Thursday, October 2, 2014

Bessie the cow on the ladder of abstraction

Bessie dodges the issue.
Paying attention to the length and complexity of words, as I noted here and here, gives your reader a helping hand in understanding you and, if nothing else, staying awake.

Those posts dealt with the origins of English words, those of Latin derivation being longer and more abstract than those of Germanic origin.

Another way to get at this is a concept known as "the ladder of abstraction," a creation of the American linguist S. I. Hayakawa.

Have you ever experienced writers or speakers who:
  • bury you in an avalanche of data without providing the significance?
  • discuss theories and ideals, completely detached from real-world practicalities?
Each of these is at one end of the ladder. Andrew Dlugan, a speech coach, has a good explanation of the ladder on his website here. He illustrates the idea with Hayakawa's example of a cow named Bessie:
  • wealth (most abstract, top of the ladder)
  • assets
  • farm assets
  • livestock
  • cows
  • the cow named Bessie
  • atoms and molecules forming Bessie (most concrete, bottom of the ladder)
Any of these is appropriate, depending on your context. During a presentation or in a piece of writing you should be moving up and down the ladder, Dlugan says.
Audiences need both concrete details and abstract principles and lessons. To make a persuasive argument and establish a powerful rhythm, balance your speech between the two. Move up and down the ladder (and spend some time in the middle, if appropriate), making your message more understandable for the audience at many different levels.
As you edit and rewrite, ask yourself where each word is on the ladder and decide if that's where you want to be at this point. Are you starting with specifics and then drawing a conclusion from them? Are you starting with a big idea and supporting it with details?

To help you remember to do this, keep the image of Bessie on the ladder in your mind. Go ahead, get it out of your mind. Go ahead.

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