Precision a Problem? Make It a Game


“I’m fine.”

If this is the response you get when you ask someone how they are, do you really have a firm grip on her status?

Said in anger or sarcasm, the meaning may be opposite of what the words would normally make you think. Said unsurely, it could make you unsure of the person’s real status. Even if said confidently, what does “fine” really mean? Is the person healthy, happy, doing okay but not great, mentally stable, or a combination of any of these?

According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition, there are three entries for “fine” with a total of 16 definitions!

Using precise words helps us avoid miscommunication. The better “mind picture” we can give, the surer the success of what we say or write.

This morning, if someone asked me how I was, I might say, “The gloomy weather is trying to get me down, but it’s not succeeding.”  A week before, it might have been, “I can’t stop smiling.”

One great method for trying to drill down to a precise word, is to play a sort of word chain. Here’s an example:

workspace > desk > L-shaped computer desk with writing area

Here’s another one:

food > snack > crackers > wheat crackers with a slice of cheddar cheese

The further you get in the chain, the more precise the description. Of course, there are times when “desk” or “crackers” will suffice, but you get the drift.

We should strive for precision with verbs, too.

Alfred is trying to get his keys out versus Alfred fumbled for his keys.

The customer seemed angry versus The customer demanded to see the manager about the defective product.

The best time to play this Precision Game is when you’re revising. The better you get at it, the less people will misunderstand what you’re saying.

Technology works great — when you make sure to push all the right buttons. Unfortunately, on those days when I feel like someone poured concrete into my sinuses, those buttons sometimes get neglected. Thus the reason for my absence last week. My apologies for any confusion. ☹


3 thoughts on “Precision a Problem? Make It a Game

  1. Unfortunately, precision only leads to better understanding when both parties (in this case, writer and reader) know what the more precise words mean. Otherwise the reader just ends up mad at the writer for using “big words.” Do you have any advice for how to deal with/avoid that problem?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thomas,

      That’s a great point. I would argue that using “big words” whose meanings are not clear to the reader is NOT precise writing. A good part of being precise is to understand the needs of your audience(s). If the writer is using graduate level vocabulary for readers with an eighth grade reading level, the writer is not being precise.

      As I have always said, people who use big words to sound smart and ineffective writers. Writers who concentrate on clarity ARE smart!

      Liked by 1 person

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