This article was last modified on December 30, 2014.

On the Necessity of Word Precision

Most of us speak in a very casual, informal way. Very few of us sound like Shakespeare or even make a valiant attempt to keep our grammar pure. Our diction, the words we choose, often fails to pass the monosyllabic stage. And while there is general speaking nothing wrong with this among friends, we are increasingly seeing avenues where concise speech might become necessary.

In the realm of the law, word definitions must be clearly established. There is an ongoing debate in this country about what torture is and whether or not “waterboarding” is torture. There shouldn’t be such a debate if all the laws are clear, but we run into asking the meanings of words within definitions. And if we’re not careful, loopholes emerge and illegal things become legal. Or if we’re too broad in our scope, things that should perhaps be permitted get caught in the net of the law.

I have no desire to get caught up in the debate over torture, at least not here. I would, however, like to give three examples of where words can seemingly be clear but turn out to be much less so when pressed for precision. Are our words not precise enough for some situations?

Big, Large and Huge

What’s the difference between big, large, huge, enormous and several other variants that all have the general idea of “big” underneath them? If one thing is “big” and another “huge”, we’re in general agreement that the huge thing is bigger. But how much bigger, and when does a big thing become too big to still be simply big?

Big and large have roughly the same definition in the reference books: “above average in size or number or quantity or magnitude or extent” and huge is somewhat bigger with: “unusually great in size or amount or degree or especially extent or scope”. Being “above average” is anything bigger than the median size. So, for things that are small on average, being “big” isn’t really that big. But being “huge” requires something to be “unusual”, so it is far more rare. Exactly how rare isn’t very clear. And we notice that “huge” things are still “big” (because they are above average), but only a very few “big” things can be “huge”.

What does it take to be enormous? Something is “enormous” if it is “extraordinarily large in size or extent or amount or power or degree”. While I would say that something “enormous” is probably bigger than “huge”, when does one become the other? And aren’t all “extraordinary” things “unusual” (and vice versa)? Yet, we wouldn’t call all enormous things huge necessarily.

Do you see how difficult it can be trying to find a certain description, even on such commonplace words as “big” and “huge”? And the synonyms are endless: gigantic, monolithic, gargantuan, monstrous, et cetera.

Hills and Mountains

Sometimes we have more specific words than “big”, such as the concepts of hills and mountains. There’s a pretty fairly established scientific definition of a hill or a mountain. I have seen dictionaries that simply say a hill is an elevated land mass shorter than a mountain, and a mountain is an elevated land mass taller than a hill. But we can do better than that.

According to Robert K. Barnhart, from The American Heritage Dictionary of Science, we have actual numbers and measurements with which to determine a hill from a mountain.

A hill is “a raised part of the earth’s surface, smaller than a mountain, usually having an elevation of less than 300 meters.” That’s a very concise idea. If you’re under 300 meters, you’re a hill. And we’ll even throw in “usually” so if you happen to extend up to 310 meters, you can still be a hill if you want to be. A mountain, on the other hand, is “a very high hill; a natural elevation of the earth’s surface rising high above the surrounding level, usually higher than 600 meters.” Again, that’s pretty clear.

But wait a second — if a hill is lower than 300 meters and a mountain taller than 600 meters, what are all the land elevations between a hill and a mountain? What is a mass of land rising to 450 meters? A hill? A mountain? Other than height, we have nothing to distinguish a hill from a mountain, so how can we decide?

Whereas “big” and “huge” made it hard to choose which word would describe something exactly (when two words have essentially the same meanings but slightly different connotations), here we are left having trouble discerning between two things that are both clearly established with no ambiguity about which is which. But we’re left with a fuzzy middle territory: are there superhills? Submountains? Or is this third group just not classifying, left to be a land mass with no name?

What is a River?

Sometimes we have trouble simply defining one particular thing. Let’s use the word “river”. Let us say that a river is “a large natural stream of water emptying into an ocean, lake, or other body of water, and usually fed along its course by converging tributaries.” That’s very precise. And it has to be, because if it wasn’t, we would find something fitting most of the definition which is clearly not a river. Each word in the definition must be as it is to accurately describe a river.

Noam Chomsky, in an essay on language, found the concept of a river to be just as baffling as we might be finding it to be right now. He says that a river “would remain [the] very same river under quite extreme changes, and would not be a river at all under very slight changes. It would remain the [same] if its course were reversed … if it were divided into separate streams that converged in some new place, if any H20 that happened to be in it were replaced by chemicals from an upstream manufacturing plant. On the other hand, it would no longer be a river at all if it were directed between fixed boundaries and used for shipping freight (in which case it would be a canal, not a river) or if its surface were hardened by some near-undetectable physical change, a line were painted down the middle, and it came to be used for driving to Boston (in which case it would be a highway).”

Let us ask something of our original definition: does it have to be a stream of “water”? Chomsky suggests a river is a river even if it contains chemicals, but what if it contains only chemicals and no water? If the Mississippi contained milk, would it still be a river? By our definition, no — but maybe the definition is incorrect and imprecise. For example, we have all heard of “rivers of blood” — this concept makes sense to us, despite it violating the definition (“blood” is not “water”). Perhaps we ought to change the definition to be “liquid, usually water” rather than simply “water”… this is still a river, is it not? But then, would it be “natural”? Not likely. But removing “natural” might open us up to the idea of it becoming a “canal” and not a “river” (though I think perhaps not).

I could likely go on, but I won’t. This should illustrate exactly how difficult it is to define any given word — even those thought of as “common notions” by people all over the world. We know what a river is, but can we define what one is?

Leaves and Flocks

I am going to diverge from word precision for a moment here to briefly consider another interesting aspect of definition, naming and sorting. What decides when a group of objects becomes a singular thing rather than a group of individual things? Why is a group of birds a flock, but a group of leaves on a tree is a group of leaves with no name?

We can say “that flock” and clearly be referring to any number of birds in a designated area, but we cannot say a similar thing of leaves on a branch. We can say “those leaves on the branch”, but they are being referred to as leaves and not as a group, such as when they are raked up on the ground — we can call them a “pile” (which is different from the same group of leaves had they been scattered or still on the tree — a flock of birds remains a flock regarding of where or how they are arranged).

This, in turn, raises a question of mereology, which is even more divergent from the original point, but interesting just the same. When does a flock of birds cease to be a flock? If you have a flock of birds consisting of twenty individual birds, one less bird is still a flock, but how many can you remove until it’s not? At some point you’d have to say “three birds” or “two birds” because you cannot call two or three birds a flock, despite the fact they may have been a part of a flock at one point. The established definition tells us nothing, only that a flock is “is a group of birds, either of the same or different species, conducting flocking behavior in flight, or while foraging.” We could have twenty birds of different varieties and they’d still be a flock by definition if they were dining together!

We would say three birds is not a flock? Is four? Is five? Six? Ten surely is, but where does one draw the line?

Precision and the Law

According to Adam Freedman, lawyers concerned with language generally fall into two schools, the Precision School and the Plain English School. And with them we stumble upon what may be the biggest problem of word precision: if we stress precision too much, we end up with the dreaded “legalese” and make the law more obscure and less comprehensible to those it is supposed to serve. Jonathan Caplan may have said it best when he wrote, “The easiest way to create a monopoly is to invent a language and procedure which will be unintelligible to the layman.”

There must be common ground. While there should be no need or desire to reduce the precision of wording (ambiguity is where lawsuits find their opening), there are certain items that can be done away with now. Any of the “heretofore”, “hereafter” or “hereinbefore” is junk language, and much of the boilerplate is useless, cut-and-plate filler. Maybe not all clients can understand legal language and never will, but certainly it should be clear (plain) enough so the lawyers who draft documents know what they have written.


The issues and questions here are probably ones that can have no clear answer. But they are worth raising, if for no other reason than to make two points I wish to leave you with.

First, language is a complex and imprecise tool for communication. Whether spoken or written, there is flexibility in language that has some benefits but (as we’ve shown) also creates deficiencies in our understanding of specific things. Socrates was wise to say that he knew nothing, just as we’d be wise to admit that the more we question the meaning of any word the more unsure we are of what that word exactly means — even if we’re all in agreement about these “common notions” and can communicate clearly with others. Just as solid objects are made up of unconnected atoms, so is language made up of ungrounded terms.

And second, that we are moving into a world that is more and more involved in law. There are more laws every day and more aspects of our lives are directed by laws. Perhaps there are laws prohibiting certain activities in rivers — we are forced to ask, what is a river? While this may seem silly to deny that a river is a river, this is what happens when things move from the common discourse into legal discourse — definitions become shaken up. We would do well to be more precise in our language at times, as the more areas of our lives become dominated by the law, the more careful we must be to navigate through the legal language of our times.


Barnhart, Robert K. The American Heritage Dictionary of Science. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts, 1986.

Chomsky, Noam. “What We Know”, Boston Review, Summer 2005.

Freedman, Adam. The Party of the First Part. Henry Holt and Company, 2007.

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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