propositional density – a helpful steer on writing and revising

Yes, it’s another post on terminology, on naming. Being able to give something a name is important – a name is shorthand for a lot of information. When we name something we can then discuss it, and this is of course what we frequently do in scholarly work. But sometimes learning a new name for something familiar can also help us to see that something differently. And being able to de-familiarise what you’ve written is pretty well always helpful in academic research and writing.

So to today’s term – propositional density. My design dictionary puts it this way. A proposition is a simple statement, a statement that cannot be made simpler. So The cat sat on the mat. Now take, Schrödinger’s cat sat on the mat. Ive added something much more than the name Schrödinger. Ive added a reference to a famous “thought experiment’ in quantum physics. The statement now has serious propositional density.

Propositional density refers to the amount of meaning that is conveyed in an image, web-page or text through the relationship between its various information elements. A statement has both surface density – the meaning is immediately apparent, it is visible, the cat is on the mat – and deep density – meanings that come along with each of the elements, meanings that can be inferred.There is something important in the seated cat example about this very particular cat. So far so good.

High propositional density of the good kind occurs when there are multiple and interesting meanings to be made from an apparently simple surface proposition. A pun is an example of a proposition that you can read and understand at its most literal, at the surface level. However, the pun becomes amusing, appealing and memorable because of its double meaning, because of additional deeper embedded meanings that can be inferred. 

Designers suggest that a good design is one where the number of deeper propositions exceeds the simple. When this happens, viewer/readers/users are engaged, delighted, stimulated. If you want to know more about how designers think about propositional density, try this blog post by David Knell who looks at logos, character design for films and the use of symbols. 

However, designers caution, high proportional density can be mis-handled. High propositional density of the not-so-good kind happens when there are so many possible meanings that the reader/user/viewer loses sight of the surface proposition. Too  much noise. Just too many possible interpretations and wrinkles to think about. The viewer/user/reader has so much to consider that they cannot work out what is going on. They are confused. The point contained in the surface reading is lost. As designer Stephen Bradley puts it, “Contradictory propositions will confuse your message, nullify the benefits of a higher propositional density, and work against your concept and theme”.

Still with me? OK, let’s move on. Propositional density can be a helpful complementary idea in academic writing. It particularly helps us to examine our syntax and paragraphing. to get granular with our writing.

We often hear about the problems of propositionally dense academic writing. When supervisors write “unpack this”, they usually mean that the writing is propositionally dense, but not in a good way. When people complain about academic writing being clunky and hard to follow they usually mean that the writing is propositionally dense, but not in a good way. When I say that reading something is like chewing cotton wool, I am referring to propositional density, but not in a good way.

Scholars typically work with high proportional density. We deal in complex ideas. Our key disciplinary terms are concepts that have extended histories. But there are often debates about key ideas and multiple interpretations. This is why we always explain what we mean when we use categories and labels. We don’t let our readers assume what we mean when we use particular terms – we try to steer their reading so that they can follow our argument.

We can’t avoid scholarly propositional density. Just look at your key disciplinary terms – those complex ideas with long histories and debates – they often take the form of abstract nouns. So in my branch of social science we routinely speak of democracy, class, society, media etc. (Sometimes these disciplinary terms get very multi-syllabled and very very complex — democratisation, classification, socialisation, mediatisation. ) These are important terms and we/I need to use them.

However, when we use a lot of complex ideas in a short space of time it can get very difficult for readers. This is not just because the words we are using have a large number of syllables. It’s the sheer weightiness of the ideas that they carry that matter – and because they make our text, the overall statement, propositionally dense. But not in a good way. There’s just too much going on for the reader to make sense of what we are trying to say. Too many possible meanings jostling for attention.

Academic writers, just like designers, have to carefully manage propositional density. They/we want sentences and paragraphs where the surface meaning is clear, but there are also layers of meaning for readers to consider and enjoy. But too many complex ideas jammed in all together, in just a few words, and the reader will lose their way and lose sight of the point the writer is making. 

Now this might all seem obvious. And it is. Really. But my point here is that having a term like propositional density gives us a useful academic writing tool. We can for example simply put propositional density on our list of reminders to ourselves when we write. And when we revise. 

When we revise our writing and find statements with high propositional density of the not so good kind, we need to ask whether the overall surface density can be made clearer by removing some of complex elements. By making the statement less propositionally dense.

When we write we can consider the propositional density of our text by asking ourselves these questions – 

  • Have I put enough nuance into the draft? Is this work propositionally dense in a good way?And perhaps more importantly
  • Is this work too propositionally dense? Is this sentence propositionally dense in a good or not so good way? Have I jammed too many ideas with too many potential meanings into one small sequence of words? Will the reader get lost working their way through all of the potentially deeper meanings? Does this paragraph hang together because the overall surface meaning is clear to the reader? Or are there just to many ideas crammed into this one sequence of sentences? Is there too much going on here for the reader to grips the overall point that I want to make?

Looking for sentences crammed full of multi-syllabled words can often be your key clue to finding propositional density. As can lots of titles, quotes, multiple phrase and clauses jammed tightly together. But what you are looking for when you find these tell-tale signs is whether the reader can see the surface meaning, and have enough of the deep to understand, learn from and enjoy your point.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in nominalisation, nouny, propositional density, revision, revision strategy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to propositional density – a helpful steer on writing and revising

  1. sylviahammond4gmailcom says:

    Fascinating, & propositionally dense – in a good way 😉. As usual – timeous 😊


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