COIK—Clear Only If Known

Edgar Dale

For years I have puzzled over the inept communication of simple directions, especially those given me when touring. I ask such seemingly easy questions as "Where do I turn off Route 40 for the by-pass around St. Louis? How do I get to the planetarium? Is this the way to the Federal Security Building?" The individual whom I hail for directions either replies, "I'm a stranger here myself", or gives you in kindly fashion the directions you request. He finishes by saying pleasantly, "You can't miss it."

But about half the time you do miss it. You turn at High Street instead of Ohio Street. It was six blocks to the turn, not seven. Many persons who give directions tell you to turn right when they mean left. You carefully count the indicated five stoplights before the turn and discover that your guide meant that blinkers should be counted as stoplights. Some of the directions exactly followed turn out to be inaccurate. Your guide himself didn't know how to get there.

Now education is the problem of getting our bearings, of developing orientation, of discovering in what direction to go and how to get there. An inquiry into the problem of giving and receiving directions may help us discover something important about the educational process itself. Why do people give directions poorly and sometimes follow excellent directions inadequately?

First of all, people who give directions do not always understand the complexity of what they are communicating. They think it a simple matter to get to the Hayden Planetarium because it is simple for them. When someone says, "You can't miss it," he really means, "I can't miss it." He is suffering from what has been called the COIK fallacy—Clear Only If Known. It's easy to get to the place you are inquiring about if you already know how to get there.

We all suffer from the COIK fallacy. For example, during a World Series game a recording was made of a conversation between a rabid Brooklyn baseball fan and an Englishman seeing a baseball game for the first time.

The Englishman asked, "What is a pitcher?"

"He's the man down there pitching the ball to the catcher."

"But," said the Englishman, "all of the players pitch the ball and all of them catch the ball. There aren't just two persons who pitch and catch."

Later the Englishman asked, "How many strikes do you get before you are out?"

The Brooklyn fan said, "Three."

"But," replied the Englishman, "that man struck at the ball five times before he was out."

These directions about baseball, when given to the uninitiated, are clear only if known.

Try the experiment sometime of handing a person a coat and ask him to explain how to put it on. He must assume that you have lived in the tropics, have never seen a coat worn or put on, and that he is to tell you verbally how to do it. For example, he may say, "Pick it up by the collar." This you cannot do, since you do not know what a collar is. He may tell you to put your arm in the sleeve or to button up the coat. But you can't follow these directions because you have no previous experience with either a sleeve or a button.

The communication of teachers to pupils suffers from the COIK fallacy. An uninitiated person may think that the decimal system is easy to understand. It is—if you already know it. Some idea of the complexity of the decimal system can be gained by teachers who are asked by an instructor to understand his explanation of the duodecimal system, a system which some mathematicians will say is even simpler than the decimal system. It is not easy to understand with just one verbal explanation, I assure you.

A teacher of my acquaintance once presented a group of parents of first-grade children with the shorthand equivalents of the first-grade reader and asked them to read this material. It was a frustrating experience. But these parents no longer thought it was such a simple matter to learn how to read in the first grade. Reading, of course, is easy if you already know how to do it.

Sources of COIK

Sometimes our directions are over-complex and introduce unnecessary elements. They do not follow the law of parsimony. Any unnecessary element mentioned when giving directions may prove to be a distraction. Think of the directions given for solving problems in arithmetic or for making a piece of furniture or for operating a camera. Have all unrelated and unnecessary items been eliminated? Every unnecessary step or statement is likely to increase the difficulty of reading and understanding the directions. There is no need to over-elaborate or labor the obvious.

In giving directions it is also easy to overestimate the experience of our questioner. It is hard indeed for a Philadelphian to understand that anyone doesn't know where the City Hall is. Certainly if you go down Broad Street, you can't miss it. We know where it is: why doesn't our questioner?

Another frequent reason for failure in the communication of directions is that explanations are more technical than necessary. Thus a plumber once wrote to a research bureau pointing out that he had used hydrochloric acid to clean out sewer pipes and inquired, "Was there any possible harm?" The first reply was as follows: "The efficacy of hydrochloric acid is indisputable, but the corrosive residue is incompatible with metallic permanence." The plumber then thanked them for the information approving his procedure. The dismayed research bureau tried again, saying, "We cannot assume responsibility for the production of toxic and noxious residue with hydrochloric acid and suggest you use an alternative procedure." Once more the plumber thanked them for their approval. Finally, the bureau, worried about the New York sewers, called in a third scientist who wrote: "Don't use hydrochloric acid. It eats hell out of the pipes."

Some words are not understood and others are misunderstood. For example, a woman confided to a friend that the doctor told her she had "very close veins". A patient was puzzled as to how she could take two pills three times a day. A little girl told her mother that the superintendent of the Sunday school said he would drop them into the furnace if they missed three Sundays in succession. He had said that he would drop them from the register.

We know the vast difference between knowing how to do something and being able to communicate that knowledge to others, or being able to verbalize it. We know how to tie a bow knot but have trouble telling others how to do it.

Another difficulty in communicating directions lies in the unwillingness of a person to say that he doesn't know. Someone drives up and asks you where Oxford Road is. You realize that Oxford Road is somewhere in the vicinity and feel a sense of guilt about not even knowing the streets in your own town. So you tend to give poor directions instead of admitting that you don't know.

Sometimes we use the wrong medium for communicating our directions. We make them entirely verbal, and the person is thus required to keep them in mind until he has followed out each of the parts of the directions. Think, for example, how hard it is to remember Hanford 6-7249 merely long enough to dial it after looking it up.

A crudely drawn map, of course, would serve the purpose. Some indication of distance would also help, although many people seem unable to give adequate estimates of distances in terms of miles. A chart or a graph can often give us an idea in a glance that is communicated verbally only with great difficulty.

Problems of Hearing

But we must not put too much of the blame for inadequate directions on those who give them. Sometimes the persons who ask for help are also at fault. Communication, we must remember, is a two-way process.

Sometimes an individual doesn't understand directions but thinks he does. Only when he has lost his way does he realize that he wasn't careful enough to make sure that he really did understand. How often we let a speaker or instructor get by with such mouth-filling expressions as "emotional security", "audio-visual materials", "self-realization", without asking the questions which might clear them up for us. Even apparently simple terms like "needs" or "interests" have hidden many confusions. Our desire not to appear dumb, to be presumed "in the know", prevents us form really understanding what has been said.

We are often in too much of a hurry when we ask for directions. Like many tourists, we want to get to our destination quickly so that we can hurry back home. We don't bother to savor the trip or the scenery. So we impatiently rush off before our informant has really had time to catch his breath and make sure that we understand.


The material above came from a standard business textbook, but I found it as a translation exercise on a Chinese university website. If nothing else, that should prove that COIK is widespread and has been around for a long time—at least thirty years (and probably a lot longer).

The real cause of COIK is a misunderstanding of audience. The COIK writer is writing to himself/herself, not to the listener, and because the writer knows the subject in detail, there's no need to be specific or clear—or even to have good grammar and pronoun reference—because obviously everyone knows what the writer is driving at.


Pikett, Nell Ann, and Ann A. Laster. Technical English. 3rd ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1980. N. pag. Zhejiang University graduate school. Web. 22 June 2009. <http://sts.zju.edu.cn/english1/grade_b/unit2/unit2_text.html>.