Monday, March 7, 2011

The uninhabited clause (13) – Stewart Brand

When you use a lot of uninhabited clauses* – that is, when your prose contains mostly (or only) non-human subjects – you will sound academic and theoretical, as opposed to concrete and commonsensical.

A famous example

In a speech to the first annual Hackers Conference (1984), Stewart Brand (pictured) said:

Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine – too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, “intellectual property,” the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better.

In that passage, there isn’t a single human subject. Who wants what? And how does Mr. Brand know that?

The Takeaway: The more frequently you use uninhabited clauses in your writing or public speaking, the more academic and theoretical you will sound. An audience of academics or environmentalists may trust what you say, but a more hardheaded audience probably won’t.** To be on the safe side, put some people in your prose. It will bring your prose down to earth and make it more accessible to worldly audiences. For more examples, see here and here.

See disclaimer.

*An uninhabited clause (my coinage) is a clause with a subject that is a physical thing or a concept, as opposed to a person or group of persons.

**I say this based on 44 years in business writing, including 35 years in speech writing.

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