Thursday, September 25, 2008

More words = greater clarity?

In a paper entitled Concrete spatial language: See what I mean?, Wallentin et al make the following claim:

In general, meaning is most specific when the context is clearly specified. Therefore, the lexical units of language, ie, the words, will have more specific meaning the more context we add.

If I read them right, the authors seem to be saying that words have more specific meaning as more words are added, which you might formulate as specificity is a function of word count or add words to increase clarity, but experience teaches me that this isn't necessarily true.

Epexegesis can be bad for writing, and what Wallentin et al argue can be misunderstood easily—and not because they used too few words to express their idea. The general point they’re making—ie, context is a key component of specific meaning—is perfectly valid, as is illustrated by the following:

  1. That person barely escaped the house fire.
  2. That person—your daughter Sarah—barely escaped the house fire.

From (1) to (2), we’ve added context, which certainly clarifies the meaning of person. But adding words in an attempt to improve clarity can cause much trouble.

In (2), for example, we added your daughter Sarah in order to clarify that person; in doing so, we’ve made the words that person entirely tautologous and thus obsolete. In fact, they should be deleted. It's not a big deal for a single sentence, but imagine this on the scale of a 9-thousand word business proposal or manuscript.

Lexical addition, which is what Wallentin et al are advocating, is probably less helpful for breeding specificity than careful word choice in the first place. And by careful word choice I mean strategic word choice or efficient word choice.

Consider the following passage from the opening pages of Yellow Dog, by Martin Amis:

The couple stood embracing in a high-ceilinged hallway. Now the husband with a movement of the arm caused his keys to sound in their pocket. His half-conscious intention was to signal an impatience to be out. Xan would not publicaly agree, but women naturally like to prolong routine departures. It is the obverse of their fondness for keeping people waiting.

In terms of word choice, there’s a lot here in this small excerpt, but what interests me is Amis’ word choice in obverse. Of all the words a writer might have used here, all the words he could add in an attempt to flesh out what he means, this single word alone strikes me as the perfect choice.

Obverse—it means facing (which also describes Xan and Russia who are embracing); it describes objects turned toward their observer (in this case, both Xan and you and me, ie, the readers); to be obverse is to complement or serve as counterpart; it is the more conspicuous of two alternatives (and in this last sense, I detect a bit of literary irony).

Amis is writing fiction, I know, but his writing illustrates the question that all writers of texts should be asking:

What specific word choice will make my text more clear?

Maximum impact with fewest words. Whether you’re writing a grant request or a business proposal, a white paper or a marketing slogan, efficiency is key.

And honestly, you really can say more with less. What Saint-Exupéry (in
Terre des homme) said of design is also true of texts:

It would seem that perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but rather when there is nothing more to subtract.

[Il semble que la perfection soit attente non quand il n’y a plus rein à ajouter, mais quand il n’y a plus rien à retrancher.]

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