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Precision begets deep understanding.

I recently read Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years and while I was organizing my thoughts on that text, I began to focus on accounts of people who went to meet him in person, particularly after he achieved some level of notoriety.

I find myself particularly fascinated by the disparity between his public persona—often seen as aloof, imposing, and even cold—and that of his interpersonal manner, which was reported from many sources as warm, inviting, friendly, and playful. That my fascination arises from a similar experience is obvious to anyone who has interacted with me on any kind of regular basis. At one time, I was surprised when people who were familiar with my work but not with me personally would say after meeting me that I am younger than they imagined, more jovial, or surprisingly agreeable. That my public persona is not necessarily one of a “nice guy” has given me some cause for reflection; seeing the same affliction in one of the authors I admire most is both strangely comforting and highly instructive.

Even in my childhood, I had an awareness of words and an appreciation for how they could be constructed to do more than merely to convey information. Using a particular word or sentence construction can send an important metamessage—conveying additional information inside of a message with a more obvious meaning. I quickly recognized that the kids who used the non-word “ain't” could be easily talked into corners and made to contradict themselves. More valuable to me was the knowledge that wordplay could make people laugh. When I was about ten years old, my father gave me a tape recording of an Abbott and Costello radio broadcast of “Who's on First?” that, in addition to exposing me to some wonderful classic comedy, showed me how word choice affects clarity. Consider some of the earliest lines of this wonderful routine.

Abbott: Covering the bags, Who's on first, What's on second, I-don't-know is on third.
Costello: That's what I want to find out.
Abbott: What?
Costello: The name of the first baseman.
Abbott: Who.
Costello: The guy playing first.
Abbott: Who is on first.
Costello: That's what I said!

Part of the humor of this routine is that Costello hears Abbott correctly but parses the sentences all wrong, which causes him to ask the same question over and over, his frustration being compounded each time that he thinks that Abbott doesn't get it. Costello's demeanor naturally draws our attention to him, but if taken at face value—that Abbott needs to give Costello some information—we can quickly see that the fault of the misunderstanding does not lie with Costello but with Abbott, whose presentation of the information was ambiguous.

As a teenager, I began to develop skills of critical thought and started to relate what I learned from Abbott and Costello to communication, speech, and thought. Aside from the potential impact of preventing the listener from gaining a correct understanding of the information, imprecise speech is a transfer of the responsibility from speaker to hearer. In other words, the speaker is sending a metamessage to the listener: “My time is more valuable than yours, so you should happily take this idea in whatever form I care to offer it and it's up to you to understand what I mean.” A hearer who complains to an American speaker might well hear in reply, “You know what I mean,” without the speaker ever having made any attempt to confirm the assertion. Such a lazy speaker completely abdicates his responsibility, putting the listener into a no-win situation when presented with ambiguous piffle.

To avoid subjecting myself to the tedium of drawing incorrect conclusions by thinking with a lack of clarity, I made it a point to develop precision in my thinking. Speech being a reflection of thought, it also gained in precision. Precision allowed me to take responsibility for my own words, saying exactly what I mean, while also sending a metamessage, namely: “I respect you and your time enough not to demand that because you're willing to listen to my idea, you should also take the time to decipher some illiterate spew to reach the idea.”

I have discovered that there is an unfortunate metamessage that is received by some other people, particularly those who believe that speech is a means by which people elevate themselves over their company, namely: “Look how much smarter than you I am!” It's interesting to me that the people who get this metamessage are often not especially good listeners—not because they're stupid or selfish, but in many cases because they are surrounded by people who don't bother to think before astounding the room with their pronouncements. These listeners have simply taken the position that anything that is said to them must be interpreted. Say what you mean to such a person, and that's the only thing you can be sure the listener won't get. I think that some others have different experience but have the same core belief (that elegant speech is used to elevate oneself) for another reason: they believe that the speaker is adopting a tactic that they use themselves for that reason and resent being sent lower. Either way, the situation is rife with irony.

The unfortunate metamessage is much easier to infer from writing, which feels more formal to many people. Where the message is being sent through one-to-many kinds of communication (books, articles, published letters to editors, etc.), this is further complicated because metamessages can hardly be sent easily to individuals: indeed, the entire communication is between the speaker and the audience as a group. In person, gestures, smalltalk, and a thousand other clues can be used to show personal interest and regard.

While Nabokov's strong desire for precision in speech is well-documented, justifications for the need for precision seem to be limited to the literary: the need for details to fire the imagination and the need for finding rhythm in the text. Handling detail and rhythm requires precision. To achieve precision in speech without falling into a habit common among writers (regression and restatement coming from composition and editing remarks as they are made), Nabokov wrote his lectures in prose and then read them out to his classes. His interviews were conducted largely from a script, where interviewer sent questions ahead of time and interviewee composed responses to them before the interview itself took place. Writers are accustomed to working with words in an environment where time moves very slowly—even minor slips live for a long time in print, so good writers take the time needed to avoid the use of cliché, repetition of words, mixed metaphors, and other things that can so easily undermine an author's hard-earned reputation of style.

Whatever the justification, appropriate precision in speech is clearly desirable, for without it, all meaning is lost. Indeed, application of reductio ad absurdum (which is the sort of thing that makes sense to do on a site called Ergo Sum) bears out this truth: if precision were of no concern at all, we would have no need for words and we could simply issue monotone grunts at each other. Thus, rather than lamenting the fact that so many people have separated meaning from words, I will continue to speak precisely, saying what I mean, and meaning what I say. Perhaps doing so will convince someone to make of himself a good listener, a good reader, and if I am very successful indeed, a good thinker.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2005-11-16 02:34 PM


Posted by donetrawk at 2005-01-11 02:57 PM
Perhaps saying what you mean comes by virtue of being red... I generally try to say exactly what I mean, mostly because I don't like mystery or ambiguity.

Nice reference to the comedy sketch, which I haven't seen in its entirety... the In Living Colour boys did a pretty good take on it where they said (if memory serves) "Jew's on first, my brotha's on second"

Having a one-word vocabulary

Posted by lnewton at 2005-11-16 12:56 PM
On how minor slips live for a long time in print, or at least embarrass the author -- just today I sent out mail to a list -- which I proofread -- in which I essentially bragged about being a good speller (which I fortunately qualified with "most of the time"), and in the process wrote "especially" as "especaially", for which I was duly razzed.

On speaking in monotone grunts: Our noisy neighbor's pet has recently spurred me to meditate on how tough it would be to have to go through life with a one-word vocabulary. Regardless of the vigor with which it's expressed, "Bark" means exactly one thing to listeners. It says: "I am a dog!" -- nothing more, and nothing less.

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