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Humanities LibreTexts

3: Writing with the Appropriate Precision

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    • Contributed by Bradley H. Dowden
    • Professor (Philosophy) at California State University Sacramento

    To be a good communicator, you should be precise enough for the purpose at hand. When faced with a claim that someone wants you to accept, or when you are given a recommendation for what you should do, your first response ought to be to ask yourself two questions: (1) What do they mean? and (2) Why do they think that? This chapter is devoted to question (1). Writers and speakers make mistakes in what they mean in many ways. This chapter focuses on being insufficiently precise and being overly precise.

    People are insufficiently precise in three ways--by being ambiguous, or too vague, or overly general. They are overly precise by giving too many details or by being pseudoprecise.

    Suppose you say to a sales person in an art supply store that the number of pounds of clay you want to buy is somewhere in the neighborhood of seven to eight. Are you being imprecise? Not necessarily. If you don’t really care whether you are sold seven pounds, or eight pounds, or seven and a third pounds, then what you said is precise enough. In that case, it is proper to say you were being precise. There is no sense in being more precise. But if you say to a friend, “Stand somewhere pretty so I can take a good picture,” then you probably should be more precise if you want to be a good communicator.

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