© Damen, 2002

4. Meaningless Words and Non-Statements.

"The Romans were incredible."
"Democracies are just the greatest."
"Julius Caesar fit the society he lived in."

What do these statements mean? The words I have put in italics here are basically meaningless in the context given. Most of them—adjectives more often than not*—have technical definitions that do not suit the statement at all. For instance, according to the dictionary "incredible" means "unbelievable, hard to see as real or true, unlikely." Does that sense work in the statement above? Were the Romans really "unlikely"?

Instead, use clear and precise vocabulary with specific meaning. Shy away from gross generalities in your thinking which invite statements like "democracies are the greatest." The greatest what? Pain in the neck? And how exactly did Julius Caesar "fit" his society? If the writer believes that Caesar presents a good example of corrupt, late-Republican power politics in action, the writer should say that, and then provide examples from Caesar's career which support the case.

In short, words like "incredible," "greatest" and "fit," when used imprecisely, leave a reader puzzled about what the writer means. And, if I'm unable to follow your paper because I don't know what you mean, how can I evaluate the quality of your thinking or assess your efforts? That's why it's important to use words in strict and exact ways, the more specific the better.


*Adjectives are "words that modify nouns." That is, they specify or describe a thing, such as, a tall building, a believable argument, a hard worker.


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