You can never be too specific

Philosopher Karl Popper is supposed to have said that it is impossible to speak in such a manner that one cannot be misunderstood. This is a sentiment that any teacher would agree with because however much you think you have explained something very clearly, there will always be someone that finds an interpretation that was unanticipated by you.

An amusing example of this was when a woman reported a car accident to her insurance company. The agent asked her to send front and side photographs and this is what she sent by email.

The insurer seemed to take this in stride and replied, “I am going to need pictures like you just took, except it needs to be of your vehicle.”


  1. jrkrideau says

    In my fourth year at university, the Engineering Faculty seemed to have discovered that their 4th year engineers could not write. So they instituted a writing program.

    One assignment was to write a manual on how to “operate” an umbrella. One engineering friend tried out his manual on 3 or 4 of us who obeyed each instruction literally. We finally had to stop because we testers were laughing so hard we could not sit up.

    And you don’t even want to hear about the Ronson lighter incident.

    I have great sympathy with the lady in the photos.

  2. Matt G says

    Reminds me of a gag from the sitcom Newsradio. Station owner and billionaire Jimmy James writes a business book which ends up selling poorly. He has it translated into Japanese and it is a hit in Japan, so he has the Japanese translation translated back into English!

  3. blf says

    I’ve developed a few writing habits / tics over the years largely in response to amazing misunderstandings. For instance, when introducing an incomplete and unordered list, I used to just write something like “blah includes: …”, but after several incidents of people trying to assign an order or observing I “missed” something, now write something like “blah includes (but is not limited to, and listed in no particular order): …”. There are obvious variants for complete lists and / or various orderings.

    Another example is I now tend to write “left→to→right” (but not “right←to←left” as that is confusing), since people who are not native English speakers frequently confuse left with right. (That just happened to me yesterday, when a very kind gentleman was giving me some verbal directions.)

    And I have long included definitions for “e.g.”, “i.e.”, and “c.” (as in c.42) in any paper’s glossary. Readers frequently seem to confuse or misunderstand “e.g.” and “i.e.”, and to my surprise, “c.” doesn’t seem to widely used in some parts of the anglophone world.

    When it is important something is plural, I tend to write “blahs (plural)”, since in the past unexpected plurals have caused people to think I made a mistake. A common variant of this is trying to ensure people aren’t presuming there are only two of whatever (binary thinking); and tending to avoid “several” since some people think that means “two” (I use “one or more”, “multiple”, “at least two”, and so on). I once had a colleague, who was also obviously annoyed by that interpretation of “several”, ask me if if it meant, to me, “two” or “at least two”.

    And let’s not, let’s just not, get into the confusion caused by “minimum maximum” (in a standards document). I still have nightmares about the confusion that caused. I wasn’t the author, but I had to try to explain it…

  4. jrkrideau says

    Okay I’ll bite what is “c.”?

    tending to avoid “several” since some people think that means “two”
    Where are you publishing? This seems to indicate a total ignorance of the English language. Oh wait, I just helped a native English speaker interpret a letter from his bank. I see your problem.

  5. Matt G says

    Another area in which this is a problem is road signs. I dropped my parents at JFK airport two weeks ago, which was relatively easy since I was going TO the airport. I’m glad I had my iPhone helping me navigate my return trip because somebody changed the signs around. Instead of listing destinations, as they used to, they listed names of roadways. There are several places in the area where the names of roadways change, and some roadways even have more than one name! If you don’t know the area, you are going to have problems. The people in charge of sign placement need to imagine navigating as though they had never been there before.

  6. blf says

    jrkrideau@4, “c.” is circa, from Latin, meaning “about” or “approximately”.

    On the “several” problem, a quick search throws a new wrinkle into the problem: Multiple reputable dictionaries define it as meaning “more than two…”, which is a nuance I wasn’t aware of — suggesting there is at least three meanings understood by various people: “Two”, “two or more”, and “more than two”. (It’s usually(? always?) understood to be a small number, which itself is obviously quite vague and hence, I presume, another possible confusion.)

    Please keep in mind that, in some cases, what is probably a important factor is the confused individuals are not native English speakers, ranging from impressively fluent to, well, impressively flaky. For a long time now, much of what I write has been written for such people, suggesting I am both extra-sensitive to the misunderstanding problem, and also maybe perhaps more-aware of “odd” — “eccentric” — interpretations. (Which is not to say I can explain why they occur, albeit my own difficulties with non-English languages might shed some light on that?)

  7. Peter B says

    How about British vs. American?
    British mother to fast food employee, “Where is the rubbish bin?”
    Employee: “I have no idea where the rubbish has been.”

  8. says

    From a Freshman programming test:

    Q: Write a snippet of Python code that will print the message “Negative” if the value of the variable X is less than zero.

    A: print(‘ “Negative” if the value if the variable X is less than zero.’)

    It seemed obvious at the time. Of course, it’s also possible that the student didn’t remember how to use if statements and was just hoping for some partial credit on a technicality. Out of curiosity, I repeated this in future classes but used bold or italics in place of the quotes, or re-worded the question, and still saw this type of result.

  9. says

    I am confused by folks who define “a couple” as a small, indistinct number, perhaps 2, 3 or 4; but who also define “a few” as being precisely 2.

  10. Mano Singham says

    jimf @#8,

    I used to try this tactic of trying to explicitly tell students mistakes they should avoid. It rarely worked and made for boring teaching. I realized that making mistakes is an intrinsic part of the learning process and that teachers have forgotten that they too did silly things while they acquired their expertise. Now I tell students that their goal should be to make all their mistakes as early as possible (i.e., on their homework and in class discussions) so that their first experience of doing so is not on exams. It worked better.

  11. WhiteHatLurker says

    @blf -- try using “ca.” as a short form for circa -- I wasn’t sure what you meant with “c.” either. “Centi-” is the first thing to come to mind, but that doesn’t work.

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