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July 5, 2008

Accuracy, Part VII

Other nations emphasize listening in the classroom through teaching it. Here, we tell the students to listen but never tell them how it's done. The result is that misunderstandings occur because something wasn't heard. Then, when they want it explained, they don't handle a good explanation well and demand it be said differently. Then, once the meaning is unclear, the "listener" puts their own spin on it, which is usually wrong.

The four steps to accuracy:

  1. Admit you may be wrong
  2. See what is not fully explained, incomplete, or doesn't make sense
  3. Research the material
  4. Be crystal clear

Clarity is stating something so there can be no misunderstanding.

I have to make this especially clear.

This may be more tricky than the last statement was redundant.

As painful as some of you may think this is, clarity requires details. Which vehicle? The car. Which car? The red car. Which red car? The nice red car. Which nice red car? The nice red car! Which one? The 'Vette. Which red 'Vette? The really nice '82 'Vette.

And if there are two of them, you'll have to make a physical motion to point it out. And if you can't tell them apart, it's a good idea to know the license plate.

Details make things more specific. Which car? The red car. The 'Vette. The '82. The one with the Illinois license plates. Each one is a detail that lets us know exactly what is being referred to.

Details, however, can mislead, which is why you have to know the right details. Everyone is familiar with the dramatic phrase, "Don't cut the red wire." Any bomb expert will tell you it's not the color you look at, but how they're attached. (This misconception comes from what is called the "Hollywood Effect".) After all, the wires could have been switched so different colors are attached to different places as a trap for the unattentive bomb technician. I'm watching from two hundred feet away. I'm watching. He cuts something. He runs. So do I.

Next, I'm looking for the nearest safe place. I don't know how strong the bomb is or how soon it will go off. Most likely, I have a few seconds. Behind that wall? No, if it's really stong it won't hold. A ditch? Debris could fall into it before I can get away. In a car? Something from the explosion could ignite the gasoline, and that wouldn't do any good for my skin tone. The ditch, however, is probably best because the force of the blast would be absorbed by the ground, most likely leaving the ditch intact. Plus, it's much easier to not be hit by the debris because of the time it would need to fall, and running in a straight line from the bomb would reduce any debris headed my way. The only real danger would be if the force of the explosion took a big chunk of ground with it that fell into the ditch, possibly burying me, but this is unlikely.

How did I make the decision? Details. By using details, we can get a more accurate picture of what is, has, and can happen.

The other factor is avoiding vagueness. Something is vague when it has more than one possible meaning. "Vehicle" is vague; "red '82 'Vette" is not. Neither is Exxon Tanker Valdez, Flight 1868 from Newark to Atlanta, or "the only train pulley in the area".

And note that these are all vehicles.

Vague words can kill accuracy. Instead of saying "he" when you are talking about two men, name the one you refer to. Instead of saying "the latest Michael Crighton book", name it; the other person might not know he has a new book out. It's for this reason (not out of sexism, which I usually avoid) that I can't stand the Screen Actors Guild getting rid of the word "actress"; it specifies a female, while the current use of the word "actor" has the potential to cause gender issues in casting, though I haven't heard of it happening.

A final note concerning that last statement:

(I bring this up at the risk of sounding sexist. I actually bring this up because of a bad experience I had in fifth grade.)

English is the only language that does not specify gender for common nouns. In most languages, every noun is considered masculine or feminine. This can be considered sexist, but there have been many times when English speaking people have been confused because of a lack of understanding when the exact same thing is understood in most other languages because of gender references. In English, a "crowd" can mean all men, all women, or a mix; in Spanish, among others, the feminine form of the word "crowd" means there are no men or boys present. And yes, this does happen.

Now, imagine a man who's been told there's a group meeting in a certain room. Without lack of gender, he has no clue it's the wrong room. He enters and is assaulted by feminist extremists.

The closest we have is the difference between "a" and "an", which is based entirely on the pronunciation of the word that follows it. It is not gender based, but is instead based on the flow of what we are saying. While this can help speed up the third-slowest spoken language in the world behind German and Russian, it also allows such confusion.

I'll tie all these past few blogs on accuracy together in the next blog, finishing up with a very serious example that everyone should pay attention to.

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