English has too many rules to remember them all. But some meta-rules can help us master the complexity.
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Here’s what I want to do in this episode. I want to prepare you for the rest of the episodes. And here’s what I want to do in the rest of the episodes: I want to equip you to make good decisions about your use of language.
Rules Within Rules
In episode one, I talked about how little we can rely on rules to make our English as strong and useful as it can be. Part of the problem, I’ll remind you, is that English is so complex that, if we have to rely on conscious rules for everything, there will be just too many to remember. But think about how much life would be simplified if you had a rule that contained within it a hundred or more rules. If such a rule could exist, then to be useful, it couldn’t exactly contain the other rules; if it did, then to remember the one rule, you’d actually have to remember all the sub-rules it contains. There’d be no simplification at all. Instead, what a rule must do in order to save you from having to remember a hundred rules, is that it must be able to generate those rules.
A rule that can generate rules is what we call a meta-rule. And the good news for all of us is that we can learn to use meta-rules as easily as we can learn to use rules.
But wouldn’t it be great if, after discovering a few thousand meta-rules to contain the millions of rules required by English, we could then discover some meta-meta rules to contain those? And then some meta-meta-meta rules to contain those? And how far could it go? How many metas would we have to stack up to get all the rules down to a truly small number?
Well, the fact is that each of us does have a small number of über-rules (ultra-meta-rules?) that guide us all the time. These ultra-meta-rules are our fundamental values and beliefs. These beliefs include beliefs about why we do what we do. In fact, our understanding of what it is we’re doing is a kind of belief.
Yet More Meta
So, if I’m going to teach you some meta-rules, I should go ahead and state what my fundamental values and beliefs are, or at least those that are relevant to the topic at hand. This is because a meta-rule can’t contain or generate an incompatible rule. This means that, if you find that your fundamental values and beliefs are very different from mine, you’ll probably also find that you won’t see much sense in the meta-rules that I’ll be teaching here. The rules I’ll generate out of my metarules won’t make sense to you if you don’t share the basic understanding out of which they grow.
I have to confess that I haven’t tried every possible set of meta-rules. I’ve used some that grow out of my fundamental values and a theory of what language is for. I don’t believe that I can necessarily talk you into sharing my values or even my theory. Some things simply have to be taken as a starting point, because to go back to very first principles would simply take too much time and involve us in too much complexity.
Some basics in our lives are like that. For example, the philosopher George Santayanasaid, “That life is worth living is the most necessary of assumptions and, were it not assumed, the most impossible of conclusions.”
So, without trying to make a complete case for them, as if they were presuppositions, I’ll repeat the values that underlie my approach to speaking and writing:
- I respect my audience.
- I respect the English language.
A Love That Speaks Its Name
Time for a personal confession. I said that I respect my audience. The truth goes beyond that. The fact is that I love humanity. Part of this, I’m sure, is unreasonable and unreasoning. If it’s a disease, this crazy and inexplicable love of humanity, it’s a disease I share with dogs. In any case, I’ve got it.
But, for my wanting to supply others with English as a powerful tool, I have some perfectly reasonable grounds. Mainly, it’s a matter of my wanting the people around me to make the best possible decisions.
Let me unpack that a little.
The fact is, we don’t live in a world of nature, if by nature we mean a world free of human influences. We live, mainly, in a world of human construction, a social world. It’s also a world that’s moving toward less authoritarian societies. This movement is not inevitable. Or, even if it is, it’s not inevitable that the progress will be steady and quick. It’s also not uniform. But it seems to be happening, and I welcome it.
In a less authoritarian world, people need better tools for making personal decisions. The first of these tools is language. The more democratic a society becomes, the less change can be managed simply by establishing who’s boss. In an autocratic or highly stratified society, much communication needs to achieve nothing more than to say, “do this or else”, or “don’t do that or else.” The reasons why things are done or not done are dreadfully simple. The less our lives are driven by our place in a pecking order, the more we must rely on language to tell us not only what we must or mustn’t do, or even what options are open to us, and more about how we can choose among options; in other words, why.
Language and Choice
Why is a very tricky matter, especially in the absence of strong authority. “Or else you’ll be punished” is simple. Far less simple are the whys that aren’t imposed on us, whys such as, “Because it will increase your likelihood of happiness by a small percentage”. Or, “because it might result in fewer highway deaths.” Why is about complex calculations, about tradeoffs, and about nuance. In a world in which why isn’t simply imposed on us from above, we need a tool for exploring these complex matters. Language is the first of these tools.
Even in the intrapersonal space, that is, where you and I speak to ourselves alone, we use language. And because we need to process matters of why, even internally, we need for language to be a good tool for conveying meaning. In other words, if we speak to ourselves in private, even there we need clear and effective language, to help us make good decisions.
“No man is an island”, said John Donne, and he was right. He was a poet, and didn’t think it was his responsibility to delve too deeply into the whys and wherefores or even the precise how of our being interconnected and interdependent.
But let’s start with what’s easy to see: In the realm of communicable diseases, it should be clear to everybody (even if, sadly, it’s not) that there’s no clear boundary between private and public health.
Every winter we have a flu season. Influenza cases increase greatly in the months of December through March. The more cases occur, the higher the likelihood of other cases, since the victims of the disease also serve as its carriers. This means that every time an individual makes a bad decision which increases his likelihood of catching the disease, he also increases the odds of his becoming a carrier. The greater the number of individuals who make poor choices that seem private, the greater the public danger.
Contagious disease represents only one of the most obvious examples of private behavior being also public. In many other areas of life as well, I want people around me to make the best possible decisions for themselves, because the sum total of all those tiny decisions is the overall health and sanity of the society I get to live in.
If the people around me are going to make good decisions, they need to have good tools for deliberating, that is, for considering their options. The first of those tools is language. And that’s why I care about fostering a language that’s as good a tool as possible.
As George Orwell put it, our language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
In other words, poor language is a self-reinforcing causal loop. It’s a vicious cycle. And it’s one I want to do everything I can to break. I want the people who make up my environment to think about things in ways that clarify rather than obscure what they’re thinking about. That’s how they’ll make good decisions.
That’s why I want to equip you with language that does its work well. I want the habit of clear thought to spread from sea to shining sea, and beyond.
There’s Nothing More Practical Than a Good Theory
In this episode, I’ve been dealing with the extremely meta level of fundamental values and beliefs. Next comes the matter of what meta-rules follow from those meta-meta-rules. And that’s what I’ll be aiming at in all the other episodes of this podcast. I’ll be trying to trace a coherent line of thought from respect for audience and respect for the language all the way down to the tiniest day-to-day matters like subject-verb agreement.
For me, this process, of moving from the most meta down to the finest-grained rules, involves defining what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.
If that sounds awfully theoretical… well, it is. But if you think it’s not practical to start at such a high level, that’s where I respectfully disagree. One of my guiding principles was stated very handily by organizational management guru Kurt Lewin. He said, “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.”
Looking over my career as a communicator, I’d have to say that the single most common reason I’ve seen communication efforts fail is that people have forgotten why they’re doing what they’re doing. In too many cases, they never clarified the why at all.
So, in our next episode, we’ll start looking at why we communicate, and what the whole process involves. That will be the foundation for our developing some meta-rules that will make our communication stronger.
Is it really possible that you and I can improve the overall quality of thought in the English-speaking world?
I, certainly, am willing to try, and I hope you’ll join me, starting with the next episode.
Until then, I’m Max Christian Hansen wishing you a great week and effective communication.
[There’s a short coda on how to give feedback and participate in the dialogue around Word Shots.]