Just So

What is the difference between being exact and being fastidious? Although it is high counsel to aim for our natural voice when we write, we often forget that writing lacks what speaking essentially represents: our presence. The distinctions and emphases we make with the tone and rhythm of our voice, with our gestures and grimaces and smiles, have to be translated into the sentences we compose to achieve that naturalness. That involves the words we choose, but it also, importantly, involves exactly where we place those words across a sentence.

To illustrate this, we can examine how the word only can radically change the meaning of a statement, depending upon where we position it. Take, for example, the sentence I suggested he apologize to you. If I were the only one who suggested he apologize, then I would place only at the beginning of the sentence: Only I suggested he apologize, this being equivalent to saying, I alone suggested. If I were subsequently surprised to learn that he had in fact apologized to you, I would place only next to the verb: I only suggested he apologize—I didn’t think he really would.

What is in evidence here is the principle of proximity. We can think of a word as a unit of energy. This energy affects most strongly the element that is next or closest. We can again see this principle at work in our example if we continue to change the position of the word only, this time two places forward, so that it sits immediately before the verb apologize: I suggested he only apologize to you. This would mean that I never dreamed he would buy you an expensive gift as well; his apology, I would think, would have sufficed. And moving the word forward one more place—I suggested he apologize only to you—should make you feel singularly important. In fact, the word only could be placed before or after every single word of our original sentence, changing the meaning or expressing a shade difference in emphasis or intent.

All of which points to the noisy truth that devils muster in details. It is obvious, of course, that we can concern ourselves so much about being exact and precise and accurate that we end up making distinctions without a difference: that is the fastidiousness we should worry about. But when we are confronted with the possibility of stating or implying different things, when the very meaning depends on where we place even a single word, then being exact has to do with fact and truth, which are realities to be defended anywhere and always.


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