) spontaneous, good writing is clear.

One way the difference manifests is that competent writers force important new ideas to the sentence’s end. The last word or tight phrase preceding the point of syntactic closure (period, semicolon, or colon) is termed by Joseph M. Williams (Style: Toward Clarity and Grace) the stress position; and according to another student of sentence structure, George D. Gopen (A new approach to legal writing), failure to exploit the stress position is legal-writers’ single greatest formal weakness: out of hundreds of lawyers Gopen has trained, the stress position was properly used by a handful. Proper use of the stress position is at the threshold of competent writing, but misuse of the stress position doesn’t always sound bad. Locating trivia in the stress position produces limp sentences, but often lawyers fill the stress position with misleading substantive language. When a document contains sentences with misleading emphases, readers—due to conflicting cues about what’s important—find the document’s meaning hazy.

The stress position isn’t unique to written English; spoken English sentences end in higher pitch, but in spoken English, stress position is subordinate to nonverbal cues. It is also subordinate to standard word order, which conversation usually follows because reorganized sentences sound contrived, violating the conversational norm favoring spontaneity. Take as an example the previous paragraph’s final sentence, which trades moderate disfluency for high clarity:
When a document contains sentences with misleading emphases, readers—due to conflicting cues about what’s important—find its meaning hazy.
This is too contrived for good conversation; without the engineered word order, we might say:
Readers find a document’s meaning hazy, due to conflicting cues about what’s important, when it contains sentences with misleading emphases.
The talk version beats the clear version in cognitive fluency (and in apparent spontaneity), but it loses in clarity (partly) because of its misuse of the stress position. Hazy meaning is the sentence’s key contribution, whereas the talk version stresses misleading emphases, an idea previously introduced. Stress position isn’t the only way reorganized sentence structure departs from talk, but Gopen’s experience indicates that, in legal writing, it’s the most ignored. Exploiting the stress position requires sentences differing from talk.

Haziness takes a toll on all argumentative writing; in abstract endeavors, it detracts from thought itself. With clarity being much about emphasis, reorganizing sentence structure is a medium through which clear writing deepens thought. (“Plain-talk writing” is inherently inimical to clear thought.)

In the next entries, I’ll discuss how and why the importance of Williams and Gopen’s discovery of the stress position is almost invariably missed by writing authorities. Resistance to exploiting the stress position will be seen rooted in a misguided attachment to the pragmatics of talk. We will also see that clear writing’s difference from talk has implications for … you guessed it, the comma. It supplies the last big piece to the comma puzzle.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Writers should exploit all punctuation marks: Reflections on misguided campaigns to reduce punctuation types

Omissive punctuation practices on Twitter convince some observers the apostrophe is superfluous, but a recent essay in New Republic news magazine dismissed the rumors of imminent apostrophe extinction. The author, however, wasn’t exactly happy about the apostrophe’s endurance, cautioning only that leaving it out will continue to “look funny” in formal writing. 

Considering the absence of consensus about which to exterminate, the impulse to kill some disliked punctuation is surprisingly strong. George Orwell thought the semicolon unnecessary and resolved to avoid it; some writers demand abolition of the dash; competent legal writers have opposed hyphenation of many compound adjectives, claiming they’re unsightly and often unnecessary; it’s been claimed that the comma was invented or perpetuated because publishers benefit from their supposedly unnecessary consumption of space; and I’ve condemned the virgule.

This false economy of punctuation types isn’t rational, since an abundance of types for marking syntactic distinctions means greater ease for readers. We have few punctuation types not because of the uselessness of marking additional syntactic distinctions but because of the difficulties of socially coordinating on a new punctuation type, which must be commonly understood and highly practiced. Contrived punctuation doesn’t stick: it requires too great an adoption rate before it gathers momentum. Emoticons (like the smiley) may seem an exception, but they prove the rule: they augment lexicon rather than representing syntax. Lexicon accrues more rapidly than punctuation types not only because we need many more semantic distinctions but also because we more readily learn the meaning of new semantic than syntactic signs. (Acquiring words is in the genes, but writing and its punctuation are parts of culture.)

Why do some writers wish for fewer types of punctuation? One reason is that overuse and misuse often turn them against the whole type. I formed a prejudice against the virgule (/) when enduring an employer who expressed any conjoined or disjoined legal claims with a weaseling and/or. Exposure to some bad freestyle blogging incites people against the dash, and the irritating misuse of the apostrophe to create plurals of names could be enough to alienate some writers.

Another source of animus against punctuation variety is that writers often don’t understand how punctuation helps readers. On discovering that they can understand text without a certain punctuation type, they conclude that it’s unnecessary (the main argument against the apostrophe in the New Republic piece), but punctuation serves primarily to enhance cognitive fluency, not to render text intelligible or disambiguate expressions.

Finally, pedagogy’s emphasis on signaling literacy and competence through correct grammar and mechanics leads some writers to view punctuation marks as occasions for error rather than as promoters of cognitive ease. Fewer distinctions mean less embarrassment.

Using all the available punctuation marks is part of exploiting the full expressive power of written language. But keep in mind what does not follow: if variety (in punctuation types) is a spice of life, heaviness (of punctuation tokens) is a drag.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Comma usage in the context of construal-level theory


Commas serve the following functions, in order of their importance for legal writing:

1. Increasing cognitive fluency
2. Inducing far-mode (as defined in construal-level theory)
3. Disambiguating expressions
4. Signaling competence

No one else seems to have applied construal-level theory to comma usage, and while writing authorities pay attention to the other three, the less important are typically emphasized over the more important.

Recognized comma functions

The signaling of competence includes avoiding grammatical errors that lower a lawyer’s credibility by making him look uneducated. Although sometimes emphasized even for legal writing, the importance of signaling competence is minimal because a judge is unlikely to notice the comma errors that infect lawyerly writing and lawyers are unlikely to commit gross errors, such as placing a single comma between subject and its verb or omitting a comma after a long introductory clause. Signaling might be the reason most people study punctuation mechanics, but most legal writers would do better to ignore signaling considerations when punctuating.

Disambiguation is the most emphasized function in writing advice for legal writers, and it probably is the most important function for transactional drafting. But comma usage only rarely is necessary for disambiguation, and the importance for transactional work arises from the huge potential cost of a single error. Some authorities may regale us with the legal catastrophes due to a single comma error, but in brief writing, context will usually make the distinction clear. 

There are really only two scenarios accounting for the bulk of the cases where the comma disambiguates: distinguishing restrictive from descriptive clauses and phrases and setting off a modifying phrase at a sentence’s end when the word it modifies is nonadjacent. Neither is usually truly ambiguous when you consider context. The primary role of context in drawing the restrictive-descriptive distinction can be highlighted by orthography’s not distinguishing between these types of modifiers when they occur before the word modified. In the sentence, “I love all the beautiful Russian girls,”  you can’t tell from the bare sentence whether the writer means “Russian girls, who are beautiful” or “Russian girls who are beautiful.” (HT to commenter harassmenko.) Yet writers don’t shrink from using the grammatically ambiguous expression "beautiful Russian girls." The need for setting off terminal modifiers of distant terms also rarely arises. When it does, the expressions are seldom truly ambiguous. An example is “Prosecutor Howes bribed inmate witnesses to appear, by illegally dispersing witness-voucher funds,” where the by clause modifies “to appear,” not “bribed”: nobody thinks the witnesses appeared by bribing, although that’s what the words state without the comma before by.

Rather than creating real ambiguity, the technical ambiguity instead detracts from fluency.

Increasing the matter’s cognitive fluency is really the strongest reason for good comma usage. Oxford Comma argues cogently that the importance of punctuation for fluency can be seen from punctuation other than the comma—in particular, spaces between words—because all punctuation functions for fluency. If you delete the spaces between words, it’s still quite possible, with more effort, to read it correctly. But cognitive fluency suffers greatly. The same is true, if less obviously, if you delete all commas in long sentences. Overlooking the effect of comma usage on fluency probably explains the over-statements on the comma’s disambiguation function. The comma's effect on fluency is underestimated because the comma’s effects are complex. In fact, the most salient effect of commas is that they slow readers down, a sacrifice of fluency. Too many commas as well as too few make writing unnecessarily disfluent.

Comma use to induce abstract construal

In addition to these usual functions of the comma, another is unrecognized: activating an abstract construal level (or far mode). (Construal-level theory is treated in Construal-level theory: Matching linguistic register to the case's granularity and in its series.) In legal writing and other writing intended to influence opinion about serious matters, it’s desirable to induce the reader to think more deeply rather than focus on the superficial. Since writing is largely a near-mode activity, skill in writing requires overcoming the tendency to induce the same mental set in the reader. Consider again the omission of spaces between words, as in this example (used for other purposes in Oxford Comma):


In decoding this string, you’re forced to read in near-mode, one word at a time. Spaces group letters into words; commas group words into meaningful segments based on principles of grammar, which describe how we aggregate words in comprehending sentences. Commas, like spaces, help the reader parse the sentence into comprehensible chunks, contributing not only to fluency but also to an abstract view of the subject matter. Reading in a more molar way by focusing on groups of words activates far-mode.

The prediction, based on construal-level theory, that good comma usage not only improves cognitive fluency but also induces far-mode can be tested against writers’ intuitions about comma usage. Test cases occur where comma usage disregards grammatical structure yet is more fluent. The philosopher Tyler Burge (Origins of Objectivity) is an exceptionally lucid writer, but an over-punctuation quirk in his comma usage breaks syntactic structure, although it increases fluency:

An example of empirical representation that is itself perception is a perception of, and as of, a moving silver sphere.

Burge commits the false-interjection error, but some excellent writers will agree with Burge’s version: it is more cognitively fluent than without the commas. This school of thought, ably defended in Oxford Comma, argues for a greater role for intuition in comma usage than my prescription affords. The intuition is based on cognitive fluency. Although the expression set off by commas isn’t an interjection, the sentence is easier to understand if the reader treats it as an interjection. The meaning is distorted because the punctuation treats “perception as of” as incidental compared to “perception of,” impeding a correct understanding of “perception as of,” which is grammatically and semantically coordinate to “perception of.” (If it's not semantically coordinate, the writer should use a noncoordinate grammatical form.)  


Intuitive punctuation has its distinguished advocates, such as Richard A. Posner, who advises legal writers to punctuate pragmatically. Construal-level theory supports the counter-argument for syntactic punctuation. 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Self-inducing far-mode: Approaches to preliminary outlining

Since writing is an inherently near-mode activity compared to reading, the effective author will self-induce a far-mode mindset, and since you can outline in different modes, one approach is far-mode outlining. The outlining methods corresponding to modes are constructing logical hierarchies and abstraction hierarchies, and while many outlines use both methods, to self-induce a far-mode mindset you should stress abstraction level.

In a logical hierarchy, child topics imply parent topics (or the reverse) by strict deductive logic; the relationship between mathematical concepts (polygon: square) or between causes of action and their elements (defendant is liable for contract breach: defendant formed a contract) form logical hierarchies. Despite the generality of parent topics, logical relationships are near-mode: high construal (alternately, far-mode or abstract construal) denotes abstraction, not necessarily logical generality. (The distinction is a common obstacle when critics complain of construal-level-theory’s ambiguity.)

An abstraction hierarchy runs from abstract parents to concrete children, where concepts that are more abstract are those achieved by greater cognitive elaboration. (See Ulric Neisser (1967) Cognitive psychology [analysis-by-synthesis].) Abstract concepts are further removed from direct perception than concrete concepts, and it takes more intuition to apply abstract concepts than to apply concrete concepts. As the root entry on construal-level theory discussed, the death of Julius Caesar can be described at different levels of abstractness: an outline depicting them would run kill: stab: knife [verb sense]. Kill is the most abstract because sensory information about the event is removed and a conceptual framework of organisms (which can live or die) introduced; knife is the most concrete because it includes the implement.

Another contrast between a logical and abstraction hierarchies is the strict directionality the logical hierarchy alone exhibits, making it simply false to say square is polygon’s parent. Although abstraction hierarchies often have an inherent direction, purpose or context can reverse it. Stab could be made the parent of kill and wound (alternative results of stabbing), imposing a far-mode perspective on your thinking about stab.

In legal briefs, imposing far-mode can be illustrated by the relationship between issues and cases. An abstraction-level outline might include the name of an important case as the child of a parent stating an issue, but if your task were to analyze the case, the issue could be a child. Cases are inherently more near-mode than legal issues, since they’re impregnated with incidental facts, and lawyers focus excessively on cases compared to issues when they emerge from their research stuck in near-mode due to temptation by logical hierarchies. Logical hierarchies include the case-analysis protocols taught for law-school exams: holding, parties, procedural posture, facts, issues, result—lawyers stuck in near-mode overparticularize. To impose far-mode on your thinking about a concrete case, persevere in abstraction-level outlining, and treat abstract concepts pertaining to the case—such as analogies to the matter you’re briefing—as more concrete than the case itself.

Other choices influence the kind of hierarchies constructed; one is the distinction between a “mindmap” and a linear outline, and the other between topic and full-sentence outlines. A mindmap is a graphical outline radiating from a center point: the visual cues de-emphasize both hierarchy and sequence, making mindmaps more conducive to abstraction-level outlining; topic outlines are also more conducive to abstraction-level outlining, since full-sentence outlines make logical entailment more prominent.

To induce far-mode by preliminary outlining:
1. Favor abstraction-level hierarchies over logical hierarchies. 
2. Impose far-mode if your subject matter is concrete. 
3. Try "mindmapping" software.
4. Favor topic outlines over full-sentence outlines.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Three senses of "conversational" writing

[Builds on What is classic prose?: "Clear and Simple as the Truth” reinterpreted through construal-level theory]

Writing advice confuses when it extols ambiguous virtues such as being “conversational,” a term that might identify a manner of writing by any of three characteristics: stylistic similarity to conversation, stylistic suitability for conversation, and conversational aim. Whether a writer ought to strive for conversationality depends on the term’s intended sense and the writer’s purpose.

1. Similarity to ideal conversation: Ideal conversation is not ideal writing.

Conversation fundamentally differs from writing in its reliance on nonverbal cues. Ideal conversation is more fluent than ideal writing because of conversation’s reliance on the nonverbal: where less needs be explicit, its cognitive load should be smaller. Ideal classic or practical writing will lack the fluency of ideal conversation.

2. Suitability as conversation: Ideal written sentences might be ideal conversation.

Sentences utterly unsuitable for conversation because they can’t be parsed in one hearing do not conform to any established contemporary style. Although most writers should avoid sentences that require rereading due to their structural and semantic complexity, even this advice is conditional. Past styles have been influential where the sentences demand rereading, for example, Samuel Johnson’s (Preface to Shakespeare):

That praises are without reason lavished on the dead, and that the honors due only to excellence are paid to antiquity, is a complaint likely to be always continued by those, who, being able to add nothing to truth, hope for eminence from the heresies of paradox: or those, who, being forced by disappointment upon consolatory expedients, are willing to hope from posterity what the present age refuses, and flatter themselves that the regard which is yet denied by envy, will be at last bestowed by time. (From Thomas and Turner, "Clear and Simple as the Truth" at p. 15.)

3. Conversational aim: Only some writings should have conversational aims.

Writing styles taking a far-mode stance—styles which are “deeply” formal—can nonetheless seem conversational if they deal with opinion rather than belief by working through the intellectual issues and then presenting the results from a detached perspective. This form of conversationality is correctly prized, but it isn’t universally applicable. The practical style, ideal for a brief’s argument section, generally won’t sound conversational, even in this sense, because the legal-practical style typically requires describing the main results found in judicial opinions, not working through intellectual issues.

Friday, April 19, 2013

What is classic prose?: "Clear and Simple as the Truth” reinterpreted through construal-level theory

The book

Writing is only good or bad relative to the author's tacit stance on deep questions like whether truth is knowable, according to Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner in their contrarian book, Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose (2nd ed. 2011). While no style is in an absolute sense better than another, they propose to explain and teach the style “classic prose,” which they recommend for its perpetual reinvention as the instrument of choice for broad influence.

Although written mostly in classic style, the book itself is in ways disappointingly unclassic. Rather than creating an elegantly seamless work as the classic style encourages, the book is divided into three unequal parts: the Essay (captivating), the Museum (repetitious), and the Studio (painfully dull; for starter, describe a visual scene orally to a friend). 

My reinterpretation

Fortunately, construal-level theory affords insight into the mental states of writer and reader that can bypass the Studio's tedious exercises. From construal-level theory, I’ve adapted the distinction between writing that is self-contained, nuanced, and impartial (far-mode and “deeply formal”) and writing that is context dependent, simplified, and overt (near-mode and “deeply” informal). That distinction pertains to the author’s stance; another distinction pertains to the objective: influential writing might present the author’s independent thinking and seek to change the reader’s opinion or describe his considered belief, dependent on what others opine. Opinion is near-mode and is related to the words agents say to themselves in self-justification; belief is far-mode and is applied more often to others than to oneself.

The relevant styles for legal writing that Thomas and Turner present are those that respect the Writing Virtues, Clarity and Concision. The chart below depicts the relevant styles—plain, practical, and classic—each derived from a combination of the level at which the author construes the message (STANCE) and its aim (TARGET).

The difference between practical style and classic style is that practical style addresses belief and it aims, accordingly, to persuade; whereas the classic style addresses opinion and aims to convince. Thomas and Turner consider the in-house legal memorandum addressed to a superior prototypical practical style, and legal briefs, too, are mainly written in that style. The practical style in legal application doesn’t hesitate to be explicitly argumentative because the legal advocate can’t hide his partiality, as required by the classic style. Yet the more classical a brief can be made, the better; the classic style is the most effective for changing opinion. A brief must address the judge’s beliefs by citing authorities, but it will accomplish the most reliable results by reaching further to the judge’s personal impressions. Often, the facts section can be written in classic style.

Where the practical style and the classic style differ from the plain style is their self-contained deep formality. This detachment and distance is key to writing intending to be influential—whether convincing or merely persuasive—and the progressively duller second and third parts of the book attempt to teach it by having the reader master and extend the “classic visual scene,” which consists of equal conversationalists viewing the same surroundings with reciprocal knowledge of their common perceptions. The presentation of this scene, without the unarticulated gaps that pervade near-mode communication, amounts to approaching composition in far-mode. The plain style, often purveyed as the model for contemporary writers, imitates near-mode communication and lacks the detached explicitness and nuance of far-mode communication.

My advice

If you can move your legal writing toward classic prose, you will improve it, but classic prose is difficult to produce because it adapts a far-mode stance to the representation of near-mode thought, allowing its dispassionate exploration. This is unnatural to perform because in relating our opinions we naturally assume a rich, shared context. But for influential writing, classic prose ranks highest on the Writing Virtues, as this chart depicts.

The pattern above is that as the style comes to invoke an increasingly far-mode stance the writing becomes less fluent but more cohesive and selectively omissive. Near-mode thought is capable of superior articulation into parts, but far-mode affords the superior sense of a cohesive whole and inattention to the incidental. The plain to classic dimension trades off fluency for cohesion and omission, and for influential writing addressed to serious, interested readers this advances both Writing Virtues.

My conclusion

Some commentators lay great stress on the deceptiveness of the classic style, which conveys false tacit assumptions, such as the flattering appraisal that the reader is truly interested in finding truth. Construal-level theory implies these conventions are idealizations, employed by far-mode to grasp the essential and exclude the distracting. Idealization is emblematic of far-mode cognition. Thomas and Turner contend that all styles have characteristic epistemological stands, but construal-level theory implies that that idealizations aren’t as prominent in near-mode writing styles.

[Developed further in Three senses of "conversational" writing.]