Saturday, July 25, 2015

Euphony and the problem of authenticity

Of the Writing Virtues (Clarity, Concision, and Euphony), Euphony is the odd-man out. You might even wonder why it belongs in this august group: is it not just a means rather than an end? At first, only a vague intuition tells us that Euphony is worthy of independent note, as Euphony will be misconstrued and underrated if its attribution is based on word sounds. The reality is very different. What sounds good to us expresses our personal vision of stylistic excellence, which is to say, we perceive the quality of style— including our own style—aurally. This isn’t to say that writers should write strictly according to what sounds good. This would be a mistake: it would even preclude applying the writing principles advocated—indeed, applying the principle that sound serves as a guide to style. The point is rather that writers inevitably use Euphony as a guide to style, and understanding that phenomenon might help correct biases which accord insufficient or excessive weight to it.

Euphony’s use as a guide to style is subject to two important limitations. First, there will be tension between considered judgment and Euphony, since the Euphonic sense is educable—and is educated—by that tension. Second, the writer must avoid the common confusions between Euphony and Fluency. The first caveat should be plainly clear, as ignoring it would obviate any purpose for, say, this blog. The second limitation is more interesting, since the over-valuation of fluency also distorts the common understanding of Clarity. Each of these confusions exaggerate the weight of fluency—at the expense of cohesion and omission, in the case of Clarity, or in the case of Euphony, at the expense of what might be termed apt novelty.

Two arguments confirm introspection for the commanding importance of Euphony in stylistic discretion: the more effective style sounds better, but only to a writer with a developed sense of Euphony. One argument is that style requires balancing various Virtues and skills, yet we are able to make these choices for the most part pre-attentively. This rapid comparison would be facilitated by a common measure, and this corresponds to the introspection that what sounds best usually is. The other argument is that the central role of Euphony can help explain a mystery that previously vexed us: writer’s voice. What style “sounds good" (paralleling which words sound good) will be somewhat idiosyncratic. We might say that authenticity with regard to style is writing that sounds good to the particular writer. This isn’t a preference for sound as such but for the sound of a style. An example is style's most conspicuous feature, sentence length. To some of us, Hemingway sounds choppy.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Word selection: A new principle of emphasis in near-mode

”Never use a long word where a short one will do,” is often repeated and seemingly unobjectionable advice, whose failures reveal additional principles of emphasis. Previous entries have treated far-mode emphasis, but there is also a near-mode form: emphasis by word length.

Near-mode and far-mode is shorthand for concrete and abstract construal processes in Trope and Liberman’s construal-level theory. To extend construal-level theory to phenomena beyond those studied in the laboratory, the following distinction is particularly useful: whereas near-mode adds components, far-mode averages them. (Weaver, K., Garcia, S. M., & Schwarz, N., The Presenter’s Paradox (2012). Far-mode’s proportionality seeking is the foundation of the brevity principle of emphasis. A short word will emphasize each of its component phonemes more than will a long word. This pertains to Euphony, but words are the most elementary meaningful units. Because of the additive character of near-mode, readers expect longer words to contain more information. This inference is supported by language evolution, which some researchers conclude enforces standards of communicative efficiency under which long words are less predictable than short—by that measure, conveying more information.

Readers will expect more information from longer words. Short words typically have the merit of fluency, but a judicious dispensation of long words will prepare readers for informative words, which they might dwell on a few milliseconds longer.

An example of a word choice based on its length in this entry occurred in writing this sentence: “Far-mode’s proportionality seeking is the foundation of the brevity principle of emphasis.” I considered this wording: “the brevity principle governing far-mode emphasis, but a common preposition's sufficiency shows that it doesn’t convey rich information.

A related half-truth: “Short words are powerful.” The kernel of truth in this falsehood is found in a countersignaling process: when it is very obvious that a word is important, its importance is further enhanced by omitting the signal (long word), its superfluousness itself serving as a signal of heightened importance.

Near-mode emphasis also answers another question of editorial choice: when to use phrasal verbs rather than simple verbs. Simple verbs are favored for Concision and fluency, whereas phrasal verbs lend an air of informality. But the phrasal verb occasionally serves a legitimate purpose of emphasizing the predicate. Consider this sentence: The visitor entered the office and defenestrated the occupant’s cat. The longer “threw the cat out of the window” is an example of the minority of cases where the longer verb is more fluent because it mirrors the term’s informativeness.

Tight writing is generally better than loose writing. Why? The most obvious reason is Concision, but the weightier factor is fluency—an aspect of Clarity. This analysis of near-mode emphasis explains the greater fluency of tight writing, which is due to omission of misleading cues about the informativeness of particular words. This theory of near-mode emphasis clarifies the distinction between emphases in the two modes. Near-mode emphasis concerns the amount of information; far-mode emphasis, degree of relevance.