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Clearness And Concisness

( Originally Published 1912 )



IN learning to argue and win, the student will find many valuable suggestions in the rules of formal debate. It is well understood that the effect of an argument depends much upon the clearness of the terms in which it is stated. Take the question: "Resolved, That the present distribution of power between the Federal and State governments is not adapted to modern conditions and calls for readjustment in the direction of further centralization." Before this question can intelligently be discust we must define such words as "distribution,'' calls," and "centralization." Here, again, the student must resort to his dictionary for needed assistance. He will be particularly careful about the small words in his proposition, since upon one of these may hang the fate of his whole argument. Many disputes are carried to interminable lengths because the persons involved do not properly understand themselves, nor have they clearly apprehended the question.

A prolific cause of misunderstanding, even in the most ordinary matters of argument, is careless and indifferent use of words. This often furnishes a loophole of escape for those who "convinced against their will," wish to be "of the same opinion still." The word "some" is said by logicians to be a source of much error and difficulty. Its indefiniteness and unknownness render it dangerous in a proposition.

Other such equivocal words are "hence," "consequently," "then," "therefore," "because,'' and "accordingly. Careless use of words is humorously illustrated in the following dialog:

"How did you find your patient?" "By going to his home."

"I mean how did you find him when you got there?"

"His wife took me to his room."

"But what shape did you find him in?" "In the shape of a man lying on his back."

`Well, is he better?"

"If he is well, he is better, of course." "I mean is he improving?" "Improving what?"

"Why, his health?"

"I don't know why he should improve his health."

"Is he better, then?"

"Better than what?"

"Oh, doctor, do- tell me what there is about him."

"A pair of blankets."

"Pshaw! Is he dangerous?"

"No, he is perfectly peaceable." "Doctor, do you know how to tell what ails your patient?"

"Yes; but you don't know how to ask." We must learn to call things by their right names, by thinking clearly and correctly of them. These names have well been termed "handles," by which the mind grasps and retains its thought about things. The firmness with which we take hold of our thoughts, therefore, will largely determine their definiteness in actual expression. William Matthews says:

"Even the profoundest thinkers and the most accurate, hair-splitting writers, who weigh and test to the bottom every term they use, are baffled in the effort so to convey their conclusions, as to defy all misapprehension or successful refutation. Beginning with definitions, they find that the definitions themselves need defining; and just at the triumphant moment when the structure of argument seems complete and logic-proof, some lynx-eyed adversary detects an inaccuracy or a contradiction in the use of some keystone term, and the whole magnificent pile, so painfully reared, tumbles into ruins."

We should study words singly, as well as in their context; should cultivate a taste for the best and most fitting word; should not think of words as makeshifts, but as symbols of precise and accurate thought; should realize the importance of closely scrutinizing the meaning of words, as a part of sound reasoning.

The charge that intelligent men often "talk like parrots," is not without foundation. Who has not listened to certain speakers whose words were so vague, aim-less, or far-fetched, that you were forced to the conclusion they did not know what they were talking about? Another class of speakers, quite as reprehensible, so wrap their thoughts up in a profusion of words, that they are hopelessly obscure and tedious.

In his "Laws of Thought," Thomson directs attention to the four functions in which language exercises its influence upon the thinking process :

1. It enables one to analyze complex impressions.

2. It preserves or records the result of the analysis for future use.

3. It abbreviates thinking by enabling one to substitute a short word for a highly complex notion, and the like.

4. It is a means of communication.

A study' of the Socratic method of dispute is recommended as a means for cultivating clarified speech; for example this from Plato :

"Tell me, Charmidas, if you knew any man who could gain the prizes in the public games, and by that means render himself illustrious, and acquire glory to his country, what would you say of him if he refused to offer himself to the combath" "I would say," answered Charmidas, "that he was a mean-spirited, effeminate fellow." "And if a man were capable of governing a republic, of increasing its power by his advices, and of raising himself by this means to a high degree of honor, would you not brand him likewise with meanness of soul if he would not present himself to be employed !" "Perhaps I might," said Charmidas; "but why do you ask me this question?" "Because you are capable," replied Socrates, "of managing the affairs of the republic, and yet you avoid doing so, tho in the quality of a citizen you are obliged to take care of the commonwealth." "And wherein have you observed this capacity in me?" "When I have seen you in conversation with the ministers of State, " answered Socrates; "for if they impart any affairs to you, I see you give them good advice, and when they commit any errors you make them judicious remonstrances." "But there is a very great difference, my dear Socrates," replied Charmidas, "between discoursing in private and contending in a public manner before the people." "And yet," replied Socrates, "a skilful arithmetician can calculate as well in presence of several per-sons as when alone ; and they who can play well upon the lute in their closets play likewise well in company." "But you know," said Charmidas, "that fear and shame, which are so natural to man, affect us more in public assemblies than in private companies." "Is it possible," said Socrates, "that you can converse so unconcernedly with men of parts and authority, and that you should not have assurance enough to speak to fools? Are you afraid to present yourself before dyers, shoemakers, masons, smiths, la-borers, and brokers, for of such are composed the popular assemblies? This is the same thing as to be the most expert in a fencing-school, and to fear the thrust of an unskilful person who never handled a foil. Thus you, tho you speak boldly in the presence of the chief of men of the republic, among whom there might perhaps be found some who would despise you, dare not, nevertheless, speak in the presence of an illiterate multitude, who know nothing of the affairs of State, and who are not capable of despising you, and you fear to be laughed at by them." "Do they not usually," said Charmidas, "laugh at those who speak best?" "So likewise," said Socrates, "do the best of men of quality with whom you converse every day; and I am surprised that you have eloquence and persuasive sense sufficient to bring these to reason, and that you think not yourself capable even to approach the others. Learn to know yourself better, Charmidas, and take care not to fall into a fault that is almost general; for all men.. inquire curiously enough into the affairs of others, but they never enter into their own bosoms to examine themselves as they ought. Be no longer, then, thus negligent in this matter, consider yourself with more attention, and let not slip' the occasions of serving the republic, and of rendering it, if possible, more flourishing than it is. This will be a blessing, whose influence will descend not only on the other citizens, but on your best friends and your-self."

In determining a question it is advisable to have some method of testing its validity and usefulness. If its solution will serve no practical purpose, or if it be known in advance that a satisfactory explanation can not be found, it is useless to undertake it. Such questions and rules as these may profitably be considered :

1. Is it knowable?

2. Is it important, or worth while?

3. Will the probable results be commensurate with the labor involved?

4. Will it make any one wiser or better?'

5. Is it within one's powers?

6. Is it stated as plainly as possible? A clearly stated question is better than an hour's confused talking.

7. Because a thing has been believed' through many years is not absolute proof of its truth.

8. Because a thing has been disbelieved by many persons is not absolute proof of its error.

9. Be indifferent to everything but the truth, that you may avoid bias, and give fair consideration to both sides of a subject.

10. Avoid a mere partial examination of a subject. Get all the facts possible.

11. Avoid pet doctrines, notions, and opinions that do not rest upon sufficient grounds.

12. Control the feelings. Zeal must obey the understanding.

13. Wit does not determine a matter of controversy. A. jester is a very different person from a judge.

14. When the judgment is settled upon a given question it should stand firm and not flutter in suspense.

Many a splendid thought is ruined by over-amplification. A man should know precisely how much to say, as well as how to say it. That the speaker "get to the point," is the silent but none the less emphatic desire of an intelligent listener.

Volubility is one of the most destructive forces in argumentation.

It is a necessary part of clearness that a man express his thoughts in the best sequence. John Quincy Adams says in one of his lectures on rhetoric and oratory: "You shall find hundreds of per-sons able to produce a crowd of good ideas upon any subject, for one that can marshal them to the best advantage. Disposition is to the orator what tactics, or the discipline of armies, is to the military art. And as the balance of victory has almost been turned by the superiority of tactics and of discipline, so the great effects of eloquence are always produced by the excellency of disposition. There is no part of the science in which the con-summate orator will be so decidedly marked out, as by the perfection of his disposition."

There can be no doubt that concrete arguments are not only better for clearness, but are more powerful than abstract statements, since they are more readily apprehended and make a greater impression on the mind. For example, a man may argue against smoking on the ground that three-for-a-quarter cigars a day, for a period of twenty years, amounts to $3,444.40. Even a better argument is that of the father who was admonishing his son on this, same subject. He took a five-dollar bill, rolled it into the shape of a cigaret, and put a match to it. The boy asked him in astonishment what he meant by it. The father said : "That is what you are doing every day, but with this great difference: I burned only the bill, while you are injuring yourself, and inconveniencing many others around you."

In discussions of temperance, it is doubtful if purely sentimental appeals ever have an enduring effect upon intemperate men. But you can set them seriously thinking by giving them a series of stern medical facts, such as these abridged from Dr. Henry Smith Williams :

If you take alcohol habitually you:

1. Injure your stomach, liver, kidneys, heart, blood-vessels, nerves, and brain;

2. You decrease your capacity for work;

3. You lower the grade of your mind and morals;

4. You lessen your longevity ;

5. You entail misery upon your descendants.

Then he asks this pertinent question : "As a mere business proposition: Is your glass of beer, your bottle of wine, your highball, or your cocktail, worth such a price 7''

There is no better test of one's thought than to give it utterance. The act of speaking stimulates many new thoughts into life. Frequently a man finds him-self expressing something he did not in-tend, and surprised at his rich discovery accepts it in the place of his first thought. Thus thought grows through use, and the more a man exercises his mind the more prolific become his ideas.

According to Mozart's own account of his method of composing, he selected from the thoughts that went through his mind those that most pleased him, hummed them until the theme shaped and enlarged itself in his mind and showed itself there as completely as a finished picture or statue. The work, then, of committing it to paper was not a difficult task.

Likewise your clear-cut speaker is so because he is a clear-cut thinker. He does not plunge into long, intricate sentences and trust to good fortune to help him out. He does not suffer himself to grope like one in a dark and impenetrable forest. His destination is so definitely fixt in his mind that not for an instant does he lose his way. Such a thinker and speaker can readily find an audience.

There should be no hesitation about repeating a word if it is necessary to the clearness of a thought. Macaulay offers a good model for study in this respect. He did not fear to use the same word many times, when he thought it desirable, and you will find nowhere in his writings an obscure use of "he," "she," "they," the "former" and the "latter," commonly found in careless writers.

John Henry Newman's description of the poet may well be applied to the speaker and the writer, and especially to the man who would argue to win :

"He writes passionately, because he feels keenly; forcibly, because he conceives vividly; he sees too clearly to be vague ; he is too serious to be otiose; he can analyse his subject, and therefore he is rich; he embraces it as a whole and in its parts, and therefore he is consistent; he has a firm hold of it, and therefore he is luminous. When his imagination wells up, it overflows in ornament ; when his heart is touched, it thrills along his verse.

He always has the right word for the right idea, and never a word too much. If he is brief, it is because few words suffice ; when he is lavish of them, still each word has its mark, and aids, not embarrasses, the vigorous march of his elocution. He expresses what all feel, but all can not say; and his sayings pass into proverbs among his people, and his phrases become household words and idioms of their daily speech, which is tesselated with the rich fragments of his language, as we see in foreign lands the marbles of Roman grandeur worked into the walls and pavements of modern pal-aces."

When a man says "I know what it is, but I can not express it," he acknowledges that his thought is obscure. An idea must be clearly conceived before it can be clearly exprest. To know words intimately and to be able to choose them with precision and promptitude, is essential to successful argumentation.



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