'The Sense of Style' and the curse of knowledge

'The Sense of Style' and the curse of knowledge

As Steven Pinker puts it in Chapter 3 of his book "The Sense of Style," the main cause of incomprehensible prose is the difficulty of imagining what it's like for someone else not to know something that you know." He calls that the curse of knowledge -- but admits that it keeps getting new names since it's so pervasive.

(If you missed my posts on earlier parts of Pinker's book, catch up to the prologue, Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 at these links. Then you'll know.)

A lack of either empathy  seems to me to be behind "why good people write bad prose," as Pinker puts it.

But I agree with him that the problem can be explained by "Hanlon's Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."

It's not low IQ or ignorance, says Pinker, but a lack of memory -- forgetting what it's like not to know.

So what do we do? Imagining you asking that is one of Pinker's prescriptions.

Explaining always helps, but abbreviations are always tempting. "Abbreviations are tempting to thoughtless writers," Pinker writes -- oops! -- "because they can save a few keystrokes every time the have to use the term. The writers forget that the few seconds they add to their own lives come at the cost of many minutes stolen from the lives of their readers."

He adds that spelling out even "familiar" abbreviations can improve such things as Christmas letters. (Does your annual letter hold abbreviations that family and friends won't recognize?)

Pinker also describes the way concrete things can seem too abstract for readers to grasp. Writing abstractly about concrete things is a common part of the curse of knowledge. We stop thinking and writing about things in concrete terms, as they are, and refer to them by what they mean to us.

For example, I started drafting this post wearing my favorite outfit. Got that? No, you're not picturing it yet, even if you know me well. Of course not -- you can't tell whether I mean my bright blue, tuxedo-pleated shirt and long, dark blue skirt or my Chicago Blackhawks 2013 Stanley Cup Champions T-shirt and jeans. (It was the former. I started writing this after work.)

Now you can picture what I looked like when I was writing, because I'm not just giving myself the reminder "my favorite outfit."

I was guilty of the curse of knowledge in this earlier post when I listed some of Pinker's maxims, asserted that he showed good examples, and didn't give you any of those examples. I'm sorry! I'm learning from this book, too.

Pinker says that "abstractions become containers" for handling ideas, and before long, those ideas' names are lost. For example:

"Participants were tested under conditions of good to excellent acoustic isolation."


"We tested the students in a quiet room."

So have pity on your readers. Take the time to make sure that your writing says what you want it to say. Remember that, as Pinker puts it, "The advice in this and other stylebooks is not so much on how to write as how to revise."

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  • I believe a writer should consider his audience. Though often in my case it consists of myself.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Which raises the question why blogs have comments. Some here don't respond to the comments, while you do. Then there are the bloggers and former bloggers on Chicago Now who prove your point by calling their commenters trolls or threatening them, thereby proving the point.

  • In reply to jack:

    Thanks, Jack. No threats here.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Thanks -- I know the feeling! Leaving abbreviations on lists can be a dangerous business for me, but maybe Pinker is getting me away from it.

  • There are several examples of this.

    Louisiana says they use the civil law. If so, the only thing they do is use incomprehensible terminology,. but their law is the same as in most states, apparently to keep other lawyers out. Texas is common law but uses similar terminology.

    "Staff" members at the fitness center are supposed to wear name tags. Most of the young women have hair to the middle of their fronts and back so you can't see it. Yesterday, one had her hair in a braid, so you could. but the other was wearing your Blackhawks jersey over her "Staff" shirt and tag. Also, while they are supposed to be wearing their ID cards on lanyards, the back side is always out.

    And a merry Xmas to you.

  • In reply to jack:

    Someone was wearing my Blackhawks jersey at the fitness center? That's a good trick -- I never saw it leave the closet! (Wink!)

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    I always wonder why there are 3 "88 Kanes" on the floor and one in Vancouver playing the Canucks. At least now there is the excuse that one of him is rehabbing his shoulder.

  • Speaking of Aquinas saying I always find synchronicity, here is another bit.

  • In reply to jack:

    I'm not sure I see the synchronicity here, Jack, but thanks for the smile.

  • In reply to Margaret H. Laing:

    Descriptive language. You didn't have to see Thor to get the picture.

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