The Rhetoric of Direct and Indirect Speech

By Graham Peterson

Indirect, ambiguous, vague speech is incredibly common in formal arguments, and it is incredibly ineffective at persuading anyone.

I think most of us already agree with that statement, because there are standard and good arguments against ambiguity.  It can signal that the author does not herself know exactly what she is arguing.  It can signal that the author himself is purposefully obfuscating his meaning, trying to be tricky.  It can signal that the author is overgeneralizing, without thinking hard about and looking hard at the issue in front of her.

But I want to extend the discussion, and note here two particular kinds of indirect speech, and their use in formal writing.  By indirect speech here, I mean little hinting and ambiguous comments that make inexplicit reference to a literature, an ism, a school; I mean large, category, ex cathedra assertions with strings of citations tacked on; I mean jargon that only loosely references classes of stylized findings and literatures.

Note that the fact that someone is being ambiguous or indirect isn’t necessarily a sign that he is an unfocused idiot.  Indirect speech is really useful, even (trigger warning) rational. Steven Pinker points out in an article about it, that it’s a primary way we avoid conflict.  By only alluding to what one wants, or is asserting, and allowing for other parties to interpret one’s statement in multiple ways, one has recourse to run to the least offensive of its interpretations, and can plausibly deny that one intended the unfavorable interpretation.

Additionally, indirect speech helps us maintain in groups.  Sarcastic jokes are I think the best example of this phenomenon.  I know Janet hates opera, and she knows, that I know, that she hates opera.  It’s tacit and common knowledge between us, part of the mutual constitution of our friendship.  So when she says she has a date and I ask her which opera she’s going to, we both smile and chuckle, reassured that we have a common bond.  Full blown sarcasm isn’t common in formal writing, but wink-nod comments are.

These otherwise perfectly reasonable uses of indirect speech lead to an unpersuasive mess in formal arguments.

First, the in-grouping mechanism of indirect speech.  When I base my argument on citations, jargon, and isms, instead of direct explication of the claims I am making, I convey to my reader, if she is an outsider, that she is in the company of experts and should just trust whatever ex cathedra assertions I make.  If my reader is an insider and well familiar with the common knowledge I am only alluding to, then I should ask myself why I’m arguing at all.

Whether the reader is an insider or an outsider, there is no argument, just the authority supposedly conveyed by disposition and in group boundary keeping.

Now for the ambiguity-as-conflict-avoidance mechanism of indirect speech.  When I base my argument on diffuse citations to ginormous literatures, histories, or intellectual categories, I allow for a lot of ambiguity in interpretation.  That makes my claims unassailable, because nobody really knows exactly what I’m claiming, and I’m free to hedge, dodge, and qualify my way out of making an actual claim or demonstrating it with evidence.

People tend to accuse one another, regarding ambiguity, of “purposeful obfuscation,” but I doubt that the cynical interpretation is actually what’s going on in most cases (except for maybe a few postmodern authors who get off on playing games).  People generally want to avoid conflict with one another; intellectual hierarchies and territories are wooden and violent; and being purposefully ambiguous is a great way to avoid offending territorial babies.

So here we have, I think, a little sociology of good writing.  Bad writing comes from using indirect speech to reference the authority of in groups, and it also uses indirect speech to avoid crossing boundaries between in groups and out groups.  Let’s stop it, and just have an adult conversation about difficult topics, saying exactly what we mean.

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