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.

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