The language industry has a long tradition in the pursuit of correctness, based on manually drafted rules. However, the end goal has always been communicative efficiency, which is something that can now be addressed directly using empirical methods. Since there are systematic conflicts between rules and efficiency (or between normative and empirical rules), what kind of evidence would it take to convince writers to prefer efficiency to correctness?

3 Answers 3


John Carroll did extensive research on an aspect of this in the 80s. His finding are recorded in a book called "The Nurnberg Funnel" and lead to the development of a practice called "minimalism" in technical communication.

What Carroll observed was that people do not read manuals linearly. They prefer to engage with the product, work till they get stuck, and then use documentation to try to get unstuck.

Carroll posited the existence of "the paradox of sensemaking" that says that what the reader already knows gets in the way of what they are reading and that it takes real world experience, and failure, to break down preconceptions and to actually makes sense of what the text is telling you.

This is only one aspect of the broader question you are asking about -- and perhaps a higher level case, but I think the principles and the evidence to support them might be helpful.

  • Except for the few who RTFM first, I imagine very few. As a fiction writer, it comes down to maintaining people's interest--not only for the work in question but "I can't wait for the next one." If taking all the adverbs out of my books would bolster sales, I might do it (or I might choose to be a stubborn, starving artist).
    – Stu W
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 14:33

Hmm, but the whole point of "correctness" is that if everyone follows the rules, then we have a common ground for understanding.

For example, there's a rule that a pronoun should agree in gender and number with its antecedent. So if I see the sentence, "Bob gave his girlfriend her book", I know immediately that the book belongs to the girlfriend and not Bob, because the girlfriend must be female, while "Bob" is almost surely male, and so "her" must refer to the girlfriend. If we threw out this rule for whatever reason and said that "her" could refer to a man or to a woman, then the sentence becomes ambiguous.

Occasionally people say, Why do we make such a big deal about spelling? If you write the word "difference" and I write it "difrans", we both know what it means, so what difference does it make? My version is shorter and more efficient. But in real life, the problem is that if you write "difrans", I can't be sure if you mean "difference" or "deference" or "diaphragm" or maybe dozens of other words. I may be able to figure it out from context, but at the very least that's extra effort. And if you use your own spelling for every word, where do I begin?

Thus, correctness should increase efficiency, not be its enemy. Correctness should reduce the effort required to decypher the meaning of a text.

Of course any given rule could be a bad one. Like the silly rules, "Never use a preposition to end a sentence with", or "Be sure to not split an infinitive". But the issue there isn't that rules are bad, but that these particular rules are bad, because we end up writing sentences that are awkward and hard to understand ("That is a rule up with which I shall not put") just to conform to an arbitrary rule.

So to convince ME to "prefer efficiency to correctness" ... first you'd have to prove to me that those are in conflict. A language with no rules at all ... I'm not sure how that would even qualify as a language. It would surely be impossible for people to communicate with it.

  • In theory, sure. In practice, "correctness" is often a shibboleth. It divides the class from class, not sense from nonsense. For this reason, the correct is often obscure, and sometimes deliberately so. Then there is the issue that you will optimize for what you measure, so if you optimize for correctness you will tend not to optimize for efficiency, even in areas where correctness is moot.
    – user16226
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 19:00
  • 1
    @mbakeranalecta Perhaps we need to first define "correctness". Yes, I've seen a lot of nonsense rules about what makes "professional" writing. Like, I recall once a document I wrote was sent off to the corporate editor, and among their valuable edits was changing every place I said "use" to "utilize". What sort of mindset leads someone to say, "Hmm, this person used a short, simple word that is easy to understand. I need to fix that." But rules like proper verb tenses, spelling, subject/verb agreement, punctuation, etc, should enhance efficiency and not subtract from it.
    – Jay
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 19:15
  • Agreed. But if the question is whether to focus on efficiency vs correctness, does it not follow that insofar as correctness serves efficiency, that which is most efficient will also be meaningfully correct, whereas focussing on correctness divorced from efficiency would have no tendency to produce efficient communication? Efficiency, in other words, may be the right way to define correctness.
    – user16226
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 19:31
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    Can you give some specific examples? Sure, if someone said, "I don't care if my language is efficient, as long as it is correct", they are likely to produce language that is technically correct but hard to understand because it is obscure. But equally, if someone said, "I don't care if my language is correct, as long as it is efficient", they would be likely to produce language that is concise and pointed but impossible to understand because it doesn't follow conventions, so there's no way to make sense of it without reading the author's mind. ...
    – Jay
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 20:36
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    ... You might say, "Of course when I say that correctness isn't important, I don't mean to carry that to a ridiculous extreme." But likewise if someone says correctness is important, presumably he doesn't not mean to carry it to a ridiculous extreme.
    – Jay
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 20:37

what kind of evidence would it take to convince writers to prefer efficiency to correctness?

Writers already prefer efficiency to correctness. That is why we use computers instead of typewriters and before that, typewriters instead of shorthand, and before that, shorthand instead of longhand. And all along we used fewer and shorter words.

Efficiency over correctness is also how English works. There are no rules in English. Nobody has ever managed the syntax. There is no single correct way of doing anything. You can’t write English for correctness. It evolves constantly for more efficiency. There are no masculine/feminine words. “Thou” was dropped. “Motor hotel” became “motel.” Words are implied all the time, like referring to a mobile phone as a “mobile” or a computing device as a “device.”

If you look at an English book from 1800, it is barely the same language as today, and it gets more efficient the newer you go.

The only check on this is comprehension, not correctness. In American English there are misunderstandings based on using too few words that you wouldn’t necessarily see in British English. In California, where I live, people act out emotions rather than describe them when telling a story. (I was like, “wow!” and he was like “no way!”)

So if you are trying to get that process to go faster, the first step might be to recognize it is already going really, really fast.

And certainly, the writers are not holding it back.

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