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.

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