- Clearly expressed or delineated; definite: The victim gave a precise description of the suspect.
- Exact, as in performance, execution, or amount; accurate or correct: a precise measurement; a precise instrument.
- Strictly distinguished from others; very: at that precise moment.
- Distinct and correct in sound or meaning: precise pronunciation; precise prose.
- Conforming strictly to rule or proper form: “The setting up of this Maypole was a lamentable spectacle to the precise separatists that lived at New Plymouth” (Thomas Morton).
I like the first and second meanings there, and I sometimes think our profession is lacking in them. Working on my book and having the reviewers go over it just drives this home. Any generalization, any broad sweeping statement, they point it out. The comments I’ve been receiving on the apress comment site have been fantastic in elevating the degree of preciseness as well. I feel it will be a much better book this time simply due to the public criticism in addition to the formal review process. I was afraid to release “Effective Oracle by Design” after seeing how many mistakes the “public” review team found that the formal review team didn’t — and since only the first 3 or 4 chapters were done publically, I was worried about the rest.
But it made me stop and think about the idea. What prevents meaning one above from happening?
Many things — such as fancy “50 cent words”, that is using a fancy, “big” word when a simple one will do. I used the word “loathe” in a set of slides once. Loathe is a word with immediate meaning to me, however – in countries where English is not the native language that is a 50 cent word that isn’t taught. I remember on the third day of a five day seminar tour in Europe, someone finally asked “what is that word — loathe”. I polled the audience, no one — not one person, knew what it meant. On the subsequent two days, I polled again. A 100% miss ratio, no one could define it. I felt bad for the audience in the first two days (but no one asked!). I’ve removed it since, but it drove home the problem. Speak simply and plainly. Avoid “50 cent words”. But, conversely, everyone out there — ASK. If someone speaking in an educational session is using big fancy words that you don’t understand, please — ASK. At least during a break, ASK. The speaker will (should) adjust their talk accordingly. Talking internationally over the last two/three years has driven this home for me. Analogies that make sense here (in the US) don’t make sense over there (anywhere other than US, substitute your country in for US).
You will not believe how old I was before I understood the phrase “Penny wise, Pound foolish” and what it truly meant. It was my first business trip with Oracle, in 1993, to the UK. I had never put the “pound” part together with “a denomination of money”. I was asking myself for many years “why compare money to a unit of weight?”.
Many things — such as not speaking clearly, or assuming a level of knowledge the audience you are speaking (or writing to) doesn’t have. When working on the comments by the reviewers, I have to address each one. Either I say “Yes, I agree and did X to fix it”, “No, that comment isn’t correct and here is why”, or “What, you mean you couldn’t actually read my mind and figure out what I meant :) — I’ve clarified the original text with Y”. I use the last one infrequently (fortunately) but it happens. I am so close to the problem/feature/function I’m describing that I make assumptions about what the reader might know or be thinking. I leave out the “obvious” sometimes. Only problem is what is plainly obvious to me, isn’t so obvious. It is obvious to me because, well, because of my past experiences and the fact I’ve been looking at the issue for the last couple of hours.
But what about meaning two:
2. Exact, as in performance, execution, or amount; accurate or correct: a precise measurement; a precise instrument.
This is the one I think we (collective we, everyone writing “stuff” on the Internet, books, elsewhere) miss most of all. We are not always precise in our writing, in our works. I try to be — and in the public eye with the ability for someone to immediately followup and say “yeah but” on the site, I think the preciseness always ends up being there. Having the interactive site has taught me a lot over the years.
Use simple words — not because of simple minds, but rather the opposite. Lots of really smart minds, thinking in a language that is not their first choice. This is 50% of the reason why I come down so much on the “instant messenger speak” such as “r u able to plz help me out?” Think about it – if the person reading that does not use English as their native language, that is just a bunch of letters strung together. Some have said of my criticism of that style of writing “you are making fun of non-English speakers”, but I know that I am not. Non-native English speakers are the ones that have the most issues with that style of writing. In order for them to be comfortable enough with the language, they are taught the real words. Those ‘abbreviations’ are meaningless to them. I recently said I was working on the 2cd edition. That is an abbreviation I’ve seen and it was obvious to me what it meant. It was meaningless to many outside of English speaking countries (2nd would be fine, 2cd not so fine but second would say it all).
Clear, unambiguous use of words. Recently, I used the word “actionable” in a blog entry. I used it totally wrong (look it up in the dictionary, there is no way I would even be using that word). I made up a meaning to go with it — to me, it should have meant ‘a statement one can take action on’. I used it previously in talks with my editor “Sorry, but so and so is not providing any actionable comments — I don’t know what to do with their feedback”. But, it was totally wrong, I made up the meaning. We must strive to be very clear in how we write and to write material that someone can actually make use of.
It probably sounds like I’ve been rambling, but I’ve been reading a lot of material out there recently with a more critical eye. Speaking (writing) clearly, with unambiguous meaning, globally “safe” analogies, and providing information that someone can walk away with and find immediate benefit — that is lacking.
We need more unambiguous, clear material we can make use of.
On a second side note, I really do think that technical web pages that do not have a “post a comment” link are bad. Every day I increase in my mind the level of “bad” they are. How many web pages have I ended up on that I’d really like to add a “yeah but” to the bottom of it — that is my goal in life after getting everyone to appreciate fully the beauty of bind variables. Every site should have a comments section for the pages.