Mind Your Peas and Kews

Here’s an amusing bit of serendipity. I just added a quotation to Quotations and only after posting it (and doing various other tasks) realized it’s highly relevant to a little argument we were having the other day about the importance and value of precision in language. My colleague posted a Comment which made much of the difference between saying ‘a something’ and ‘the something.’ He also pointed out that ‘Precision of language matters, if you want to be understood.’ That seems like such an obvious, incontrovertible statement, doesn’t it? But people do attempt to controvert it. People in fact actually mocked the idea of making anything of the difference between ‘a’ and ‘the’.

Very well. Behold that Stanley Fish quotation (and he’s a US academic, last I heard, so maybe it’s not a US-UK thing. As I said, I certainly hope it isn’t.):

Everything follows from the statement that the pursuit of truth is a — I would say the — central purpose of the university. For the serious embrace of that purpose precludes deciding what the truth is in advance, or ruling out certain accounts of the truth before they have been given a hearing, or making evaluations of those accounts turn on the known or suspected political affiliations of those who present them.

Italics his. So…he seems to think there’s a difference, a difference worth remarking on in an interjection, a difference worth emphasizing with italics – between a central purpose and the central purpose. He doesn’t seem to think it’s obsessive or peculiar to notice the difference.

I’ve seen a couple of other good remarks on the value and necessity of precise language in the past couple of days. One is somewhat indirectly relevant, but it’s suggestive. It’s by Robin Dunbar, in The Trouble with Science (page 106). He’s talking about strong inference, and the way it has accelerated the progress of science in various fields.

Precisely formulated hypotheses are compatible with a very much narrower range of empirical results than more loosely formulated ones.

He’s not actually talking about language there, but the point is the same. Woolly language allows a much wider range of meaning, which can be nice in poetry (though precise meaning can be very good in poetry too) but is not nice at all in substantive discussion.

The other is from Susan Haack in Manifesto of a Passionate Moderate (page 53). She is discussing Peirce’s view of science and inquiry.

…’studying in a literary spirit’…implies a preoccupation with what is aesthetically pleasing that diverts attention from inquiry and pulls against what ought to be the highest priorities of philosophical writing: not elegance, euphony, allusion, suggestiveness, but clarity, precision, explicitness, directness.

So there you are. Keep the wool for knitting sweaters and guillotines, and be precise when using language.

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