How Definitions Reduce Miscommunication and Add Clarity

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When you learn and know how to define words—really define them—you will have a keener advantage than most of the population out there. Knowing what a word means, especially if it has more than one definition, is a lost skill. Not knowing what a word actually means can cost you credibility, time, money, and even your business. 

Mis-defining words can also lead to mis-defining contexts as well because the two concepts are nearly identical. Context and definitions provide clarity that may otherwise be murky. 

For instance, there are a lot of historical “facts” floating around out there which are overly simplified and need more in-depth understanding and have only led to more “disinformation” than we might imagine. Similarly, there are words that are mis-defined almost constantly and in ways that may seem innocent but have serious implications in real life. 

And it shows in everything from the way you report “facts,” to how you write technical documents, and even how you teach children. 

If you decline to define, you may end up lying. 

It’s as easy as lying.

William Shakespeare

What is one of the easiest ways in the world to lie without getting caught? Lie with the truth.

This is where “disinformation” comes in. You can have facts but not have a full picture of the whole truth easily. Anyone who studies history knows this very well. 

For instance, there is a “fact” making the rounds regarding Irish and Scottish enslavement. It’s true, but it’s not the full story. Oliver Cromwell did sell Irish and Scottish people into slavery during his tenure as “Lord Protector.” That is perfectly true. It’s also true both groups suffered racism. 

What this “fact” doesn’t say is that while the Irish and Scottish were enslaved, it was contractual slavery or indentured servitude. James Fenimore Cooper in The Pioneers describes this as someone “owning their labor.” African slavery was most commonly of the “chattels slavery” type—where the entire person was owned. Not just the labor. 

Does this make the “fact” an outright lie? Well, it’s not the whole truth. Indentured servitude was often by consent. My own forbears were in this category of slavery. They sold themselves by contract to pay for passage to the American colonies.

The period of history for Irish and Scottish indentured servitude I have just referenced was when neither race was fully bilingual. We take for granted today that both Irish and Scottish people speak English. This wasn’t the case in the 1650s. It wasn’t even the case in the 1750s, as you can tell if you ever read Robert Burns in his original Scots dialect. 

Both races spoke Gaelic and very few knew any other language, particularly if they were poor, which most of Cromwell’s Celtic victims were. So, while their enslavement was by contract, those contracts were in English. Not in Scottish Gaelic or Irish Gaelic. 

So, did they consent when they couldn’t read the contract? Is contractual slavery still as reprehensible when there was no consent given? 

When you take that into consideration, non-consensual indentured servitude could and should carry every bit of the disdain as chattels slavery. But, you have to be careful in how you use and define the word “slave” and what time period you refer to. Times do change, as do socio-economic practices such as slavery. Sometimes, they morph into something different entirely.

And by another name.

Definitions are a must if you are a technical writer.

Ok, so we’ve covered an example of one of the moral reasons for defining your terms. Let’s look at a practical reason. 

The term “technical writer” is a good example in itself of why definitions matter in your writing. In the first place, “technical”, has very little to do with technology and everything to do with straightforward and direct communication. This means you don’t need to be a latent computer genius or to have built PCs in your garage in order to qualify as a technical writer. 

Instead, you need to know how language works. And that doesn’t require an engineering degree. It requires knowing what words need definitions, and it requires knowing how to distill knowledge from a subject matter expert so that a layman can understand. 

So, when you are writing a technical document, like a process, or a business document like a manual, you may find you need to explain to your reader what certain words mean in the context of that document.

It lets your reader know what to expect when they come across a specific word, particularly if you are using a new term or if you are using an existing term in a specific way. If you read any “Terms and Conditions” agreement, you’ll find the same thing in the form of the recitals. These define the parties who are consenting to the Terms and Conditions. 

Defining what is meant by a particular word or word phrase can mean the difference between a five-star and a one-star review of your business, service, or product. So, why wouldn’t you take that extra step? 

Similarly, if you’re writing documents for your employees and you don’t bother to define what you mean, you will end up with slipping standards, frustrated employees, and a high turnover rate in your business. Considering the costs of hiring and training employees and the fall-out from the Great Reshuffle and workers finally standing up for themselves, why not get ahead of the game? 

Define your terms. Make it easy for your customer and employees alike to understand what it is you are telling them. 

Getting your definitions correct means you don’t miscommunicate important concepts and values. 

I ran into this not too long ago. A list of terms was given in an internal manual to help describe character qualities. It was extremely comprehensive and provided a nice variety of words. Something which I was very pleased with over all.

Some of the words were also dead wrong. Additional concepts were introduced into the definitions of words that were not there beforehand and this ended up changing not only the definition of the word, but the implications that definition had in real life. And it was the implications that could turn dangerous.

Be careful how you present concepts to people, otherwise they might just get the wrong end of the stick, so to speak. 

There’s a larger lesson to learn here for all of us too. If you can’t be bothered to define a relatively simple word or even given your reader the courtesy of knowing what you mean by it, then how are you going to define anything else? Like right and wrong? Good and evil? 

If your definitions are relative, then so are those concepts. We’ve already seen that come to pass. Just look at the pedophiles who claim their crimes are just “preferences.” Well, I’d prefer to just have people give me money when I ask for it without me having to make any kind of sales pitch but that doesn’t mean I’m going to take to a life of robbery. 

You can only live in a world of relativity for so long before everything starts to fall apart. Definitions allow you to communicate exactly what you mean to another person and have that person understand you. Yes, you run the risk of offending someone. But if you are using a term correctly in it’s correct context then the problem is them. Not you. You shouldn’t get punished for speaking the truth. Even if it’s not someone else’s version of the truth.

When you don’t define your words or lay out your context, then you cannot communicate on a fundamental level. What you end up with is a level of superficiality which rivals our current obsession with social media and virtue signaling.

This is how politicians maintain their power for so many years. They use slogans with words that aren’t defined and they keep their campaigns on a superficial level and never get down to specifics.

Consider the term “eco-warrior” What does that actually mean?

Does it mean they protest the vast ecological damage done mining for rare minerals? Or the slave labor it involves? Do they protest polyester fabrics which are made of microplastics? Or the devastation of wind farms on bird populations?

Or, are they only concerned with fossil fuels and single-use plastics? 

Now, I’m not taking a stand on either side, but I am trying to point out that you can make assumptions about what a word means and think you’re being told the truth. In reality, there’s always more to it than what you assume. And that is what a lot of politicians, activists, and the people who fund them are counting on. 

Before you leap to conclusions yourself, take a look at the eco-warriors who get all the media coverage. You’ll get your answer fairly quickly.

Taking back your power. 

Don’t rely solely on an internet dictionary. Go to your local used bookstore and buy a print one. Or several. Different dictionaries, like Merriman Webster and Oxford have different ways of both spelling and defining. Some, like the print Oxford Dictionary of American English, which sits on my shelf, will have helpful paragraphs about the synonyms of a particular word and the nuances in meaning. 

Alternatively, get a subscription to the Oxford English Dictionary when you can afford to do so. The OED is still one of the best sources for definitions out there because they don’t just list the current definition: they list all the definitions that word has had. 

Don’t assume you know what a word means. Look it up. You may be surprised by what you find. 

Start being more particular about your own word choice. Learn to appreciate the subtlety of words and their meanings. Every language has this too, not just English. 

English is just more complicated because of how many languages have fed into it over the centuries. 

Finally, don’t take the information presented to you for granted. Research, seek, and find answers. You never know when you’re being served the full article or a half-truth. 

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