Monday, November 3, 2014

Univocality, the highest stage of clarity

The conquest of ambiguity

Language is inherently ambiguous, but the classic-prose writing style entails minimizing conceptual ambiguity. Because precluding foreseeable confusion is the essence of communication, the highest form of clarity is univocality (unambiguousness). This isn’t widely understood, as this anecdote illustrates:
In a Stanford artificial intelligence theory class, while the prof tried to present relatively precise claims, students constantly asked if he was really trying to say distantly related claims X, Y, or Z. My exasperated friend cried "Why can’t they just treat it like math – assume nothing you are not told you can assume!" ("Against Disclaimers.")
To treat natural language as if it were an artificial language, as the anecdotal lecturer demanded, is an unhelpful suggestion because readers can comprehend only by drawing on information that seems relevant, and apparent relevance depends on the reader’s background information and intelligence. But it also depends on the writer’s univocal expression. Since more able to detect them, the intelligent reader may be particularly confused by ambiguous cues.

The quest for univocality isn’t confined to avoiding words with unwanted associations (and issuing the necessary disclaimers if that isn't possible). It rests primarily with emphasis, through means such as the new topic/stress principle, the brevity principle, and unobtrusive repetition. It also involves avoiding every manner of self-contradiction.

Varieties of clarity

The great irony in contemporary writing advice is that all extol “clarity” but none is clear on the term’s meaning. The consequence of the nearly universal failure to appreciate the different varieties of clarity causes writers to ignore some of them—particularly the most central, univocality.

These are the three varieties of clarity in writing and their definitions:

Fluency: Understanding the argument’s detail with minimal effort.

Rigor: Understanding the argument’s detail with high effort.

Univocality: Conceptually unambiguous understanding at all effort levels.

These distinctions are pragmatic rather than logical. They describe varieties of clarity furthered by different strategic choices, which advance one variety of clarity and often undermine another.

Clarity and construal level

You may be struck more by the dissimilarities between the varieties of clarity, and you will then wonder why anyone would use the same term for all of them. The common element in all varieties of clarity is their reference to the amount of relevant information conveyed, the distinctions between them concerning the amount of effort required (low or high) or the kind of information (detail or disambiguation). One obstacle is that we seem only to think of clarity as meaning one or another of its varieties, the most common interpretation of “clarity” being fluency: clear writing is understood with ease.  

An analogy might help. A drawn picture will show clarity of the fluent variety when the details can be taken in with a glance; of the rigorous variety to the extent it contains all relevant information, leaving little to guesswork or intuition: and of  the univocal variety if it doesn’t look like anything other than intended.

The varieties of Clarity have a peculiar structure predictable from  construal-level theory (as I’ve construed it). The theory varieties of clarity can be generated by crossing required effort with construal level:

Since effort—allocated in near mode—doesn’t vary in far mode, univocality depends only on construal level being abstract. The features of each variety of clarity point to how each relates to effort level and construal level. Cognitive fluency is promoted by simplicity; I’ve previously discussed its limitations and offsets. Rigor must be applied selectively. Readers use subjection to rigor as a guide to meaning, so being unnecessarily rigorous about some point distorts. Rigor is governed by two of the philosopher Paul Grice’s Maxims:

1. Be as informative as required for the purpose of the communication.
2. Don’t be more informative than is required.

Disclaimers reclaimed

Univocality is the highest stage of clarity which—its skills developed later—comes to govern the other varieties. I’ll conclude with the starting topic, the disclaimer, which has been the victim of some bad connotations due to its legalistic abuse. Disclaimers serving only to comply with (supposed) legal requirements are deplorable from the standpoint of univocality: conceptually superfluous disclaimers are not innocuous, as they distort the intended meaning.

Whether due to skill limitations, audience resistance, or nuanced message, sometimes univocality is furthered by disclaimers. Artificial intelligence, the anecdote’s subject, exemplifies a topic subject to both resistance and preconception, where conceptual disclaimers further univocality. An example of a disclaimer occurs in the present entry under the subhead “Varieties of clarity”: “These distinctions are pragmatic rather than logical.” Readers can judge whether it was helpful.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Plain-talk writing countersignals power

Since unexplained consensus is a form of evidence, an important question is this: why have the opponents of legalese converged on plain-talk writing? (If you suspect I overstate the dominance of plain-talk, for an example see a recent piece by legal-writing author Mark Herrmann, who urges legal-brief writers to write like best-selling authors and average at most 15 words per sentence: “Care to write in a style that encourages people to read? You could do worse than to model your writing on the work of bestselling authors, couldn’t you?”) The explanation I propose for the dominant two camps is that legalese signals power and plain-talk writing countersignals greater power.

Signaling theory was a previous topic. Agents signal when they demonstrate possession of a valued trait by incurring costs that would deter those with lesser endowments; they countersignal when their audiences are informed through other sources that the agent is at least middling on the valued trait, so abstaining-from-signaling signals not needing to signal.

Feltovich,Harbaugh, and To list examples of signaling and countersignaling:

The nouveau riche flaunt their wealth, but the old rich scorn such gauche displays. Minor officials prove their status with petty displays of authority, while the truly powerful show their strength through gestures of magnanimity. People of average education show off the studied regularity of their script, but the well-educated often scribble illegibly. Mediocre students answer a teacher’s easy questions, but the best students are embarrassed to prove their knowledge of trivial points. Acquaintances show their good intentions by politely ignoring one’s flaws, while close friends show intimacy by teasingly highlighting them. People of moderate ability seek formal credentials to impress employers and society, but the talented often downplay their credentials even if they have bothered to obtain them. A person of average reputation defensively refutes accusations against his character, while a highly respected person finds it demeaning to dignify accusations with a response.
To clarify the countersignaling concept still further, it will help to illustrate its application. A political scientist footnotes: “I do not claim to have mastered these highly technical papers. Their results, however, cannot be more robust than their premises, and it is the latter which I criticized in the text.” (Jon Elster, The cement of society: A study in social order (1989).)

Elster’s comment is slightly surprising because one common intellectual signal in academia is mastery of an arcane formalism. To signal intellect this way, an author should demonstrate understanding, not gratuitously admit partial incomprehension attributable to the author’s insufficient learning. Elster does much to demonstrate mastery of a huge amount of analysis, and because of that and the typical reader’s knowledge of his research record, not only can afford to honestly admit his lack of comprehension but actually comes off “looking better” for his frank admission. (You might think an alternative explanation is that Elster is intellectually honest; this I don’t doubt, but signaling theory may reduce intellectual honesty to self-promotion by countersignaling—or forming advantageous countersignalling habits.)

The signaling/countersignaling framework illuminates the opposition (and false dilemma) between legalese and plain-talk writing: legalese is a form of signaling, and plain-talk writing of countersignaling.

I’ve previously contended that using legalese signals power, and a recent social-psychology study implicates the use of abstraction. (C.J. Wakslak, P.K. Smith, and A. Han, Using abstract language signals power, JPSP, 107(1) (July 2014) [“Abstract language use appears to affect perceived power because it seems to reflect both a willingness to judge and a general style of abstract thinking.”] (HT: Overcoming Bias.) Hyper-abstract (truly, pseudo-abstract) language is a defining characteristic of legalese.

When an attorney’s power is incontestable, whether due to the quality of work product or extent of connections and affiliations, it not only becomes unnecessary to incur the costs of an opaque writing style, but by writing plainly, some attorneys can signal that they are above needing to, because avoiding the obtrusive signal of power can, with additional information, come to signal greater power.

Although the costs of countersignaling are less than those of signaling, they’re still onerous. To maintain the clearest discriminability from the middle-status legalese writers, plain writers will avoid useful abstraction (and its paraphernalia, such as varied sentence length). The same signaling logic applies to other versions of pseudo-abstract writing, such as bureaucratese and academese, in other realms where signaling of power is important and a higher-status plain-talk-writing trend supervenes.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The polar forms of writing—formal and informal—and the poor prospects for intermediates

Formal prose, I’ve emphasized, is a writing style, a distinct type of writing, differing from the informal in its ideals and aspirations: precise argument or spontaneous conversation. Is compromise possible between these writing types? There are exceptions, but mostly, the answer is no.

I’ve previously approached this stylistic distinction through a construal-level-theory analysis; linguist John McWhorter implies similar conclusions by his insights into the most informal written forms, such as text messaging, through which he highlights the distinctive character of conversation and from which derive many of the customs of social media. With educated talkers using sentences of only 7 to 10 words, the “grand old defining properties” of spoken language (due to talking being “largely subconscious and rapid,” writing and reading “deliberate and slow”) are “brevity, improvisation, and in-the-moment quality.” As McWhorter (“Talking with Your Fingers,” (April 2012)) assesses the state of contemporary language, “Two forms of language coexist in societies: choppy speech and crafted prose.”

Some combinations of the two forms succeed. McWhorter mentions one example: the anthropological novelists combined formal prose with dialog imitating speech. Another intermediate form is of key interest to legal-brief writers: the practical style adapts the formal-prose style to expressing belief rather than opinion. These are careful exceptions to the general rule that combining informal and formal styles is just bad writing. (The “formal-prose” style shouldn’t be confused with the “writing formalities,” which should be compromised.)

But the “plain-writing” trend advises writers to craft choppy prose! Trying to satisfy simultaneously the formal ideal of far-mode clarity and the informal ideal of near-mode immediacy and spontaneity is usually misguided, and perhaps it is also misguided to combine them successively—in different pieces. Can you be a master of both styles, while using them at different times for different purposes? Maybe, but probably not. Each style has its own habits, and writers who practice a great deal of conversation (whether by talking or texting) often seem to do so to their writing detriment; and the reverse, formal writers may deteriorate as conversationalists.

Improving at one task (such as conversation) conflicts with improving at another (such as formal writing) when they call for similar but different responses to the same or similar situations. An example of tasks calling for different responses to the same situation is typing using Dvorak and QWERTY layouts: if the task is typing a comma, you must type what would be a ‘w’ on a QWERTY keyboard, and you will lose proficiency in making one  response by learning the other. An example calling for different responses to similar situations is executing a forehand drive in tennis and table tennis: practicing one harms the other. Learning a task negatively transfers to the other when the latter requires inhibiting the response first learned; the extra effort to inhibit the behavior previously practiced makes it harder. If you practice Dvorak, you’ll have to inhibit the habit of typing ‘w’ when you type a comma; if you practice tennis, you'll have to inhibit your tendency to minimize wrist action when playing table tennis.

McWhorter explains, “Spoken language is fundamental, while written language is an artifice.” The habits, even instincts, ingrained in talk are the primary targets of inhibition in crafting formal prose; practicing talk, whether by actually talking, texting, or writing in the plain-talk style, harms your formal writing. But, just as some few may productively use different typing layouts, individuals probably vary in the harm to their formal writing due to negative transfer from conversation or informal writing.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The new topic/stress principle: Topic is concrete, stress abstract

Recall the sequence (concrete to abstract, near to far):

conversation – informal prose – formal prose – poetry

Formal prose is a style of writing that evolved—primarily to serve abstract matters, where clarity is the central virtue—to exploit the specific virtues of written discourse. It is far-mode clarity that is most prized in this style; near-mode is essential but subordinate. To subordinate near to far, formal prose uses a characteristic device at various structural levels: new matter is introduced in far mode and developed in near mode.

At the sentence level, this is accomplished by an application of topic/stress segmentation: the stress—which introduces important new information—is abstract; the topic—which recapitulates old information—is concrete.

Definitions and principles

In formal prose (which includes the most effective legal-brief writing), the topic (usually the sentence subject) announces what the sentence is about, often through association with previous information. The stress position (I’ll continue using the term despite the technical misnomer) refers to the last word or words before a period, colon, semicolon, and sometimes a dash; it contains important new information. (We know this about topic and stress mainly due to the work of Joseph Williams and George Gopen.)

Construal-level theory links concreteness to psychological proximity and abstractness to psychological distance. In sentence processing, the topic’s position is near and the stress’s position is far, and formal prose not only honors the topic and stress positions, their contents are typically concrete and abstract respectively, to correspond with their near and far locations in the sentence. New information is first presented abstractly in the stress position and then developed concretely by being recapitulated in a more specific form in the topics of subsequent sentences.

A counter-example?

The reader expects the topic to be concrete and the stress abstract, and each receives greatest emphasis when they satisfy the expectation. This observation answers a counterexample offered by Wayne Schiess, purporting to show that the topic is more important than the stress:
To me, number one emphasizes President Bush more. 
(1) President Bush made mistakes.
(2) Mistakes were made by President Bush.
Addressing Wayne’s argument fills a lacuna in topic/stress theory: what determines the stress-position’s size? Although “President Bush” constitutes a terminal phrase in number two, that phrase—referencing a near-mode concrete particular rather than a far-mode disposition—isn’t well suited to receive stress. The reader expands the stress position to encompass a suitable abstraction, which it finds in the sentence’s predicate, “were made,” which the sentence emphasizes.

(Generalizations like this new topic/stress principle are often best used to sharpen intuition rather than to replace it. I don’t think it would have occurred to me that number two emphasizes the predicate without its aid, but once I’ve applied the principle, the intuition perseveres.)

Rewriting the “writing rules”

The new topic/stress principle grounds, consolidates, and corrects several established “writing rules.”

Avoid nominalization is one-sided over-reaction; nominalization creates far-mode abstractions, commonly suitable in the stress but not, such as to supplement an excessively abstract verb, in the topic’s vicinity.

Favor agents as subjects is a simplistic rendition of formal-prose’s preference for concrete topics.

Concrete examples should precede new abstractions describes a practice in the (informal, near-mode) plain style, unsuited for formal prose.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

“Stress position” is a misnomer: Explaining structural emphasis

The practice of locating important new information at the end of a proposition (the “stress position”) is undervalued and misunderstood by most writing authorities, and in actual legal writing, it is rare. The widespread ignorance of the “fundamental principle of advanced writing” is illustrated by a major legal-writing teacher’sremarkable comment: “This is surely subjective, and some will disagree, but I generally teach my students to use the beginnings of sentences (and of paragraphs and of entire documents) as stress positions.” Locating what belongs in the stress position at the beginning of a sentence (the “topic”) is the most common way the stress position is ignored in professional writing.

Why hasn’t topic/stress practice penetrated professional writing? One reason I’ve suggested is that its exponents haven’t provided a compelling explanation for why stress position is emphatic; the very term “stress position” is a misnomer insofar as it is based on the stress patterns of English phonology. The most obvious point to make against the phonological theory is that English declarative sentences, in fact, don’t end in rising pitch—questions do. More importantly, where in the sentence pitch rises and where it falls depends on phonological vagaries, and for previously mentioned reasons, as well, it’s implausible that one of the two principal structural means for creating emphasis in English (the other being brevity) depends on the language’s peculiarities.

A more promising explanation is provided by Thomas and Turner, who explain stress position as deriving from an intellectual schema modeling discourse on a journey where paramount, corresponding to the stress, is destination; and a second prominent point, corresponding to the topic, is the origin. (Clear and simple as the truth (2nd ed. 2011), at p. 64.) In the Thomas and Turner view, respect for the stress position is an aspect of formal prose. But as an explanation for the role of the stress position in formal writing, it’s insufficient: it doesn’t explain why formal writing pervasively uses a particular intellectual schema, that of a journey.

Thomas and Turner have it right that the explanation for the stress position should be found, not in the idiosyncrasies of specific languages, but in the logic of formal prose. Stress position is part of the formal-writing strategy, and it transcends specific languages. (Mystifyingly, Thomas and Turner describe the “stress position” as a phenomenon specific to English.) “Stress position” isn’t an outgrowth of phonological patterns in ordinary conversation, which predominantly relies for emphasis on body language and spontaneous modulation of pitch and rhythm.

Formal prose is a specific style, one accentuating far-mode; it is a style serving to evoke receptivity to abstraction, since formal prose serves discourse about abstractions. “Far-mode” is a construct in construal-level theory, which correlates perceived physical and logical distance with abstract conceptualization. Construal-level theory entails that readers construe the beginning of a sentence concretely and its end abstractly, since, at the point where they activate a schema for understanding the sentence, its beginning (the topic) is near and the end (the stress) is far. By locating it at the end, the writer fosters an abstract construal of important new information. As a byproduct of this technique for fostering abstraction, the formal writer also gains a structural signal for importance. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

“Formal” and “informal” writing differ in word order

Not incessantly but at least occasionally, unobtrusively yet obviously—formal writing hovers on the edge of awkwardness. This is unremarked by the authorities, as is the explanation: formal writing’s proclivity to violate standard word order.

Standard word order in English

Contemporary English language is intermediate among languages in the rigidity of its word order, neither strictly obligatory like Latin nor absent like Chinese. (Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (1984).) Perhaps this averageness conceals the pragmatic importance of word order in English, but a hallmark of formal writing (“classic prose”) is that it sacrifices “Naturalness” for “Succinctness,” which is to say, cognitive fluency for cohesiveness and proportioned emphasis.

The standard English word order is:

Subject – Verb – Object – Adverbial modifiers

This standard word order is obeyed more consistently in informal writing because writing that takes conversation as its model is inspired by the ideal of spontaneity, an impression contrived word order subverts.

Here’s an example of a sentence written for proportioned emphasis and rewritten for conversationality.

California may be unique in unconstitutionally allowing its attorney guild to enforce its self-adjudicated costs as a judgment, but the universal state-bar practice of charging costs to respondents (regardless of how the state bars can collect them) derives from changes in the criminal law that, despite their legality, damage the system’s integrity: policies of victim restitution and social restitution.

California may be unique in unconstitutionally allowing its attorney guild to enforce its self-adjudicated costs as a judgment, but the universal state-bar practice of charging costs to respondents (regardless of how the state bars can collect them) derives from changes in the criminal law that damage the system’s integrity despite their legality: policies of victim restitution and social restitution.

In the formal or “classic prose” version, the adverbial modifier “despite their legality” is placed after the subject and before the verb of the subordinate that clause. In the conversational rendition, the modifier occurs in the stress position preceding the colon, the standard English word order. The classic-prose version is clearer because “damage the system’s integrity,” which occupies the stress position, adds the most important new information. But because breaching standard English word order is disfluent, the classic-prose version is slightly awkward.  

Recouping fluency with the comma

Formal writing is awkward in the manner of poetry. One reason (not the only reason) poetry is harder to read than prose is that it takes liberties with the standard English word order. In its sacrifice of fluency for emphasis, formal writing is intermediate between oral conversation and poetry:

Oral conversation – Informal writing – Formal writing – Poetry

Offsetting its often novel word order, poetry has means of recouping some measure of cognitive fluency: verse and rhyme. Classic prose’s palliative is the lowly comma. In the classic-prose version, the displaced modifying phrase is set off by commas despite its restrictive character. Glimpses of this important use of the comma can be seen in rules concerning “interruptive phrases,” but in the conversational example, the despite phrase isn’t interruptive. It’s just out of order. Another partial application of the principle that violations of standard word order call for commas is the rule to set off a periodic sentence’s introductory modifiers.

Remaining issues

Allowing the nature of contemporary English, occupying a middle ground between structured and unstructured language, it remains odd that the standard authorities have failed to notice this distinguishing difference between formal and informal writing, but some responsibility may fall to certain gaps in Joseph M. Williams and George D. Gapon’s topic/stress theory of sentence organization:  1) the stress position is said to be unique to English; and 2) it originated in conversation.

These two facts raise theoretical problems. If stress position is critically important for emphasis in English, do other languages each have their own idiosyncratic means of emphasis? This seems dubious: if language were inherently inclined to developing syntactic cues to emphasis, it’s unlikely that only English would have seized on stress position and topic/stress structure, whose congruence with general primacy/recency effects is unlikely to be coincidental. The other fact, the origin of stress position in oral communication, is in tension with the observation that formal writing accentuates use of the stress position: why was the limited usefulness of stress position in oral communication, which is aided immeasurably by nonverbal communication, sufficient to secure that position’s role?

I leave these issues for future treatment.