Precision of language and why it matters

As I mentioned in an earlier post, precision of language in academic writing matters. Paying careful attention to the precise meaning of your words is one of the ways that you can quickly improve your writing. First, some examples:

  • The reign of Elizabeth I lasted for a long time.
  • The Black Death killed a lot of people.
  • Thomas Edison invented a lot of things.
  • Many people were caught up in the Atlantic slave trade.

None of these statements are incorrect, but at the same time none of them should be included in an essay. How long is ‘a long time’? How many people constitute ‘a lot of people’? What about ‘many people’ or ‘a lot of things’?

Remember that you are trying to convey your ideas and analysis as clearly as possible to your prof. By using vague terms such as the examples above, you are undermining this goal, and your mark will suffer as a result.

But what happens when exact, precise details are not available? This is a fact of life for historians. Believe it or not, we simply do not know everything about everything. For example while it is easy to be precise about the length of Elizabeth’s reign or the number of Edison’s inventions, no one can say how many people died as a result of the Black Death, nor can anyone say for certain how many Africans were caught up in the Atlantic slave trade. But you can still be a precise as possible.  Whatever you do, don’t make stuff up!! Remember that academic research is evidence-based. If there is good reliable evidence for your topic – excellent! Offer thanks to the deity of your choice, study your evidence, write your essay, and await the excellent mark that your work will no doubt deserve. When evidence is lacking or when there is disagreement on a topic, say that this is the case and examine what details are known. Trust me when I say that this:

  • The exact number of people killed by the Black Death is unknown, but recent estimates suggest that 30%-50% of Europe’s population perished in the epidemic. [Include a footnote here showing where you found these 'recent estimates'. This is essential. You can also take this a step further and use the footnote to comment on the estimates, the methodology used to come up with these estimates, etc.]

is much better than this:

  • The Black Death killed a lot of people.

Similarly, this:

  • While no one knows exactly how many Africans were enslaved by the Atlantic slave trade, recent research puts the number between 9 and 13 million. [Again, use a footnote as above]

Is much better than this:

  • Many people were caught up in the Atlantic slave trade.

And for instances where concrete information is available:

  • Elizabeth I reigned as queen of England from 17 November 1558 to 24 March 1603.
  • Thomas Edison held no fewer than 1,093 U.S. patents.

Are far better than:

  • The reign of Elizabeth I lasted for a long time.
  • Thomas Edison invented a lot of things.

This is one of the many examples of how simple changes can quickly improve your writing. Remember that your words are the tools that you are using to build your essay. If you choose them wisely and carefully, you will be able to convey your ideas much more effectively, and if you communicate your ideas more effectively, your essays and your marks will improve.

Key Points:

  • do not use vague, meaningless language
  • be careful when choosing your words and make sure their precise meaning is appropriate
  • when possible, give explicit details, facts, and figures
  • when this is not possible, say that it is not possible, explain why it is not possible, and give your best evidence-based estimate

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One Response to “Precision of language and why it matters”

  1. Profs’ pet peeves Says:

    [...] the use of vague language [...]

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