“ . . . first the careful choice of precise words . . .”
This quotation about precision comes from the British civil servant and author Sir Ernest Gowers, here beginning to list the elements of the prescriptive camp of language.1,2 Brian Garner, in whose invaluable reference book I found this passage, has written extensively about precise language, offering principles such as “omit unnecessary words” and “distinguish between similar words that are easily confused.”3 Whether or not one generally agrees with Gowers, Garner, H. W. Fowler, and others on the prescriptivist side of the spectrum, it’s hard to disagree entirely with their position on precision. The number of words in the English language—at least 250,0004—means we can and should be more precise to avoid confusion and wordiness.
Seeking a high degree of precision in every action involving language would impede how we function in society. But in many of our actions, we would benefit from greater precision than we tend to use.
Take the classic statement “I don’t have time to exercise.” No doubt you’ve heard it a few times, and have probably said it yourself. I have. Recently some colleagues and I were discussing our tight schedules and how it’s hard to fit in workouts, and “I don’t have time to exercise” surfaced once again.
This statement, though it can console busy people, is imprecise. In the sense that any of us “have” time, we all have time to exercise—unless we are physically or mentally incapable, in which case a lack of time isn’t the real issue. When someone says, “I don’t have time to exercise,” what they really mean is “I am not designating time for exercise,” or “I am choosing not to exercise.” Or perhaps “Exercise sucks and I’m deluding myself into thinking I don’t have time because I don’t want to do it.”
The point is simple: being precise in the way we think and communicate about exercise can help us see the reality of our choices. You may have valid reasons not to exercise, or you may just be making excuses, but either way you do have time. Be precise, and you will be more honest about your priorities.
1. Sir Ernest Gowers, “H.W. Fowler: The Man and His Teaching,” Presidential Address to the English Association, July 1957, at 14, quoted in Brian Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), xl.
2. For an overview of this debate, see “Making Peace in the Language Wars” in Garner’s Modern American Usage or a webpage such as http://www.polysyllabic.com/?q=navigating/intro/prescriptive.
3. Brian Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), xlv.
4. “How Many Words Are There in the English Language?” Oxford Dictionaries, n.d., accessed 23 Sept. 2012, http://oxforddictionaries.com/words/how-many-words-are-there-in-the-english-language.