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  1. waitingforzion
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    waitingforzion Active Member

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    What is the ultimate things that determines clarity?

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by waitingforzion, Jul 2, 2016.

    I don't want to hear brevity, or the usage of certain grammatical structures. There are words that are clear, though they longer, and though they make use of certain parts of speech. There must be certain rules not pertaining to these things, which when followed, make sure that the words are clear.

    I have a few ideas. One, the definition of the words must not be obsolete. Two, the grammar of the words must not be ambiguous. Three, the meaning of the words, given by their proper definitions, when taken together, must add up to the meaning, and no other than the meaning, of that which you intended. Four, the elements of the sentence must be syntactically sound. And fifth, the words, according to some rule which is yet undefined to me, must not have a structure that is too complex.

    I have realized that many times, in aiming for rhythm, I used a word with the wrong meaning, a word that did not signify that which I meant. Now who, when reading words that mean exactly what the author meant, and that are expressed in grammar of reasonable complexity, can fail to understand them?

    What is your opinion?
     
    Last edited: Jul 2, 2016
  2. JLT
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    JLT Active Member

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    Cicero (I think it was he) said it best when he said that the goal of writing is not to write in such a way to be understood, but in such a way that it is impossible to me mis-understood.
     
  3. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Reader experience matters as well. Sometimes the things can over the reader's head if he/she doesn't have the proper experience. For example, anyone new to modernist literature and stream of consciousness will have trouble reading some of Virginia Woolf's works. So we can't always blame the writer. ;)
     
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  4. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well said... or well quoted. ( :) ) And I would add:

    Clarity comes from rewriting and having the will to be understood.
     
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  5. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think it's almost an empathy skill. You need to be able to shut off your own brain, ignoring all the background information that you have, letting go of what you think the words say, and put yourself in the mind of your reader, seeing the words the way the reader will. And then when "the reader" notices things that don't make sense, "the author" has to step in and reword it until it's clear.
     
  6. Wayjor Frippery
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    Wayjor Frippery Contributing Member

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    I think, with the greatest respect, that you are reaching for some set of rules, structures and absolutes that don't exist. Language is not something that can be reduced to a set of constituents and then understood in terms of logical connections between those constituents any more than the human mind itself.

    Physics tells us that the universe is statistical, probabilistic, chaotic, on fundamental scales. Our minds exist in the same space, are governed by the same dynamics, and our language – our ability to communicate the abstract along with the literal – is a product of mind.

    You can no more pin down the ultimate things that determine clarity than you can paint your emotions with hairspray on a half-silvered mirror and expect anyone to know what you had for breakfast.

    The question you pose in the OP is more suited to Wittgenstein, Chomsky or Pinker than to a bunch of creative writers.

    'I am happy!' I yell above the noise of humanity. What does that mean? Who am 'I'? What am 'I'? What is 'happy'? What is the literal meaning of 'am'? If I take enough hallucinogenics will these things become clear (ask don't ask Timothy Leary)?

    Again, respectfully, I refer you to my esteemed colleagues above. Nail on head they have hit, oh yes they have.

    Language is fluid, ever evolving, never static – wrestling with that is half the fun. If you pin a butterfly under glass, its colours will fade. Language is not mathematics. Our brains do not run on boolean logic.

    What is the ultimate thing that determines clarity?

    If most of your readers get what you mean, you have found the best answer there is.
     
    Last edited: Jul 4, 2016
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  7. Wayjor Frippery
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    Wayjor Frippery Contributing Member

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  8. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    @Wayjor Frippery has it exactly.
     
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  9. Wayjor Frippery
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    Wayjor Frippery Contributing Member

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    ...and it took me five edits to get the clarity I was after. ;)
     
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  10. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    1/ The definition of the words must not be ambiguous. If the word itself is archaic, it may cause the reader to reach for a dictionary, or it may cause him to reach into his "Shakespeare memory", but it won't cause the sentence to be unclear. If, on the other hand, you use a word such as tear; He watched her tear up could mean that she was ripping up a document, or that tears were filling her eyes, or even that she was driving her car in a rapid manner.

    2/Grammar is, by definition, unambiguous. Some writers abuse the rules of grammar so that their writing becomes ambiguous.

    3/ A legal document will contain no commas. The reason for this is that a comma introduces an element of ambiguity into a sentence because a comma can be used for different purposes. If you, the author, want to achieve clarity you should minimize your use of commas and ensure that there is no ambiguity introduced by them.

    4/ The elements of the sentence must be syntactically sound is a repetition of the grammar of the words must not be ambiguous.

    5/ The words should have a structure that is not too complex. Note that I've reworded it as a positive should, rather than a negative must.
     
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  11. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I like what you said, with the exception of the above. Legal documents sometimes have lots of commas. You have to be very careful about where you put them (or don't put them). You'll find cases that turn on the presence of a comma in the document in question.
     
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  12. JLT
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    JLT Active Member

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    And that's exactly what beta readers are for, God love 'em. I can't thank them enough.
     
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  13. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's nice if you can catch MOST of it yourself, just so the poor betas don't burn out. But you're right, they're a good second-line of defense. And then the editors for the final check.
     
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  14. BC Barry
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    BC Barry Member

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    I always have trouble with this. I try to be as clear and precise as possible without sounding like an instruction manual. However, before I've even thought of the first word to type, I already have an image of 'it' in my mind. So of course 'it's' going to be clear to me. No matter what I read, that image will always be there to reinforce the words to myself. I'm constantly questioning if 'it' will be as clear to someone else who's never seen or heard of my image. Am I over-doing it or under-doing it?

    Then someone else reads it and I hear either "are you talking to a 4-year-old?" or "Huh?" I have trouble with that happy middle ground. :)
     
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  15. HelloImRex
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    HelloImRex Contributing Member

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    You're thinking about this all wrong. Generalization often leads to trouble, and this way of thinking about clarity is certainly troublesome. This is kind of like asking the best way to win a chess game and coming up with rules of things you are always supposed to do. Sure, get your pieces out and castle, except the one time it doesn't make sense because of what the board looks like. No rule can get you out of analyzing each situation independently of the others. In a way, that's how this is. Each sentence you write has different options for being clear or unclear. Each idea can be strung to another idea that either adds clarity or just mucks everything up. For every scenario there are many right ways of doing this, and many wrong ways for every right way.

    I guess a good rule is to stop generalizing, both with thinking and writing. You have to consider each situation individually and be able to come up with something functional every time or it just won't work. This thread is kind of like asking the best ways to make money. You'll get answers, but if you actually make money you should be asking more specific questions.
     

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