Precision and Accuracy in Word Choice

“I got the thing.”

This sentence could mean:

get the joke
I understood the joke
I bought the computer.
I caught a cold.






In all three cases, “I got” works, but it really conveys little or no information about what happened. “The thing” equally could mean “cold,” “flu,” “joke,” “tablet,” “computer,” or just about any other noun. Shakespeare even used it to refer to a strategy: “The play’s the thing in which I’ll catch the conscience of the king!

If you told someone to “get a coffee,” he would understand you. If you said, “get a life!” he would probably understand that as well. If the instruction were to “get going,” it could mean several things: “arise from bed,” “leave,” “speed up,” “improve your technique,” and maybe a few more as well.

At casual speech levels, one is less concerned about precision, as gestures, tone and context all help to keep meaning from wandering astray. They are like the emoticons added to text messages to clarify intent (or sometimes strategically to obscure it).  Informal speech also tolerates imprecision and ambiguity because the stakes are low.

At high levels of speech, on the other hand, particularly in writing, a lack of precision can obscure meaning and annoy the person being addressed. Even so, bad habits arise, so that formulaic phrases and jargon often skulk about within the utterances of the unthinking.

Here is an example: You might read the following in  a formal business letter: “I shall keep you apprised of any further developments.” Tell me please: What is a “further development,” and why would I need to be apprised of it? And, does “further” imply that this interaction was a “development”? If so, it did not feel like one.

rodin-le-penseurTrue, precision and accuracy of word choice require a working vocabulary of a reasonable size; however, the greatest need by far is that the utterer/author think about what is to be said. Then, once thinking has started, the utterer/author must carefully and attentively work at forming an expression of that thought. Most imprecise communication is thoughtless, raising the question whether its creator was mindless.

Here is an example of speech gone astray because there was too little thought involved in engendering it:

What a waste it is to lose one’s mind.  Or not to have a mind is being very wasteful.  How true that is.

This man also said, “If we don’t succeed, we run the risk of failure”  and “I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy—but that could change.” This was Dan Quayle, then-Vice-President of the United States.

The Secretary of State in 1982, General Alexander Haig, released a statement that the arms build-up by the United States was “absolutely essential to our hopes for meaningful arms reduction.” This kind of speech, called “double-speak” (after a term in Orwell’s 1984), is not so unthinking as it is elliptical (leaving out several steps) or downright deceptive.

emily litella
Gilda Radner as Emily Litella

In the 1970’s Gilda Radner played the role of Emily Litella on Saturday Night Live. She was an elderly woman of strong opinions and weak hearing, who would come on the show to protest recent news events covered on the show’s “Weekend Update” segment. Almost invariably, she would commence thus: “What’s all this I hear about . . . ?” When the news anchor (usually Chevy Chase or Jane Curtain) would correct her misimpression, she would smile faintly and utter the now famous exit line, “Never-mind.” Here is a sample from the twenty-six editions of the Emily Litella sketch series:

  • “What is all this fuss I hear about the Supreme Court decision on a ‘deaf’ penalty? It’s terrible! Deaf people have enough problems as it is!”
  • violins on television“What’s all this fuss I keep hearing about violins on television? Why don’t parents want their children to see violins on television?”
  • “I’m here tonight to speak out against busting school children. Busting school children is a terrible, terrible thing! I hear it’s going on all over the country.”
  • “Tonight’s commentary is very important because I hear that President Ford wants to make Puerto Rico a steak. Now why does he want to make them a steak? I didn’t think those people even liked meat.”

True, this is comedy, premised upon imprecise perception rather than imprecise expression. But the outcome can be nonsense in any event. Though fuzziness of expression is, without a doubt, not as entertaining as Ms. Litella’s fuzzy understanding, it is surely something to avoid, even in jest.