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Posts from the ‘Language’ Category

I can haz apostrophe?

Oh, CNN, no. Just no (from earlier today):

Yes, I’m an English teacher. But I’m neither a pedantic purist nor a snooty arch-prescriptivist, I swear. It’s all about context. If I see a punctuation error (or something similar) in an email, or in someone’s blog post, or on Twitter, etc., I notice it, but I really don’t care. And even if I did care, it wouldn’t be my place to correct the person. In other words, #1) there are bigger fish to fry (the stakes are low), and #2) I’m not a rude and annoying busybody.

In a more formal/public context, though, things like this do matter, because they create a certain impression in the viewer’s/reader’s mind. The viewer/reader then takes that impression and uses it to form a judgment about the entity (person, business, etc.) that committed the error. The stakes are higher in such contexts because, rightly or wrongly, we do make such judgments. In a sense, it’s a form of visual rhetoric.

tl;dr: CNN needs to hire a proofreader.


The importance of clarity (part two)

(A few months ago, I wrote a paper called “The Clarity Imperative”. The .pdf is available here. I’m presenting excerpts from it in a series of posts (the first post can be found here, and I’ll be doing one more after this), both because I think that the issues it discusses (the relationship between clarity and rhetorical effectiveness, the democratization of knowledge, the effective communication of science, etc.)  are important and because I’m interested in starting a conversation about these issues. Please do comment if you’re so inclined. Thanks!

Two quick notes: 1) a few responses to the first post (made on various social networks, not in the comments section of the post itself) expressed annoyance with the academic style of my writing. I understand that some people don’t care for academic writing, and, in some cases, I share their distaste. However, keep in mind that these posts are excerpts from an academic paper and are thus written in a much more formal style than most of my blog posts. As such, if you don’t care for academic writing, you may want to skip these particular posts. 2) In the excerpt presented in this post, I focus primarily on Ian Barnard’s “The Ruse of Clarity“. Unfortunately, the article is behind a paywall. If you’re interested in reading it and don’t have access to academic databases, send me an email and I’ll send you the .pdf)


The extent of the current threat to effective science communication is made explicit in Ian Barnard’s “The Ruse of Clarity”, in which he asserts that clarity is not axiomatic and thus should not be assumed to be virtuous, and that the binary of clear/unclear is reinforced by “ideological baggage” (435). In his opinion, clarity itself is an ideology because “assumptions about clarity’s obviousness, objectivity, and innocuousness in fact conceal the ideological work that is done in the name of clarity” (434). Barnard also claims that clarity “implicitly champions and abjures” (435) certain values, and that those who critique the obscurant nature of much of critical theory are secretly attacking “the politics of critical theory” (435).

One of Barnard’s targets are traditional writing handbooks that promote clear and concise writing. For example, Barnard asserts that Richard Lanham’s Revising Prose “has political motives and implications beyond the literal desire to enjoy ‘clear’ writing” (437). What these alleged political motives and implications are, though, Barnard does not tell us. He then claims that “calls for clarity in student writing intersect with complaints of obfuscation in scholarly writing in the humanities” (437) and that those who have accused theory of being “willfully obscurant” are either “anti-intellectuals”, “readers who found theory difficult and frustrating”, or individuals who “felt threatened by the ideologies of postmodernism and poststructuralism” (437). In addition, referring to students who are confused by theory, he argues that “[t]hey may use their experience of finding a text difficult to read as reason to dismiss or criticize the text, rather than to see this difficulty as exposing their own deficiencies” (443). Tellingly, Barnard provides no evidence whatsoever for these assertions. What Barnard fails to understand is that, when it comes to effective communication, the onus is on the communicator, and that, if a communicator fails to reach their audience, they cannot blame their failure on the attitudes or supposed “deficiencies” of their readers. To assert otherwise is both counterproductive and gallingly elitist.

Next, we come to Barnard’s most egregious error, found in this passage:

It is surely no coincidence that the culminating example of exclusionary and inefficient writing listed in Susan Peck MacDonald’s Professional Academic Writing in the Humanities and Social Sciences is Fredric Jameson (193–95), a familiar target in attacks on difficult writing. Tellingly, MacDonald’s supposedly scientific analysis of Jameson’s prose never addresses the substance of Jameson’s ideas, focusing instead on syntactic length, nominalization, and nonconcrete verbs in Jameson’s work. By bracketing content, MacDonald not only avoids dealing with the implications of Jameson’s argument, but also suggests that style is completely independent of meaning—as if certain ideas aren’t expressed more effectively in specific styles, as if there is one generic and universal style that is always best. (438)

These assumptions are incorrect. Studying style independently of content does not mean that one does not care about or is unwilling to deal with the content of the work under consideration. Analyzing the style of a text in a scientific manner and determining whether or not it is “exclusionary and inefficient”, unclear, or rhetorically ineffective in its presentation, on the contrary, indicates a great respect for the content of, “the implications of”, and the meaning of the text under consideration. In other words, if the text’s content is substantive and meaningful, then it must be written in a clear, precise, and understandable style that gives it the vigorous and thorough treatment that it deserves, that utilizes a manner of presentation that is both efficient and non-exclusionary, and that promotes the dissemination of knowledge.

Barnard’s final claims are that clarity is an ideology and that those who insist on clarity think that clear and precise arguments are automatically rhetorically effective. This, however, is far from true. It also supports Charney’s assertion that “critics of science often conflate methods and ideologies in simplistic ways” (568). In contrast to what Barnard asserts, it is important to bracket style and content in order to determine the most effective way to transmit the content. Additionally, this bracketing is important because it helps readers to understand the difference between an argument that is clear but not substantive or meaningful and an argument that is clear, substantive, and meaningful.

Clarity is a tool that helps to increase an audience’s understanding of the content of an argument, but it is not nor should it be the sole determinant of the quality of an argument. Style and content must be analyzed separately in order to determine the best and most rhetorically effective way to present an argument. Barnard’s claim that clarity is an ideology, then, is baseless, as an insistence on clarity and an understanding of how it can increase the effectiveness of an argument cannot, by any intellectually honest person, be labeled as a doctrine or belief system. As Charney says, most rhetoricians are well aware that “authority does not devolve automatically on anyone who uses an objective, quantitative method” (580). Rather, an understanding of the importance of clarity is simply an indicator of an individual’s appreciation of careful and precise writing that successfully transmits and disseminates knowledge. Barnard refuses to acknowledge that criticism of willfully obscurant writing is just that: a critique of the confusing nature of the text, often including suggestions as to how it could be made clearer so that its contents will be successfully transmitted to an audience.

Barnard’s dismissal of clarity is dangerous. It threatens the effective communication of important information and persuasive arguments, scientific or otherwise. In addition, it exposes the hypocrisy of the claims regarding oppression and egalitarianism professed by Barnard and others. Nothing in Barnard’s essay helps to combat oppression or to promote egalitarianism. Barnard and others who share his ideological stance do not respect their audience enough to offer them a clear, thorough, and precise presentation of the information under consideration, even when this information could potentially empower their audience in a variety of ways. This attitude threatens both the democratization of knowledge and the effective communication of science.


Works Cited:

Barnard, Ian. “The Ruse of Clarity.” College Composition and Communication 61.3 (2010): 434-451. Print.

Charney, Davida. “Empiricism Is Not a Four-Letter Word.” College Composition and Communication 47.4 (1996): 567-593. Print.

The importance of clarity (part one)

(A few months ago, I wrote a paper called “The Clarity Imperative”. The .pdf is available here. I’m going to present excerpts from it (slightly edited and with added hyperlinks, etc.) as a series of blog posts, both because I think that the issues it discusses (the relationship between clarity and rhetorical effectiveness, the democratization of knowledge, the effective communication of science, etc.)  are important and because I’m interested in starting a conversation about these issues. Please do comment if you’re so inclined. Thanks!)

Clear, precise, and rhetorically effective communication of science is a high-stakes endeavor. If attempts at such communication prove unsuccessful, the consequences can range from public confusion about scientific facts, to a widespread dismissal of the importance of science and of evidence-based argument, to the dissemination of false and potentially dangerous information. Science communicators should always work to produce and promote rhetorically effective expository and/or argumentative writing that uses clear, precise, and unambiguous language.

Unfortunately, the effective communication of science is currently under threat, and these threats could have devastating consequences for both the public understanding of science and the general democratization of knowledge. This danger comes from those rhetoricians and writers who vociferously deny both the importance of clear language and the value of science. Such rhetoricians and writers argue that clear language and scientific thinking are dangerous and oppressive. For example, Paul M. Dombrowski, in “Post-Modernism as the Resurgence of Humanism in Technical Communication”, claims that ”the privileging of scientific knowledge in our society is not neutral or innocent because it disprivileges other sorts of ‘knowledge’ such as intuitions, traditions, and personal experience” (172). Dombrowski’s word choice is key:“privileging” implies both that scientific knowledge is oppressive and that it has not earned the trust and respect that it receives. Similarly, Elizabeth A. Flynn, in “Feminism and Scientism”, asserts (referencing the arguments of various feminist scholars) that “beliefs in the objectivity of the scientist and the neutrality of scientific investigation serve the interests of those in positions of authority and power, usually white males, and serve to exclude those in marginalized positions” (358).

However, neither of these assertions are correct. Quite the opposite, in fact: clear and precise communication of the knowledge derived from scientific studies transmits useful facts, encourages an appreciation for evidence-based argument, democratizes knowledge, and may even promote greater equality. As Davida Charney, in “Empiricism is Not a Four-Letter Word”, explains, the successful communication of scientific findings that were reached through the use of objective and quantitative research methods “creat[es] alternative entrance standards that diminish the power of exclusionary and elitist networks of clubs and informal contacts” and “bring[s] both criteria and results into the open” (572).

Dombrowski’s and Flynn’s assertions are typical of those rhetoricians who are opposed to clear communication and scientific knowledge. This attitude is dangerous, as it promotes the devaluation of both clarity and evidence-based rhetoric, scientific or otherwise. As rhetoricians, it is our responsibility to emphasize the importance of clarity and to strongly oppose these threats against scientific communication and the dissemination of information.

The effective communication of science is a vitally important task, one that must be able to proceed in an unimpeded manner. Michael E. McIntyre, in “Lucidity and science I: Writing skills and pattern perception hypothesis”, explains why effective science communication is so essential and explains how the “increased ability of working scientists to alleviate confusion and to contribute to the public understanding of science” can provide “incalculably greater long term gain both to science itself and to human society” (199).

A science communicator who wants to “alleviate confusion” will use clear, lucid, and precise language and will present their facts and/or claims in the style that is most likely to increase their audience’s understanding. Clear and precise language is a science communicator’s most important tool. As such, authorial intent and awareness of the needs of one’s audience play a key role in determining whether or not facts will be successfully transmitted and arguments will be rhetorically effective. Relatedly, a writer who does not want to be understood and is not concerned with informing or persuading their audience will choose the vague, imprecise, and confusing language that fits their goals. Their intent is not to “alleviate confusion”. In fact, many such writers, through their choice of language, actively work to cause confusion.

Scientific research explains what clarity is and why knowledge is most effectively transmitted through clear writing. These findings successfully refute the claims that clarity is undefinable, that it is an arbitrary construct that is ideologically-motivated, and that it upholds the oppressive power structure and thus should be avoided if one does not want to contribute to the persecution of the disenfranchised (Barnard). For example, McIntyre explains that “[h]uman perceptual processing [what he refers to as “the pattern perception hypothesis”] has remarkable properties, the properties that enabled our ancestors to survive” (199). He goes on to show how clear and lucid writing successfully “exploits those properties” (207) by using the reader’s perceptual machinery in the most efficient and effective way possible. This helps to illustrate why some writing styles increase lucidity and clarity, while others do not: for the reader, lucid writing speeds up the act of perceptual processing and rapidly and unconsciously simplifies the massive amount of possible internal models (207). McIntyre also details how writers who want to communicate in a clearer manner can use various perceptual phenomena to their advantage. These phenomena include “unconscious gap filling and grouping, and the sensitivity to organically changing patterns” (199).

McIntyre explains that the act of perception functions as “an unconscious model fitting process, an unconscious ‘science in miniature’” (199) and asserts that such functioning suggests to us a view of science that is “simple yet coherent” (199). The implications of this research may have an enormous effect on the public understanding of science. He supports his assertions with findings from scientific studies regarding pattern perception, which, in the context of reading, is a very complex activity, one which requires the reader to “decode” (200) what they are reading.

One of McIntyre’s examples comes from the field of molecular biology and references the computational theory of perception and cognition. In “Computation and the single neuron”, Christof Koch explains how “the latest work on information processing and storage at the single- cell level reveals previously unimagined complexity and dynamism” (207). The findings of these studies may help writers to produce clear and rhetorically effective scientific writing, writing which, as McIntyre puts it, “should not only engage the reader but should also be lucid” (199).

Using these findings, McIntyre is able to explain the difference between writers who want to effectively communicate information to an audience and writers who prefer to write in an ambiguous and confusing fashion, explaining that the the pattern perception hypothesis “helps one to distinguish what engages the reader from what indulges the writer, and to distinguish what clarifies one’s thinking from what muddies it” (200). Additionally, he asserts that, in contrast to those who argue that the standards of clear, precise, and rhetorically effective writing are completely subjective, the pattern perception hypothesis “suggests that much of the real experts’ advice is not an arbitrary matter of style or culture but, rather, a reflection of how the human brain works – the result of biological as well as social evolution” (200).

It is important to remember that clear writing is not necessarily simple writing, nor does clarity preclude the use of descriptive and evocative language, or, in the case of science communication, the use of the complex and specialized words that best describe the scientific findings under discussion. In order to preserve the lucidity and precision of writing, however, it is essential that each word a writer chooses is the clearest and most descriptive word for that specific context. As such, a writer who wants to produce clear prose and has the needs of their audience in mind will avoid word games and intentional obfuscation and will ensure that each word they use has a precise meaning. In other words, complex language does not make writing unclear, as long as each complex word has a specific and clear meaning and is the best possible word for that particular context. McIntyre explains this well: “[a]nyone who thinks that all this will cramp their ‘style’ – and that unlimited variation, and departures from coherent ordering, are needed for ‘interest, variety, and stylishness’ – should look at the many writing techniques that offer interest, variety, and stylishness without sacrificing lucidity” (208).

More specifically, in the context of science communication, a writer must thoroughly explain any specialized or complex scientific language they use. By doing so, the writer shows that they want to increase their audience’s knowledge and that they feel confident in their audience’s ability to understand specialized and complex language if it is explained clearly. This attitude indicates that the writer understands the importance of both the public communication of science and the democratization of information.

(More soon!)

Works Cited:

Barnard, Ian. “The Ruse of Clarity.” College Composition and Communication 61.3 (2010): 434-451. Print.

Charney, Davida. “Empiricism Is Not a Four-Letter Word.” College Composition and Communication 47.4 (1996): 567-593. Print.

Dombrowski, Paul. “Post-Modernism as the Resurgence of Humanism in Technical Communication.” Annual Meeting of the Modern Language Association. Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 27 December 1993. Conference Presentation.

Flynn, Elizabeth. “Feminism and Scientism.” College Composition and Communication 46.3 (1995): 353-368. Print.

Koch, Christof. “Computation and the Single Neuron.” Nature 385.6613 (1997): 207-210. Print.

McIntyre, Michael. “Lucidity and Science I: Writing skills and The Pattern Perception Hypothesis.”Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 22.3 (1997): 199-216. Print.

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