CLARITY TRUMPS EVERYTHING: a concept fundamental to writing and all communication. Nothing—not convention, not formula, not even grammar—is more critical to a writer than clear communication directly to the reader.
Of course, this principle applies to all forms of communication, verbal and nonverbal, and gets to the crux of the human dilemma—that we are an inherently social species who need to convey all sorts of messages to one another for all sorts of reasons and yet cannot clearly and directly communicate our thoughts. Even the simplest messages are misconstrued, and our plethora of languages and cultures compound the problem. I do not have to dwell on this obvious fact.
Nonetheless, it remains imperative that humans focus on producing clear communication, however futile the effort. Clarity is futile.
Still, when teaching college writers, I drive this point home, that clarity trumps everything. Inexperienced writers often slog through their prose, stymied by their own insecurities and the weight of a thousand rules—real and fabricated—imposed by well-meaning teachers for whom a rule well-followed is more important than a thought well-communicated.
At the risk of appearing to erect a straw man, I want to address any objections that the rules of grammar are meant to help clarify the expression of our thoughts. First, the rules of grammar are not “meant” to do anything. They are simply the codification of convention, which is why they change as the conventions change. They are not immutable laws of the universe or abstract truths or religious doctrine. Also, as I suggested, perfectly grammatical constructions can still interfere with clarity. Here are a couple of glaring examples:
Is that clear?
These sentences are the sort that teachers might label "awkward" out of sheer exasperation. (The second one, by the way, is from Bob Dylan's song “Tell Me, Momma,” and I acknowledge that he is cleverly playing in these convoluted lines.)
Here is one that attempts to follow a “rule” (do not end a clause in a preposition—a manufactured rule, by the way) but ultimately serves up a pile of corned beef hash with a side of rank pedantry:
Or how about this masterpiece of embedded confusion:
The woman is a dentist. The man is dating her. My brother also sees that man. Awkward!
These examples offer extremes that have obvious fixes, and one could mine the annals of literary theory for some truly bizarre constructions. More to my point, though, and beyond the scope of my examples, sometimes bending or even violating the rules of grammar is advantageous to clear communication.
The fact remains that all aspects of the writing process and all elements of the written piece must serve to maximize clarity, including grammar. The planning, organizational logic, diction, syntax, style, etc., when correct, improve the audience’s understanding. And one of the most import benefits of emphasizing clarity to novice writers is that it helps them focus on the audience, which is paramount.
Even in poetry and other forms of literary writing, although they can be intentionally obscure, the goal is to be understood. Of course, sometimes the point of a literary piece is to defy meaning so as to evoke the futility of human interactions and understanding. Even so, although vexingly counterintuitive, such literary intention still devotes itself to the mission of clarity with the (obscure) form enacting the theme of imperfect knowability.
In Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub (1704), the narrator, a wit of the then-modern mode, presents a detailed Christian allegory that offers little illumination. He interrupts this tale frequently with lengthy digressions on various ostensibly unrelated topics, the final one being the famous “A Digression Concerning Madness” in which he altogether throws off reason. Then blissfully bereft of logic, he is free to continue his allegorical tale howsoever he pleases without any need to make meaning.
His final paragraph is most telling and worth quoting in full:
In my disposure of employments of the brain, I have thought fit to make invention the master, and to give method and reason the office of its lackeys. The cause of this distribution was from observing it my peculiar case to be often under a temptation of being witty upon occasion where I could be neither wise nor sound, nor anything to the matter in hand. And I am too much a servant of the modern way to neglect any such opportunities, whatever pains or improprieties I may be at to introduce them. For I have observed that from a laborious collection of seven hundred and thirty-eight flowers and shining hints of the best modern authors, digested with great reading into my book of common places, I have not been able after five years to draw, hook, or force into common conversation any more than a dozen. Of which dozen the one moiety failed of success by being dropped among unsuitable company, and the other cost me so many strains, and traps, and ambages to introduce, that I at length resolved to give it over. Now this disappointment (to discover a secret), I must own, gave me the first hint of setting up for an author, and I have since found among some particular friends that it is become a very general complaint, and has produced the same effects upon many others. For I have remarked many a towardly word to be wholly neglected or despised in discourse, which hath passed very smoothly with some consideration and esteem after its preferment and sanction in print. But now, since, by the liberty and encouragement of the press, I am grown absolute master of the occasions and opportunities to expose the talents I have acquired, I already discover that the issues of my observanda begin to grow too large for the receipts. Therefore I shall here pause awhile, till I find, by feeling the world’s pulse and my own, that it will be of absolute necessity for us both to resume my pen.
He follows this paragraph with a curt “Finis.”
Two paragraphs before, he had executed one of my favorite Swiftian metaphors:
I conceive, therefore, as to the business of being profound, that it is with writers as with wells. A person with good eyes can see to the bottom of the deepest, provided any water be there; and that often when there is nothing in the world at the bottom besides dryness and dirt, though it be but a yard and half under ground, it shall pass, however, for wondrous deep, upon no wiser a reason than because it is wondrous dark.
This metaphor brings us closest, perhaps, to the meaning of the Tale: that it is a work that inherently resists meaning.
So, here, we have a great work of literature that eschews clarity to complain about the perceived lack of clarity in fashionable writing and the general futility of trying to communicate with accuracy or clarity. The reader, perhaps convinced by its opacity that there is much profundity in the Tale, falls victim to the allure of the “wondrous dark.” Here obscurity serves clarity, and the reader stumbles.
As is frequent with art, exceptions are the rule, and yet clarity still trumps everything.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.
I am a former English Professor and academic administrator with experience at several institutions in the U.S. and Canada. I have a broad background in management and leadership and have mentored countless faculty, staff, and students, by offering them Tools+Paradigms to help them rethink their assumptions and practices. The Human Tools+Paradigms I present in this blog capture what I have learned from working with them and from my experience and research. You can read more about me here.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.