On being precise

My son sat at his computer earlier this week: “I have to memorize this thing for Civics.”

“Is it the Preamble to the Constitution?”

“Yes… How did you know?”

“Because I had to memorize the Preamble to the Constitution when I was your age. I think everyone does. Or did. I’m not sure. Let’s say it.”

So we did, and he tried to memorize the words. “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” And he was really surprised that I knew it without looking at it, and again I said, “This is something you’re supposed to know, by heart, for the rest of your life.”

Later at dinner he started saying the words but he left some out. He added some. Suddenly they were providing common defense and promoting general welfare, and I said “NO. You must be precise. When you leave out words, you are changing the meaning.” Because promoting general welfare and promoting the general welfare are two different things. Establishing the Justice and Establishing Justice are two different things.

We live in a world where your language and your writing must be precise, because one change in a word, or one addition or subtraction of an article can change your meaning, and there are entirely too many people out there who would use your words against you. When writing anything–from an opinion piece to the news to a technical document–being imprecise can give the wrong impression, impart the wrong message, or give the wrong directions to your reader. Many will not notice. Some will be confused. But for some, your ability to impart information correctly and as intended can make all the difference.

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