Wednesday, June 28, 2017

A Model of Persuasion

Despite our casual compartmentalization of many diametrically opposed beliefs, humans are also sensitive to cognitive dissonance that is merely mild. The theoretical resolution of this perplexity is that abstract beliefs conflict only insofar as they support opposed concrete opinions. This opens the question of the psychological nature of this support. We can simplify explanation of persuasion if we conceive of the influence of the abstracting mindset on the concretizing mindset within an individual as being the same type of influence as that of an outside persuader on another’s (abstract) beliefs. All direct influence of belief (whether the belief belongs to oneself or another) is suggestion, which in its purest form is hypnosis. The mechanism by which belief influences opinion (primarily as it relates to volition) is autosuggestion. The process by which concrete opinion directly influences other concrete opinions is the ordinary sphere of learning from experience. All this is shown in the diagram below:  

Notice that the diagram shows two routes to belief change: blue, from opinion to belief and using dissonance modulation (as well as ordinary learning); and green, from belief to opinion and using suggestion. Only the green route affords the possibility of rational belief change, and that is only a possibility. This is because logic is approximated only in the concretizing mindset.

The nature of ordinary learning isn’t itself my concern here, just the peculiar relationship between the concretizing and abstracting mindsets. Governing this relationship are two basic processes: suggestion and dissonance modulation. The main practical relevance for writers is that what works for changing belief through suggestion fails for change by dissonance modulation. For example, suggestion demands the greatest simplicity because suggestion involves bypassing the critical faculty (that is, the brain’s cingulate), and the easier a proposition is to understand, the more it is accepted automatically, since acquiring disbelief necessitates express rejection. On the other hand, effective dissonance modulation requires univocality, since without it the recipient of the influence is likely to achieve consonance through a different route than the persuader intends. The difference is that the subject of suggestion submits to influence, whereas the recipient of a communication using dissonance modulation will only accept the writer’s ideas if they are actually dissonance reducing. Imprecision arouses rather than resolves dissonance. As for suggestion, in hypnosis vague suggestions work better than precise ones. (Thus, telling subjects that that they are “going to sleep” can induce hypnosis even though hypnosis isn’t actually much like sleep.)

Conflation of suggestion and dissonance modulation runs deep. It isn’t just a matter of a superficial trend in writing pedagogy; it also afflicts those whose business it is to know better, such as social psychologists and (remarkably) specialists in hypnosis. The bias of social psychologists reflects the orientation to advertising. Although the theories of cognitive dissonance and construal level come from social psychology, the classic social psychological research on persuasion, which provides the framework for general discussions of the persuasion process, implicitly equates persuasion with suggestion. (An equation that is actually worth retaining if its limits are understood, inasmuch as the act of persuading others can be contrasted with the act of convincing them, the blue route contrasting with the green.)

The confusion is greatest within the dominant school of professional hypnotists. The font of clinical hypnosis (outside of hypnoanalysis), Eric Ericson, attributes results he achieves through the artful modulation of cognitive dissonance to some form of hypnotic suggestion. Now, here’s confusion enough to be funny. Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams, who is a trained hypnotist (apparently of the Ericsonian persuasion), concluded that Donald J. Trump’s methods and results make him a “master persuader.” Perhaps subliminally recognizing that cognitive dissonance is the key to deep rather than superficial attitude change (which is to say, change of opinion rather than belief), Adams took Trump’s ability to use suggestion on supporters, predisposed to accept his influence, to prove Trump had mastered cognitive dissonance. Adams predicted that Trump would win in a landslide because he could hypnotize most anyone.

Lexicographers and usage experts expatiate on the distinction between the verbs persuade and convince. The distinct meanings may be on the verge of loss, but it marks an important psychological difference. According to the lexicographers, persuasion is aimed at obtaining action, as in persuading a judge to sustain a motion. Persuasion means change in belief, without any change in opinion being necessary. But you will rarely change a judge’s belief without changing his opinion. (The effect of suggestion is actually obtained primarily from respective law firms’ prestige.) So, despite the aim being to persuade judges, advocates typically must convince them—of something. For the same reason, when academics try to persuade editors to publish a paper, in the usual they must convince them, at least in the best journals. Even more than when a lawyer influences a judge, the academic must use dissonance modulation, since the practice of blind review screens out many indicia of status that are so influential in the use of suggestion.

This is a general model of the persuasion process (more precisely, of the processes of persuading and convincing) that highlights the relationship between construal-level theory's abstracting and concretizing mindsets. The two epistemic attitudes, belief and opinion, are subject to their respective modes of influence, suggestion from belief to opinion and cognitive-dissonance modulation, from opinion to belief. In the diagram the blue arrows represent the path of cognitive dissonance modulation and the green arrows of suggestion. Hypnosis is a short-cut to belief formation in that it bypasses opinion. Post-hypnotic suggestions are incorporated into the subject’s belief system, whereas the justification is extemporized when an explanation is requested. It may be easier to see the abstracting character of hypnosis in terms of the corresponding time orientation. Although hypnosis may be self-induced, the process for intentionally inducing hypnosis is first learned in the process of being hypnotized by another person and being given the post-hypnotic suggestion that the subject will be able to reproduce the state. Thus the nature of the influence is interpersonally “far.” Dissonance modulation is near because it is perceived as an internal process. It is concrete because it can be resolved into discrete discrepancies. (Dissonance supplies a metric for overall coherence based on discrete discrepancies, a topic to be visited in my Juridical Coherence blog.)

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Role of Suggestion in Persuasive Writing: “What is Classic Prose?” Revisited

Thomas and Turner (Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose) describe classic prose as nonargumentative, a characteristic both paradoxical and central. Paradoxical because another characteristic of classic prose is advocacy of a thesis, which is usually explicit. (Thomas and Turner conflate introductory exercises involving presentation with full-blooded classic prose, which is fundamentally a tool of argument.) Yet the “nonargumentative” quality of classic prose, the absence of opinionation, pleading and pressure, is unmistakeable. I contend most central in classic prose is its indifference to suggestion: refusing either to wield it as a weapon or compulsively avoid it.

Suggestion is one of the two methods by which writers can influence readers’ far-mode beliefs, the other being cognitive-dissonance modulation. Most of the popular advice about persuasion involves suggestion, my main evidence concerning communication conducive to suggestion coming from the study of hypnosis and of interaction ritual chains, both enhanced by authority, simplicity, brevity, ease, repetition, and emotional involvement. The maxims of plain-talk writing amount to a guide to the forms for persuading by suggestion.

The mentioned prototypes for suggestion also demonstrate the limitation of suggestion as a tool for persuasion. Both hypnosis and interaction ritual chains require prior commitment. Hypnosis doesn’t work against a subject’s will, and confidence in the hypnotist is one of the most important determinants of trance induction. As for interaction rituals, we see today how political rallies excite only the party’s adherents.

The reason for the limitations of communication based on suggestion is the phenomenon of reactance. Attempts at suggestion against a person’s will arouses an opposing resistance often stronger than the suggestive effect, so that the target of the communication moves, by “reverse psychology,” in the opposite direction. Today’s political polarization is associated with reliance on suggestion in campaigns: how many “We’re with her” buttons can nonsupporters see before they start hating her?

Because of reactance, writers attempting to persuade the unreceptive must forswear suggestion. That includes not only avoiding the fallacies of suggestion, such as appeals to authority, assurances of sincerity and credibility (“believe me!”), and vagueness and ambiguity, but also the formal characteristics of suggestion when embodied in prose, the plain-talk techniques developed by advertising specialists: short sentences, common words, repetition (“tell them what you are going to say, say it, and say what you’ve said”)—all of which characterize hypnotic induction. By forswearing suggestion, classic prose attempts to be maximally persuasive while avoiding reactance.

There is another stylistic approach to avoiding reactance actually more extreme than forswearing intentional suggestion: striving to eliminate as much suggestion as possible. The norms and practices of “academese” express this drive to avoid suggestive content, being a systematic display of just those forms that would be avoided in hypnotic induction: long sentences, obscure words, and passive voice. (Contrast with classic prose, where sentence length varies to serve as a tool for emphasis, words are chosen for precision, and active voice enjoys a rebuttable presumption.) “Legalese” emerges as a conflicted style. The need to prevent reactance by avoiding suggestion is expressed in the same way as in academese. But the respectability of using suggestion is greater in law than in science, with the consequence that hypnotic-like incantations obtrude, such as doublets and triplets, and other routinized phrases.

To be sure, no communication can banish all suggestion, but, unlike academese, classic prose doesn’t actually try. In fact, a cynic might contend that classic prose makes suggestion acceptable by hiding it under other stylistic effects. Classic prose disdains emotional forcefulness, for example, but classic writing is in fact forceful by virtue of its employment of emphasis through variation.

If classic prose is indifferent to suggestion, that doesn’t mean it is necessarily rational. Cognitive-dissonance modulation, the other method for persuasion, is entirely compatible with irrationality, but suggestion is incompatible with rationality. It is a form of irrational influence, whereas dissonance modulation may be rational, depending on the particularities of the discrepancies

Suggestion is irrational because its mechanism is the induced refusal to make a critical evaluation of the communication. The uncriticized belief is accepted as true because of the unity of comprehension and belief.

Applying the maxim that to avoid reactance use dissonance modulation rather than suggestion has an extra wrinkle for legal writing: attorneys are charged with presenting their clients’ sides. Within these bounds, some tactics arousing excess reactance are ill advised, such as obvious opinionation, exhortation, and over-simplification. And while attorneys should say clearly what they want the court to do, the phrasing “the court must…” should probably be avoided.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Breaking the knowledge barrier: Steven Pinker versus Albert Einstein on the “curse of knowledge”

The “curse of knowledge” concept and its limitations
When a professor, accomplished in his discipline, proves unable to explain it, someone is bound to declare that the scholar has forgot what it’s like to be ignorant—that he forgot because of his great learning. But I doubt many who make this excuse are truly convinced that it’s true: who regards mediocrity in their field, even at elementary levels of instruction, a recommendation for a teacher. Even introductory students prefer the full professor to the graduate teaching assistant. Just idolatry of status? Probably not, as we don’t seem to find even a minority faction favoring the mediocre as their instructors. The canard’s initial plausibility is due to the evidence, both scientific and casual, that known information can be impossible to ignore. An example, familiar to lawyers, is the futility of instructing jurors to ignore evidence. When we, like the jurors, are called upon to imagine or recall its lack, the additional knowledge can harm our performance.

Steven Pinker notices that writers face exactly this difficulty. (The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (2014)) This is the “curse of knowledge,” and writers with the greatest knowledge are especially cursed. Pinker isn’t the first to decry failure to write from the readers’ point of view or even to conclude it’s the major impediment to good writing. The “writing from the reader’s perspective” approach was pioneered by George D. Gopen. Pinker’s “curse” takes the insight a half step too far by neglecting the ways greater subject-matter knowledge is the remedy for the writer’s natural egocentrism. The remedial effect of subject-matter knowledge explains why students prefer eminent professors and why the greatest scientists are often the most effective expositors of basic subject matter.

Albert Einstein’s classic-prose style
For insight into the literary power bestowed by deep knowledge, consider Einstein’s writing style, described by C. P. Snow:
All of [the three early papers] are written in a style unlike any other theoretical physicist’s. They contain very little mathematics. There is a good deal of verbal commentary. The conclusions, the bizarre conclusions, emerge as though with the greatest of ease: the reasoning is unbreakable. It looks as though he had reached the conclusions by pure thought unaided, without listening to the opinions of others. To a surprisingly large extent, that is precisely what he had done.
Einstein didn’t betray the standard he expressed when he wrote that if you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it. This is the precept Pinker fails to confront.

A certain kind of expert lends false credence to the curse-of-knowledge. Typically this sort of expert has a prodigious memory without corresponding development of reasoning powers. A prodigious memory is possibly an impediment to developing reasoning powers (presidential candidate Ted Cruz provides an example); Einstein complained of finding it difficult to memorize facts and names.

Puzzle and resolution
We’re presented a puzzle: how to reconcile superiority of experts as teachers of basic subject matter with the demonstrated inferiority of the knowledgeable in predicting the knowledge store of the unknowledgeable?

Favorably countervailing effects must be stronger than the detriment to explain why the professor is a better teacher than the most talented graduate student – despite the graduate student’s better recollection of his undergraduate struggles. Countervailing effects explain why Einstein and Russell are better explainers of relativity theory than the college professors. Expertise has two opposed effects. 1) Experts become less able to predict what the novice will learn. 2) Experts, once informed of what the novice believes, are better at identifying what the novice lacks. A simple example: a lesson taught to a young child by an older child and by a grammarian in use of “I” rather than “me” in a compound subject. An older student will be less surprised by the error than will a grammarian, but the grammarian will understand what the younger child lacks, which is an understanding that the compounding of the subject doesn’t change case. Although the young child won’t understand the reasoning, tacit help may be fashioned through examples.

The knowledgeable teacher is bad at predicting what the student knows, but knows what’s lacking in the student’s knowledge. The understanding the knowledgeable teacher leverages, the expert who writes in his field must impart. The expert must compensate for weak concrete grasp of readers’ information by strong abstract grasp of what is absent in the readers’ understanding. Formally, this is expressed in subordination of near-mode to far-mode, the distinctive feature of classic prose. Pinker’s version of the “curse of knowledge” deprioritizes further research and thought in writing a clearer legal brief. More research and more thought is often the route to a clearer legal brief. Deeper understanding is often the only remedy for unclarity.

Pinker in tension with the classic-prose style
Contrast with the solution Pinker favors based on the curse of knowledge: feedback from representative readers. Feedback is valuable for testing the soundness of argument, but for this, the writer requires other experts, not typical readers, and in legal brief writing, the writer rarely has the opportunity for feedback from the target audience—a judge.

The classic-prose style truly isn’t congenial to fiddling based on stylistic feedback. This style isn’t ideally directed to a particular audience. It contains its own devices to achieve universality. 

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.

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.

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.