Imprecise language should be next reform

Much has been made of the sheer size of the healthcare reform bill currently being considered by Congress. Hulking, manly legislators who wouldn’t normally allow their strength to be questioned in public were seen staggering melodramatically as they attempted to carry the legislation before cameras, even using little red wagons to assist them. One representative dropped it to the floor with a resounding thud, making some arcane point about sound waves; another threw reams into a cheering crowd of protesters — cheering, that is, until Section 41, Paragraph 32, Subparagraph 15 injured eight.

All reasonable parties in the debate realize that to have a reform package that addresses such a complex issue requires meticulous documentation. We need a couple thousand pages of hopefully precise language, just so we don’t accidentally neglect to mandate that surgeries be sutured when done, or that CAT scans not be given to cats (unless they’re covered by Medicare). We don’t want to end up with tweet-able legislation that remakes our entire health care system in 140 characters or less.

Not sick? Good. Not well? See a doc. Really desperately ill? Consider dying cuz we won’t pay. LMAO

Imprecise language is a problem of everyday life that we don’t need to see codified into law. In fact, I hope that once we can get 535 Congresspeople, a president, 300-million-plus citizens and at least one Fox pundit to agree on insurance coverage, we can start to tackle the confusion that clouds ordinary conversations. I already have a list of “low-hanging fruit” ready for work.

“Low-hanging fruit” — This much-loved corporate bromide is supposed to refer to a strategy in which easily solved problems are tackled first. The next time I hear my manager request it, though, I’m bringing him a larva-infested mango.

“Just a little for me” — A common response when someone is asked “do you want some?”, usually in reference to food, though sometimes sex (which I won’t attempt to quantify here). More concise would be to actually describe the measurable amount of what you request. Often, I won’t want a full cup of coffee but a half doesn’t seem like quite enough, so I might request 65% of a mug. I’m hungry for a substantial slice of pie although asking for half seems greedy, so I’ll request 135 degrees. That mixed-green salad looks good; I’ll take four lettuce leaves, three cherry tomatoes, two onion circles, one cucumber slice and eleven croutons, please. Related to this imprecise phrasing is the haircut request “just a little off the top.” That it’s coming off the top should go without saying, except perhaps in the most expensive salons.

“Let’s turn down the heat” — Does that mean you’re too hot or too cold? Turning down the heater will turn up the temperature, and vice versa. I’m not asking that people dictate exactly what they want in degrees (that should be reserved for pies, as noted above). I just think we need to speak in agreed-upon terms, where up is “warmer” — think about how toasty it is in outer space, if this helps you remember — and down is “cooler,” just like the frosty magma that courses through the Earth beneath us. It’s all about clarity and accuracy, people. Please!

“We’ll do that next Monday” — If today is Wednesday (and it is), next Monday will be here in five days. Tomorrow, however, “next Monday” becomes a week from Monday, or 11 days in the future. If that’s the date you’re going to be discussing, get back to me in about a week because by then we may all be dead anyway.

“Part of me wants to say…” — This is used to communicate a certain amount of self-doubt about the statement that follows, or to escape responsibility in case your idea something like rounding up all the Lutherans and sending them back to Eleuthera. Too often, though, it implies instead that spoken language is going to be coming out of something other than your mouth. Anything you and Señor Wences have to say using your thumb and the lowest knuckle of your index finger (especially if you have lips and eyes drawn onto your hand) is not something that any part of me wants to hear.

“Do you know what I stopped you for?” — Most often asked by the police, though if the phrase interrupts your PowerPoint presentation to the corporate finance committee, you better turn around fast and make sure your laptop isn’t showing Shakira’s shaking hips to your meeting. If asked this by the officer standing outside your car door, do not start guessing assorted crimes in the hope that if you answer correctly, you’re going to get a prize. He knows what he stopped you for, and he’ll be more than happy to tell you. In fact, if you’re lucky, he’ll probably be kind enough to write it down for you.

“Let me know if you want to…” or “Feel free to…” — This passive-aggressive request is often made between spouses, to suggest in a friendly and loving way that you need to get your ass off the sofa and into something productive. Most couples have a relatively equal disposition of household chores, though they’re perception of when and how these need to be done is occasionally at odds. So the wife may breezily say “let me know if you want to climb up on the roof, clear those tree limbs, clean out the gutters, repair a few shingles, then possibly fall to your death, and I’ll hold off on dinner,” to which you’re thinking “oh, I’ll let you know, alright.” Husbands are usually a little less subtle, offering stuff like “feel free to take off your clothes and put on those high heels and cover yourself with whipped cream,” and she’s thinking “you call that freedom?” The good thing about using imprecise language in these scenarios is that you can answer “OK” to the request and not actually agree to do the act, but only to think about doing it (which can actually work just as good for the whipped cream fantasy, though not so much for the gutter cleaning).

“It’s always something” — Well, it’s not always something. Occasionally, it’s actually nothing but the random vibration of vocal chords in the larynx of the first-rate idiot who has chosen to speak to you.

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3 Responses to “Imprecise language should be next reform”

  1. lookingforbeauty Says:

    I agree heartily that precise language is preferable to the guessing-game sort, though I’m of the pre-binary-texting age and LMAO is not in my vocabulary. Don’t explain. I looked it up on Wikipedia.

    I’m sorry to hear that there are so many people who are taken in by the Canadian sob-stories being shopped around by those forces trying to kill the Health reforms in the USA. Health care of the Canadian variety is a really wonderful. It would take someone either evil or insane to try to dismantle it.
    But guess what? There are politicians, drug companies and greedy doctors who are madly trying to chip away at what we have. It takes watchfulness, diligence and determination to ensure that they do not do so.
    K

  2. fakename2 Says:

    This was cause for a little self-reflection–do I use any of these phrases? Guilty, especially where it concerns “Part of me wants to say…” Somehow the part of me that eventually says something is indeed always my mouth. I feel so limited. But not because I think if I were more confident my ears would speak. It’s: Why can’t I get my partially-formed ideas and poorly thought-out conclusions to come out of someone else’s mouth? Oh wait…that may already be happening.
    And “Feel free…” In my defense, I only use this in business letters, in which I routinely say “Feel free to call me with any comments or questions.” (Like they wouldn’t anyway?) What it really means is, I hope you don’t have any comments or questions, and if you do, don’t call. I’m sure I’ll be in a meeting.

  3. therealmotherlode Says:

    Part of me wants to say that you’re a brilliant, funny writer!

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