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The Formality Paradox

December 8, 2014

One of the most annoying moments when running a website or a YouTube channel has to be all the hassle that comes with using copyrighted content. You can't go without them -- I wasn't there to photograph the violent protests at Ferguson, and I can't make myself a high-fidelity Linux logo. And most people are fine with using Creative Commons images for these things: they're free to use, under XYZ conditions and attribution to the original author. But when you visit the website that describes the various details of Creative Commons copyright rules in detail, it rather comically distinguishes between "legal code" and the "human readable" description of the license. Not to pick on the awesome people at Creative Commons, but nobody's a stranger to the fact that the formal legal documents are hardly ever comprehendible to the masses. And that's the case with most professional fields, if you go deep enough.

Faulkner and Hemingway are often considered writers of radically different style, one using very simple phrasing and the other very complex setences. Nonetheless, both are acclaimed Nobel Laureates in their own ways. (Modified image, Public Domain)

So here's the question of the formality paradox: do we need complex language to talk about complex ideas?

Anyone can have a discussion about art, music, or computers, but sit the average person in the middle of any expert in those fields, and the amount of field-specific vocabulary that we use is surprising, Most of us don't realize so much of our vocabulary is very specific to an area of study. For example, the words "solo" or "rest" has wildly different connotations to the experienced musician and the average person without a music education. Likewise with words like "buffer", "root", "print", or "memory" mean completely different things to the average Joe and the average software developer*. These exist in so many fields because we need these words, and we need them to mean specific things.

Do we need complex language to talk about complex ideas?"

The problem with these formal language comes about. when we confuse rich vocabulary and complex grammatical structures with someone's amount of education. I could say: "The inherent issue of our society has its fundamental pragmatic roots in the cultural notion, that a complexly composed set of vocabulary and unnecessarily compounded sentences utilized in conjunction with overly frequent use of nondescript clauses give the general public the illusion that one has a broader or greater degree of education that what may be called the truth.", but frankly, that poops on the original purpose of language and writing, which is to get ideas across, not pretend to know more.

I think our society is still under this illusion, and in some situations more than others. Case in point: SAT vocabulary. I'm not saying the words that we learn for the SAT are purposeless or not worth learning them -- they have their values, but when we start saying we "learn words for the SATs", I think we have a problem. To those who might be denying the fact that we link intelligence with word choice, consider the words anthropic and human-centric. They literally mean the same idea, but between a person who writes "this anthropic problem is of critical significance" and "the human problem is very important", I think we'd attribute very different ideas to those people. I'd be hard-pressed to prove that we don't judge anyone's level of education simply based on his or her word choice. And when we tend to do that, we also judge the value of his or her ideas based on their word choice, not on the ideas themselves.

On the other end of the vocabulary dichotomy, there are people who advocate for simplistic use of language. This logic goes that longer sentences and complex phrases only confuse the audience and hinder you from getting your idea across. Ernest Hemingway was a big advocate of this type of language, using simple words and simple sentences, but still getting across the complex core ideas that underlie his writing. This Iceberg theory had its own merits, and influenced a large part of the twentieth century writers. Hemingway in particular believed that if you use clear language and know what you're talking about, you should be able to make your audience understand your ideas without explicitly explaining everything.

As with all dichotomies, though, I don't think either side is completely appropriate all the time. Hemingway's style, for example, is more fit for things that require concise language, like newspaper articles**or poems. More complex language is necessary, though, in discussing ideas in very specific fields like mathematics and computer science, or if you're just not as good at writing as the Nobel Laureate Hemingway***. But in the end, the only goal of language is to get your ideas across. And whether or not you do it with six words or six hundred words (and a few footnotes here and there), if you can share your thoughts eloquently, I think the style isn't too much of a concern.

* And I know this, because I've talked to people before who thought the memory determined the CPU frequency of a computer

** Or, for those of us not living in the last century, Tweets.

*** I'd argue that my case is the latter of the two.