Tag Archives: clarity

About the serial comma

People have opinions about the serial comma (also called the Oxford comma). Sometimes very strong opinions. So I sat down with my lunch, some Cheerios, and a Martini to tell you the truth.

Laxity and language

It is a common assumption that lax language is an indicator of lax thought – that a careful thinker will use careful language. Typically riding along with this assumption is another: that “careful language” means formal language adhering to a particular set of prescriptive norms.

The first assumption may seem reasonable enough, prima facie, though, as we will see, there are important limitations and reservations to it. The second assumption is a non-sequitur, the sort of idea that would have a person wear a tuxedo to a construction job. But its effects are pervasive. In fact, it’s been shown that people will rate more highly a weak argument expressed in formal language than a good argument expressed in casual language.

Part of the problem is a general conflation of formality with care. One can use formal words without being careful about them, and one can quite deliberately and carefully use slang and other casual language for effect. Some of the most effective messages in politics and advertising have been crafted in informal language. Indeed, great philosophical insights and thoughtful analyses can be expressed in language that seems sloppy. “You oughta do the same things to other folks as you’d like them to do to you.” (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.) “Look, the only thing I know is: I know. Ain’t nothin’ sure beyond that.” (Cogito ergo sum.) “If you got one thing in a place, you can’t have another thing in exactly the same place just then.” (Two bodies cannot occupy the same space.) True, the flavour is different, and the language may be less concise (though in some cases the plain version of an analysis is actually more concise – see below). But the understanding conveyed is the same. And beyond that, there are many professional engineers and similar people who are very vigorous and careful thinkers, but whose English is riddled with errors and nonstandard usages. Their drawings and equations are, of course, perfectly reliable.

Among world languages and cultures, sophistication of morphosyntax, whatever that may be (is it greater complexity or greater elegance? it’s almost undefinable), does not seem to correlate with sophistication of thought. And, more importantly, adherence to prescriptive norms can actually evince lack of thought – dogmatism without regard for effect – while masquerading as intelligence. A mind that can only manage one mode of communication regardless of context is not careful, it’s inflexible. And, in spite of what many people would have you believe, inflexibility is a mark of an inferior mind, not a superior one.

In short, it is reasonable to expect that careful thinkers will also more likely be careful users of words. But care in use of words is often misunderstood. Colloquialism can be very inventive – in fact, the inventive spirit is the source of much slang – and “proper” language can be very thick-headed.

To look at the limiting effect of the formality prejudice, consider academic writing and similar registers such as medical jargon. They present themselves as being more precise, and in academic writing the expectation is that this apparently rigorous language is giving a rigorous analysis and adding new perspective. But much of the time they don’t say anything truly new or present a truly fresh perspective. Consider the difference between medical jargon and regular speak: “Sildenafil is contraindicated in hypertension.” “Don’t take Viagra if you have high blood pressure.” Both mean the same thing; the first simply adds the medical in-group sense (“I know this subject, so listen to me”) and uses standardized terminology – and is less likely to be understood by the people who actually use the drug. Much academic writing does the same: the words are not the keys to new understanding; they are just the keys to the door of the private club, the secret passwords to the clubhouse.

This is a topic of which I have some knowledge. I read a lot of academic jargon while getting my PhD, and wrote some of it too (though I always tried to be readable). Defamiliarization, properly done, requires new metaphors, new perspectives, new angles, and not simply more obscurantist ways of saying the same old thing. The only insight given by “Senescent canines are unreceptive to education in novel behaviour modes” that is not given by “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is that it’s possible to say something in ten-dollar words that you could easily say in two-bit words. And, on the other hand, “Adaptability is inversely correlated with age” may seem the most direct and precise statement of the concept, but it’s not as effective in conveying the idea and making it stick. What good is precise information if it’s not retained?

True, new angles of thought and deeper analyses can lead to different use of language, can even demand certain kinds of novel terminology, and one does need to write with precision and key the reader’s mind to receiving the information in a certain mode. I’m not saying don’t write using the academic register! Those expensive words are like expensive wines: people may pay more attention to what they can get from them. But there’s quite a lot out there that is really unremarkable thought packaged in bloated syntax, like a taxi driver who takes you through Jersey and Staten Island to get from Manhattan to JFK Airport – you pay more, it takes longer, but the end result is no different.

I don’t want to say that all academic writing is BS. “Academic BS” does not equal “all academic writing.” And I don’t want to say that people should write in an inappropriate register. As I say so often, language is known by the company it keeps; people will receive your prose on the basis of the expectations created by your choice of words and syntax. But one ought not to hide behind needlessly abstruse syntax and vocabulary; there is still a responsibility to produce actually fresh ideas rather than just putting new lipstick on the old pig.

And, more generally, as many a salesman and preacher knows, putting things in nice, direct language can be very effective and clear. And, as many a body in universities and business management knows, you can often hide the fact that you have little to say by saying it with impressive-sounding words. But that’s often, not always, and you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

So don’t fool yourself. Hiding behind formal language is one of the most pervasive kinds of laxity in English usage – not evidence of careful thought but a means of avoiding it. Remember: if you can’t explain something clearly in plain language, you don’t really understand it.

Let’s be clear about something

As I often mention, I’m an editor. I’m also obviously someone who likes to play with words and who appreciates ambiguity; as I say in my About page, a word isn’t much good if it can only mean one thing at a time. Some people may consider these two facts incompatible: shouldn’t an editor’s job always be to enhance clarity?

Not to put too fine a point on it: Hell to the no! An editor’s job is certainly in many cases to enhance clarity. But by no means always. An editor is there to facilitate the best effect on the reader, which is a function of enhancing the author’s communication with the audience. But sometimes what the author wants to communicate is precisely ambiguity, open-endedness, an invitation for the reader to contribute some as well. To fill in the blanks.

Some authors value this more than others; the editor should pay attention to the author’s bent on this. (I, for instance, in writing fiction, usually prefer to let the readers fill in many visual details of the characters and contexts. If you’ve read some of my story-type word tasting notes, tell me what the following characters look like: Daryl, Jess, Margot, Ross. Why do you think so?) Inasmuch as the writing is at all an artistic expression, it has as part of its utterance “appreciate this aesthetically,” which means “look for the things that resonate with you in it,” which means that each reader will have his or her own individual experience and interpretation of it, similar but not identical to that of any other reader.

Ambiguity is even sometimes valuable in nonfiction. Well, not always so valuable for the reader per se, but quite often valuable for the author (or uttering body – much nonfiction is produced in the name of organizations or corporations), who doesn’t wish to be pinned down on this or that! And as the editor, you do have to keep that in mind. An editor has to be mentally flexible. (See Are you editor material? for more on what an editor should be.)

I mention this just because my attention has been drawn to an instance where an editor – without consulting the author, which is the worst part – made clarifying rewrites to a short story based on the editor’s own interpretations. This is an excellent example of what an editor should not just go ahead and do, and of why many writers grumble about copyeditors. The author is Mima Simić, and the story is “My Girlfriend,” published in Dalkey’s Best European Fiction for 2011. Read about it in The Facts Behind One Story in Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction for 2011.

why use terms the reader might not be familiar with

If your author refers to something as being like, say, the Litany of the Saints in a Catholic mass, should you, out of concern for the possible opacity of the reference for some readers, replace it with a more general reference such as to “a litany in a Christian mass or liturgy”? Continue reading