Sometimes—amazingly often, in fact—things I’m reading and thinking about seem to mesh, serendipitously, and fall together very nicely. I don’t know how to explain it, but it sure is fun.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about abstraction, some of the problems it causes, and things we can do to help deal with it. Yesterday Dave Thomas wrote about nouns and verbs, and about how the nouns we use for certain things (quality and requirements in particular) tend to mask the processes of achieving those things—the verbs, in other words—that are where the real value is.
While reading Brian Marick’s response this morning, I suddenly remembered something I read several years ago.
Everyone who writes in English should, in my opinion, read Joseph M. Williams’ book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. Here is an excerpt from the section of that book I remembered:
In addition to the influence of the Norman Conquest and the Renaissance, there has been another, more subtle historical influence on our prose style, an influence that some linguists have speculated to be a kind of stylistic destiny for literate societies. As societies become intellectually mature, it has been claimed, their writers seem increasingly to replace specific verbs with abstract nouns. It allegedly happened in Sanskrit prose, in the prose of many Western European languages, and it seems to be happening in modern English. What centrally distinguishes sentence (1) from (2) is […] the abstract nouns in (1) in contrast to the shorter and more specific verbs and adjective of (2):
- The Committee proposal would provide for biogenetic industry certification of the safety to human health for new substances in requests for exemption from Federal rules.
- The Committee proposes that when the biogenetic industry requests the Agency to exempt new substances from Federal rules, the industry will certify that the substances are safe.
These nouns alone make a style more abstract, but they encourage more abstraction: once a writer expresses actions in nouns, she can then eliminate whatever (usually concrete) agents perform those actions along with those whom the actions affect: The proposal would provide for certification of the safety of new substances in requests for exemption.These abstract Romance nouns result in a prose that we variously call gummy, turgid, obtuse, prolix, complex, or unreadable.
Yep. That sounds like most software documents. I think Dave and Brian are onto something.