View Full Version : Word accuracy vs. precision

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Anthony Loeppert
09-18-2012, 02:11 AM
In another thread, the concept of accurate vs. precise came up with respect to words.

Please read:
paying attention to the target analogy.

Words convey meaning. Words have definite (a tautology) definitions*. Each word means what it does, simply pick up a dictionary. The precision of a word is either non-applicable or infinite, (again) with respect to the target analogy, because each time a specific word is used it means a specific thing.

Words have multiple meaning one might say... and of course this is true, but the precision is the same each time.

Now accuracy... if intent to express is the bulls-eye, then picking the right word to match up with the closest meaning is most accurate. But the word's precision doesn't change. It means what it means however many times you use it - again, there can be multiple meanings but the precision of each meaning doesn't change. So I argue precision of words is meaningless, only accuracy matters.

Please reason otherwise if you so desire.

* we can argue on which dictionary to use, but trust me, there are standards in the linguistic world.

Howard Prior
09-18-2012, 08:49 AM
So I argue precision of words is meaningless, only accuracy matters.


Anthony Loeppert
09-18-2012, 12:16 PM

Good one.

Basia Halliop
09-18-2012, 02:50 PM
Personally, I think they both matter, though I agree that accuracy matters far far more.

If the word you choose is inaccurate, then precision is completely irrelevant and meaningless either way.

BUT, once you've got accuracy covered, than precision can make an important additional difference. Of course, sometimes you don't want to be precise, you want to keep your words intentionally a bit general, but other times you want to really get right onto an exact meaning. Sometimes being too vague is confusing, even if it's accurate.

(If anyone is unclear on the difference, accuracy is more about something (a word or a measurement) being right or wrong, while precision is how exact it is. So if an elephant actually weighs 3.452 tonnes it's obviously better to say this elephant weighs 'somewhere between two and five tonnes' (accurate but imprecise) vs saying it weighs 145.73 kg (very precise but totally inaccurate). On the other hand, sometimes it's useful to get more precise (e.g. between 3.4 and 3.5 tonnes)).

In writing accuracy would mean if the word even means what you think it means, precision would be if the idea it expresses is more vague or more specific. So I don't think precision is at all meaningless or unimportant, it's just that it absolutely must come a step down the list after accuracy.

09-18-2012, 10:03 PM
The speaker must understand the precision and accuracy of the words they use. However it is just as important that the speaker understands how the audience will understand and interpret those words.

Meaningful communication breaks down when the intended and interpreted meanings are different. It is quite irrelevant whether this is caused by the speaker misusing words or the listener failing to understand the 'true' intended meaning, the results are the same. Great speakers use plain language, great listeners need a good vocabulary.

What is worse is that the many major media networks seems to constantly use subtle pejorative language especially on issues of race and religion, and that this negativity becomes engrained into the subconscious of the listeners and the fabric of a society as a whole. The saddest part is that I am not sure that even the reporters always realise they are doing it.

09-19-2012, 12:36 PM
My understanding of the two concepts is more scientific. Accuracy is a measurement of quality, precision is a measurement of quantity.

From the other thread, I choose to use the term accurate because precision can be incorrect and still a valid definition. The target analogy works here. If I shoot ten rounds low-left, I was in-accurate, but precise. Similarly, if I call a chicken a duck ten times, I am still using the wrong term but at least I am consistent...

C. David Henderson
09-21-2012, 03:07 PM
I think with language sometimes it is more accurate to be less precise, as it "is difficult to paint a clear picture of a fuzzy object."

I also think the idea that a dictionary has authority to delimit meaning is of fairly recent origin. While this cultural convention is undoubtedly useful, it does not describe something inherent in natural language use, written or oral.

The meaning of words used in speech or writing is not fixed, and there are determinants of meaning that speakers and listeners, writers and readers attach that do not turn on the definition of individual words. Examples -- irony, or poetry.

Whether I understand what you say and write is subject to a (somewhat fuzzy) process of provisional attribution and confirmation.