06 June, 2010

The Rules: Communication

Only one indeterminate item per sentence!

I can’t overemphasise how important this is. 
Last year, a very kind reviewer once described me as a pedant.  I plead guilty.  And like most other pedants, I tell myself it’s because I care about accuracy when deep down, half the time I’m just being a smartarse.
But please understand that if I ask you for more information when you say, “I click on the thing but it doesn’t do it,” it’s not because I’m being a smartarse, or a nitpicker, or even a pedant, it’s just that I have no idea what you’re talking about.

I’m not suggesting that people should never use indeterminate words.  We do it all the time.  The English language is full of people talking about ‘it,’ about ‘things,’ about ‘her,’ about ‘him,’ about ‘stuff,’ about ‘whatsits,’ ‘doovers,’ and ‘thingummies,’ about ‘the guy who sings that song,’ and about ‘that chick with the hair.’  That’s fine, but we need at least enough information to figure out the bits that haven’t been defined.

In this way, the English language is very much like algebra.  No, really – it is.  Consider a very basic algebra problem like this:

a + 7 = 10

By following a simple logical process, we can work out that a must equal 3.  If the problem looked more like this:

2 + b = 10

then again, we can easily see that b must equal 8.  We use what we know to figure out what we don't know.  However, if the problem is this:

a + b = 10

then we don’t have enough information to work out what a and b are.  a could be 4 and b could be 6.  a could be 7.75 and b could be 2.25.  They could both be 5, which seems unlikely when the problem could then have said a + a = 10, but it’s no less possible.  And when the problem becomes a + b = ? then we have no hope.

Let’s relate that back to language with a sentence along the lines of

Did that guy bring the stuff?

If I knew who that guy was, I might know what the stuff is.  If I knew what the stuff was, then I might be able to figure out who the guy is, and I might be able to offer a useful answer.  As for questions like, “Why won’t it do it?” I’ve got nothing.  So be considerate when asking questions and always give the other person enough information to understand what it is you’re asking.


  1. I think I have to 'fess up to being the person who uses 'indeterminant' words lots... I take the attitude as long as people know what you mean it doesn't matter what you say....


  2. I think there's a sensible middle ground. So long as there's enough information given for me to work the rest out, I'm okay, but usually if someone says to me, "Oh, you know what I mean," I have to reply, "No, I don't. That's why I'm asking."

  3. I've been meaning to ask you why did you say what you said that time? Were you drunk? And what was with the other one? What were you thinking?

  4. a) Because
    b) Maybe
    c) Oh, you know
    d) Not much