How tall is tall?

The more precise you are when you describe something, the easier it will be for your readers to understand you. As simple as that sounds, precision can be hard. For one thing, we know exactly what we mean when we use a word, so it it may feel like we’re being precise enough. The poor readers, on the other hand, are stuck with figuring out the words we put in front of them.

If you say that somebody is wearing a hat, I might picture any of a dozen different kinds of hats. If you tell me she’s wearing a baseball cap, I can’t get it wrong. But baseball caps come in all kinds of colors. Ah, you say it’s a black baseball cap. Now I have a precise image. Or should I also know about the team logo the front? That’s your call. If it’s important to know that she’s a Detroit Tigers fan, mention the big letter D on the front and what it stands for. If it’s not important, don’t.

You say that there’s a tall tree your back yard? I have no idea how tall it is. Tell me that the crown of leaves looms over the top of your three-story house. Or if you are describing a tall person, say that he can look out over the heads of everyone else in the room. I don’t need to know feet and inches, unless the numbers are key to the point you are making.

Even if the numbers are important, I might need a little help grasping them. A team in Great Britain is building a rocket car in an attempt to set a new land speed record. The current record is 763 mph. OK, that sure sounds fast, but so does 85 mph on the freeway. Tell me that 763 mph is fast enough to drive from Chicago to Denver in 90 minutes, or that it’s just shy of the speed of sound.

How about personality characteristics? What am I supposed to think if you tell me that someone is generous, timid, lazy or smart? The words by themselves won’t do it. My idea of generosity might differ from yours. There’s no such thing as a unit of generosity, so you can’t pin a number on it. You’ll have to give me an example. Instead of just saying that the professor is generous with his time, tell me that the professor holds office hours on weekends, something no other faculty member has done in the history of the department.

A woman wanted to explain that, while her dance partner was fat, he was graceful. How fat? How graceful? “It was like floating in the arms of a huge doughnut.”

Let’s get even more abstract. This being a presidential election year, have you had a pollster ask if you think the country is “moving in the right direction”? Have you noticed that a candidate’s own proposals are “plans,” but the opponents have “schemes”? At one point there were 22 presidential candidates among the Republicans and Democrats. Did you prefer the one who wanted to “Rebuild the American Dream,” or the one who was “Reigniting the Promise of America,” or the one who said he’d “Make America Great Again”? There was one who had “Fresh Ideas for America,” and another who offered “New Possibilities, Real Leadership.”

If you don’t want people to get a clear picture of what you mean — or if you aren’t entirely sure yourself — vagueness is the way to go.

But you know what you mean, and you have great ideas, so you want to be precise.




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