Henry Adams at his desk. Attrib: Marion Hooper Adams, PD-US.
I was reading a recent article by Andrew Sullivan, who asks the question: “Does punctuation matter?” The discussion was nominally about internet and texting abbreviation in both word and thought, but raised other questions to me:
Does precision in writing matter? If so, when does it matter?
These are devilish questions. Of course precision matters in many mundane matters, for instance if you are giving instructions regarding something. It matters if your goal is in fact to be as precise as is possible, for example in the general discourse and writings of science. It matters, I suppose, anytime you think you wish to be precise and clear.
When is precision less desired?
old leaves drifting down,
vermilion and ochre,
resplendent in death
Perhaps the obvious places here might be in the writing of poetry, or even fiction, where the ineffable is often a goal of a writer, to allow for the play of images and ideas, particularly ones which are not directly stated, and perhaps not even intended by the writer, but which arise in the thoughts of the reader, stimulated by their reading to explore their own experiences and memories, extending the original written thoughts. The regular use of irony and sarcasm and of wordplay generally would seem to be “designed” for some level of ambiguity and add to the depth of the meaning of any passage, the depth provided by what is deliberately or accidentally implied. Sterne’s Tristan Shandy is beloved of its readers because of its imprecise meandering and multiple asides within asides. In the world of politics, imprecision is often the desired outcome of “spin.” Even a cooking recipe may be best used as a rough guideline, allowing the artist in a cook to come alive between the interstices of the list of ingredients and the often simple instructions for combining those ingredients to make the desired food.
Is it possible to be precise in writing?
Perhaps a good example to examine is that of an engineer, writing specifications for a bridge, that, without sufficient precision in design and execution, would not bear the weight of the traffic it was designed to bear up. The engineer can only be so precise, and must work within the inherent limits of engineering knowledge and the limits of language. Engineers are able to design effective bridges because their craft embraces relative precision: If a bridge is built within specific tolerances, it will stand up to the loads it is designed for. Engineers also use perhaps the most precise language invented, mathematics, to minimize the risk of being misunderstood in critical details.
But what about the rest of us who do not employ mathematics to communicate more precisely? I think a reasonable and useful precision can be attained using well-structured sentences and paragraphs, using language that is well-established or commonly understood by an audience to describe the subject at hand, but even engineering-level precision can only be approached. We use the various languages of the world, each with their own built-in precision and imprecision. A famous example of language-specific precision is that of the Inuit language, which has more than a score of words for snow, each differentiating between refined states of snow, whereas Western European languages have just one word, relying on adjectives to modify their description of different states of snow.
It is possible to misunderstand some aspect of just about any sentence that can be written, whether the chosen vocabularies are crude or more refined. Writing in fact is inevitably imprecise; there is an inherent limit to that precision not unlike Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in quantum mechanics. This limit varies from person to person and from subject to subject, from writer and their various readers, and is affected not only by the skill of the writer but by the focus of the reader, the thoroughness with which they read, the prior understanding they bring to the reading, their mood, etc. Writing has no meaning without the context of a reader, and it is the complex interplay of the writer’s purpose and skill with the various reader’s ability and desire to understand, among many factors, that determines the final, immeasurable amount of precision attained, unique to each writer and reader.