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Don’t be right. Be good.

January 11th, 2011 1 comment

‘You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.’ — the Princess Bride.

I’m on the third paragraph of the opening scene of a story which came to me in the car journey home. The fourth paragraph won’t come. The words don’t feel right.

I’ve had the notion of a new blog post in my head for about a week with the intent of boosting my blog-rate to weekly rather than monthly (itself an improvement over four months ago when yearly was admirable). A couple of words on a piece of paper photographed on my iPhone as a quick means of making sure I had them when I came to writing this – and the assumption that when I got round to this (last week was busy) I’d remember what they meant. The words were ‘billion’ and ‘juvenile’. Not as connected as you maybe think I’m suggesting they are.

The word ‘billion’ came up last week during a board game. A quiz question required everyone to write down their answers to a question involvng a lot of money. My answer was 4.2 billion. Except it wasn’t.

What I actually wrote was “4,200,000,000,000″. Which is 4.2 trillion. Except I think it’s 4.2 billion. A billion, I argued, even though my number was clear enough for the game to go ahead, is a million million. Makes sense. “bi” two, “illion”… whatever it means, but in “million” you get six zeroes… so twelve zeroes. 10^12. Indeed, that’s what it used to be, as a standard, in the UK, until 1974. It’s been standardised since to 10^9. I argue we have perfectly good words for 10^9. A thousand million is the most straightforward, but a milliard is the other word for it. If you want to count up the terms through the powers of a thousand, you get million, milliard, billion, billiard, trillion… my opponents had none of it.

I’m aware of this 10^9 = billion thing. I’ve known about it at least a decade. I’ve no idea how I was taught, or how I learned, of the 10^12 thing, unless my schools maybe had some old textbooks (I wasn’t born when the word’s meaning changed, so it certainly wouldn’t have been syllabus). But I remember – not the specific moment – but being surprised when I discovered that a human population of 6.something billion was considerably smaller than I’d at first thought.

I have qualifications in maths and degrees in science. I’ve heard the word “billions” lots of times. But how often do you examine whether you really know what a word means? I like wordplay. I know that “nice” used to mean “precise” and “terrific” used to be to “terrible” what “horrific” is to “horrible”. I remember when “I” and “A” were the only single-letter words in the English language, before “C” and “U” and “R”.

That’s the evolution of language, though, right? I know people who use textspeak as though that’s the language and I can’t read whole sentences of what they say, and I know people who’ll never get used to other additions to the language like “lol” and “nom” – though, they’re written words not spoken words, surely? Nom is onomatopeiac, lol’s an acronym… it’s the same pedanticness, though, I think. Here’s a word. It means this. So long as we both know the word, and both have the same meaning for that word, we can communicate.

I go on forums. Every so often I’ll find an argument. Sometimes it’ll be about what something in a rulebook means. Clashing interpretations will be offered and sometimes the ambiguity will be acknowledged and sometimes wars will be declared because clearly there’s been a mistake and what’s written in black and white can’t possibly be correct.

Sometimes it’ll be about something in a story, and while everyone accepts that this context is much more colourful and fuzzy and opinionated, there will still be people who declare that certain things are facts. This author is good. That actor is bad.

I came across the word ‘juvenile’ on a forum, or something – directed at the latest season of Doctor Who (spot themes in my posts. I dare you). The latest season was apparently too juvenile. I resisted the desire to tear this adjective apart with snippy comments and worse examples from the prior several seasons. The latest series has flaws, yes, but I think it’s been better than those which came before. And I can give reasons for that opinion.

But that won’t make me right.

It was pointed out that the ratings of the show had dropped this year. Not much, it has to be said. The Christmas show’s ratings were lower than the last few years’ offerings (which, it should be remembered, made a big deal out of who David Tennant’s replacement would be and how that replacement would arrive). It’s been suggested to me that this is evidence the show’s popularity has declined.

That doesn’t make them right either.

We can back-and-forth on this. Who’s your favourite Doctor? (There’s more than one? Oh, all right… favourite incarnation, then?) You have one opinion, I have another. Or someone doesn’t care. No rights, no wrongs… lots of things to suit lots of tastes, and lots of people deciding the other one is more juvenile.

On the other hand, if you’re trying to fit three billiard balls on a pool table… some words become more practical applied in certain ways very quickly.

Ultimately: you need facts to construct arguments. It can be useful to argue a point on a forum, finding the reasons why something works and why something else is incorrect, and it’s nice to develop the logic muscles by constructing arguments yourself. Like constructing blog entries as thoughtful, whole ideas.

But those facts require the words to mean the same things. You can’t win an argument by exaggerating or obfuscating if you know your opponent will leap on the deviations and call them as errors. You need to be accurate in what you say if you don’t want to leave any loopholes.

And you can’t tell a story by winning arguments. You need to communicate clearly with a reader, but you can’t train yourself to use words so exactly and hope to create a colourful world in which you have room to play and make new stories and in which other people can argue.

I’m on the third paragraph of a story. The words for the fourth will come. But making sure they’re the right words will be easy. It’s making sure they’re good, where the trouble lies.

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