Language and Precision

by Feb 14, 2014Linguistics2 comments

Precision is an important consideration in communication. But human language is not capable of exhaustive precision. At some point you have to assume background knowledge or communication will get bogged down.

And not all languages are equally capable of precision in short space. A neat linguistic note from Steven Pinker (The Language Instinct):

When English speakers decide whether or not to put –ed onto the end of a verb, they must pay attention to tense, the relative time of occurrence of the event they are referring to and the moment of speaking. Wintu speakers need not bother with tense, but when they decide which suffix to put on their verbs, they must pay attention to whether the knowledge they are conveying was learned through direct observation or by hearsay.

English speakers can communicate this, too, but not within the verb itself. Sometimes the demands of economy will outweigh the demands of precision, and this level of precision—which Wintu demands everywhere—can be safely ignored by English speakers. And that’s okay!

I’ve always found chapter 6—”Words and Precision”—of this free online book by Vern Poythress to be helpful.

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  1. Austin Barker

    You’re just baiting me, Mark. And I won’t hook myself on this one. I certainly respect your opinion, and I hope that you would agree that thus far I have done my best to maintain clarity and objectivity, despite my strong preference for prescriptivism. I guess my response so far should be: I’m not as well-read as you are, and I have to defer to your superior education and reading…for now. I am taking my time with this issue, and this post just puts another hash mark on the list of reasons that I will someday tackle this issue head-on. And there is a distinct possibility that when the dust settles, we may be on the same side of the line…but I hope not.

    I think the case for descriptivism has been strongly and adequately made. I would like to hear a sound defense of prescriptivism, if such an animal exists, and besides all the arguments you have ably dismantled, before I rest my mind. And that will take time.

    Patience. This is just another round, and time is on _______ side.

    • Mark L Ward Jr

      🙂 Not baiting you, and I’m not such a prescriptivist that I’m unwilling to prescribe. I just try to have clarity about the source and authority of my prescriptions.