Quintilian? William Cobbett? John Cooke? Charles Haddon Spurgeon? W. E. Smith? Walter Winchell? Rollin D. Salisbury? William H. Taft?
Dear Quote Investigator: A maxim about the goal of communication expresses an ideal that is desirable but nearly impossible to achieve. Here are three versions:
(1) You must not only speak so that people can understand you, but so that they cannot misunderstand you.
(2) Teach not only so that the children can understand you, but so that they cannot misunderstand you.
(3) You must write not so that you can be understood but so that you cannot possibly be misunderstood.
Would you please explore the provenance of this family of sayings?
Quote Investigator: The Roman educator Quintilian (Marcus Fabius Quintilianus) published a multi-volume work about rhetoric titled “Institutio Oratoria” (“Institutes of Oratory”) around the year 95 CE. Quintilian discussed strategies of persuasion. Here is a passage from book 8 chapter 2 translated into English by scholar Harold Edgeworth Butler. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:
For we must never forget that the attention of the judge is not always so keen that he will dispel obscurities without assistance, and bring the light of his intelligence to bear on the dark places of our speech. On the contrary, he will have many other thoughts to distract him unless what we say is so clear that our words will thrust themselves into his mind even when he is not giving us his attention, just as the sunlight forces itself upon the eyes.
Therefore our aim must be not to put him in a position to understand our argument, but to force him to understand it. Consequently we shall frequently repeat anything which we think the judge has failed to take in as he should.
Below is the key phrase in its original Latin form:
Quare non, ut intelligere possit, sed, ne omnino possit non intelligere, curandum.
QI believes that Quintilian’s statement was the seed which produced the efflorescence of sayings under examination. For example, in 1807 James Beattie who was a Professor of Moral Philosophy and Logic at Marischal College in Scotland published “Elements of Moral Science”. Beattie cited Quintilian when he presented his own version of the saying:
We should study, says Quintilian, not only to be understood in what we speak or write, but to make it impossible for the attentive to misunderstand us.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Continue reading It Isn’t Enough To Write So You Will Be Understood. You Have To Write So You Can’t Be Misunderstood