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What Is Vagueness?

"Animal" is a vague term, while "kitten" is not.
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  • Written By: Cynde Gregory
  • Edited By: PJP Schroeder
  • Last Modified Date: 08 July 2014
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Oral and written communications may be able to deliver highly specific meanings, but they do so abstractly. Words stand in for things themselves, representing objects and ideas with nouns, actions with verbs, modifications with adverbs and adjectives, and directions or relationships between things with prepositions. Vague communication lacks specificity, using a category term instead of a precisely honed one; for example, the word creature could refer to an insect, a mammal, a reptile, bird, or fish, but the word kitten is specifically a young feline.

Messages that contain a high degree of vagueness tend to result in miscommunication because the message’s recipient must assume, interpret, or deduce at least part of the message. Such vaguely worded statements, questions, or requests are fuzzy and lack clarity. In the worst cases, vagueness can obliterate a message’s intended point altogether.

Vagueness becomes a particularly difficult issue when it comes to the law. In fact, the term unconstitutional vagueness has come into use to describe laws and amendments that are overly opaque to the average person. There are many court cases that have used unconstitutional vagueness as a sufficient argument to successfully strike down a law, rule, or other regulation.

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Many a high school and college student have written papers that fulfill length or word count requirements but manage to say very little. Sometimes, these failings are unintentional. Students might believe they have achieved clarity because the words on the page seem to reflect their own ideas. These students don’t realize they are mentally filling in the blanks to arrive at a coherent whole.

At other times, the student is trying to impress the professor by using archaic terms, long sentences containing clause after clause, or a great many words with Latin roots. These words may sound highly educated to the student but really don’t carry the meaning the student intends or even much meaning at all. This kind of essay has been written not to relay information but solely to impress. Unfortunately, the opposite result is generally the outcome.

Well-written communications, whether they are student papers, papers in professional journals, articles in popular, trade, or hobby magazines, or another type of writing must focus on the content before the language used to deliver it. Using the most specific nouns possible, limiting adjectives and adverbs in favor of specific nouns and verbs, and only incorporating words and phrases that the author fully understands are key to good writing. Vagueness or wordiness never succeeds in furthering clear communication; it results in blurry, unclear messages and requires the recipient to imagine the message’s original purpose.

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