The way in which we use language on an everyday basis, though not the sexiest topic, is worth some serious attention, particularly today, when it seems as though our collective vocabulary is shrinking at a particularly alarming rate.
Why should anybody care about this?
Being imprecise with language is insidious. It’s something people don’t normally spend time thinking about, and yet it has a negative cognitive effect which, on a large scale, causes very real problems that we, as a people, tend to overlook.
What do I mean by being imprecise?
Well, for an easy example, watch Donald Trump speak in any interview.
We transmute thought into language and deliver our thoughts to the world with language. It’s one thing to have an elegantly simple, yet profound thought, which you express in simple terms. In fact, there’s real beauty in this. It is entirely another thing, however, to have a thought you perfunctorily or sloppily articulate in a way that does not accurately convey the thought or, perhaps worse, conveys a different thought, or an array of different thoughts you had no intention of conveying.
This seems like splitting hairs, I know. But this kind of imprecision, collectively, does some real damage.
There are four problems I see with this, three of which are societal and extremely relevant in our current cultural milieu.
1. Flattening of Meaning
Being imprecise with language flattens meaning.
What does this mean?
This means that an imprecision can take an immensely complex situation, or a nuanced, valuable thought, and flatten it into something reductive (potentially dangerously reductive), something oversimplified, or something that is simply no longer an accurate representation.
This also leads to ignorance. When exceptionally convoluted situations are described and couched in imprecise, oversimplified terms, we remain ignorant of very real complexity, complexity which is, in fact, the reality.
For example, describing a foreign policy situation in a particular region of the world as simply “very good” or “very bad” essentially means nothing. There are a variety of different ways to articulate a complicated foreign policy situation which would, with varying degrees of success, convey the challenges, the successes, the failures, the outlook, the strategy, etc. But simply saying it’s very good or very bad robs the listener, the person to whom the words are directed, of meaningful information. Done intentionally, this is downright scary.
2. Shrinking of the Cultural Lexicon
When we’re frequently imprecise and lazy with the words we use, it becomes habit. When it becomes habit we are effectively shrinking the vocabulary with which we can convey what we think. When we limit the way we can convey thoughts in this way we limit our thoughts themselves. And this, carried out collectively, is cultural regression.
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” -Ludwig Wittgenstein
A shrinking of the cultural lexicon, of the words we use to convey meaning, results in bigger and bigger hurdles to accessing the real, accurate, precise articulation of complex thoughts and complex situations, which, in turn, create bigger and bigger hurdles to any understanding of these same complex thoughts and situations.
This, in the aggregate, makes us dumber as a country. Which is not good.
3. Less Clarity of Thought
Words are the vehicles we use to convey our thoughts. While speaking imprecisely could, admittedly (on occasion), simply be the result of a lack of time or interest, it can also (more frequently) be the result of an incomplete thought.
Notice when you tend to use imprecise, practically meaningless language. It’s usually when you haven’t thought about something enough to have formulated something more precise, something more meaningful. You speak without precision when your thoughts haven’t been worked on enough to require precision.
Striving to speak precisely forces us to slow our brains down to actually complete thoughts, to chisel and sharpen them, so that an accurate verbalization requires precision.
4. Boring Writing
This is more of an annoyance than a major societal harm, though, again, on a large enough scale this will also have negative cultural effects.
Imprecise writing is boring to read. Simple as that.
Take the time to formulate your thoughts. Use precise language to accurately convey those thoughts. And try to avoid using “very good” as a descriptor if you can help it.