The Importance of Clarity

‘There is nothing I can say that cannot be mistaken’ Karl Popper

Written and spoken language is not like mathematical symbols or software code script.  Ludwig Wittgenstein said about words:

‘…..many words…. Don’t have a strict meaning. But this is no defect. To think it is would be like saying that the light of my reading lamp is not a real light because it has no sharp boundary.’

Mathematical symbols are usually used far more definitely than words are generally used.

So developers ‘know where they are’ with code and script; although with words, when it comes to drawing up a customer agreement or communicating to a customer about ways of doing things in ‘layman’s’ terms, developers face the same problems as the rest of us do when we want to speak to someone else clearly and accurately.

Hence the importance of clarity

Clarity is not always accuracy; but clarity has the virtue of being when it is achieved able to show up inaccuracies to common scrutiny; as far as inaccuracies are able to be shown up.  So that the developer ought to be able to spot them; and a customer has a chance of spotting them.

And so aiming for clarity is paramount and in this way it is prior to accuracy; although accuracy remains prior to clarity when it comes to actual use of code and script in development work.  Even to a developer a piece of software writing she creates might sometimes have to be complex and/or cutting edge; and so it might well not possess clarity when other developers come to look at it, and certainly not when a customer sees it.

Some things are just complex and involved and that’s that.

But there is an art to using words and language which is hard to attain to and which never reaches much more than a modest acquaintance with the full potential they possess for clarity, accuracy and meaning.

“Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,”

But because language and its expression is a hard taskmaster there is no reason a person should not attempt to write and to speak with precision and as clearly as the matter in hand will allow.

Now for some practical things; a few simple dos and don’ts which are able to make a huge difference to readability and understandableness of your  use of language, most particularly your written  language.

Possibly the most overused and so most liable to misinterpretation in written language are pronouns.  The personal pronouns are he, she, they, them, we, you, him, and her.  Add to these the pronouns commonly used to denote objects; that, this, it, those, they, there, then, and a string of others. These though are the main culprits.

Try disentangling a sentence written like this:

‘It was within his ability and he took it from him and he threw a glance at him and told him he was stealing’

Who is stealing? Which of the males? Who threw the glance? Who took the object ‘it’?

No mater how many times you read the sentence you can’t fathom it; its full meaning is not able to be fathomed – as it is written here. If we take a bit of care in our thought and write it this time thus:

‘It had been within his ability, and another had taken it from him; this other had then thrown a glance at him and at the same time had admitted stealing.’

Or maybe:

‘It had been within his ability, so he had taken it from another, and as he had taken it, he had thrown a glance and had said to that other ‘I am stealing’.’

Two near enough opposing situations either of which is derivable from the original sentence as a possible meaning.

You can see that a use of tenses has helped a lot in making the two situations in the two sentences derived from the first, clear sentences able to expresses meaning so as to be hardly mistakable.

The sentences that are clear in their meanings are perhaps more cumbersome to read than the first one is, but they are written as language being used so as to be clear, and were not written to offer entertainment or conversationally.

The use of the past perfect tense has enabled the writer to keep a grip on the meaning of the words closely and so he has been able to steer through the complicated actions that were to be communicated without him losing the thread of who did what to whom.

So a good rule of thumb is to keep pronouns to a minimum.  Instead of using them use the names of the things and the persons they are referring to, even when this means a lot of repetition of these names.  With technical language, and with legal language too it is better to be dull and clear than to be snappy and slack.

A second good rule of thumb is to think about the variety of tenses available to you before or as you write.  It takes time. At first it seems unnatural. As you get more practiced things will speed up and that sense of flow in writing will become easier.  If you really don’t know where to begin with tenses, get yourself a simple English grammar, nothing too technical, and gen up on a few. You only need to master the main ones people use in descriptive technical writing.

This recommendation of a simple grammar might sound daunting, or deathly boring, or both; but when you  find you have saved yourself from an otherwise costly and/or time-consuming ambiguity, or you find you have saved yourself from misunderstanding an important paragraph, you will get that buzz of  delight which will gladly lead you back into your simple grammar, there to learn some more saving graces.

You can also find this article at our steemit blog: https://steemit.com/grammar/@matthew.raymer/the-importance-of-clarity

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