What Does That Mean?

Let’s return to the border of grammar and logic, or if the term logic is off putting, let’s call it critical thinking. If it’s true that precision lies at the heart of style, then the more we know exactly what we’re talking about, the clearer will be our language and the more distinct our style.

Clarity and precision, though, are not achieved at a stroke, and so we should be patient with ourselves as we search in a first draft for the words to express the ideas we have in mind. Generalities are often the first to come to mind, and generalities lead quickly to vagueness, that mistiness that engulfs precision like a whirlpool and can quickly pull us down into the belief that sounding like we’re saying something means we are. Vagueness (the word comes from a Latin adjective meaning wandering) doesn’t mean we don’t have anything to say; it just means we’ve drifted off in finding the words that best define what we mean. And we can always find our way back to the main road by asking, What does that mean?

The logical side of language sees every declarative sentence in two halves, subject and predicate, and one would think then that finding our ideas in a draft should be fairly straightforward: the subject will answer the question what are we talking about?, and the predicate will answer what are we saying about it? But what about a sentence like this, which is not untypical of a first draft: His progress and development grew and increased at the new school. It’s easy enough to see the predicate beginning with the word grew, but what exactly grew? Progress? Development? Or progress and development both? And did each or both just grow, or did each or both increase as well? A grammarian will have no objection to the structure of the sentence, but a critical thinker will go wild not only at the multiplicity of ideas compounded into one sentence, but also because of the vagueness of the four terms.

The grammarian has nothing to say about this sentence because he recognizes a compound subject in combination with a compound predicate. Subjects and predicates may be simple or compound, simple if they comprise only one idea, compound if they comprise two or more. Such a design is well established in English, and so the grammarian, the guardian of structure, has no objection to raise. His distinction, though, of simple and compound subjects and predicates can help the critical thinker in us find a more precise sentence, and that search begins by posing to each term of the compound subject the sharp question what does that mean?

The noun progress means forward movement, and suggests advancing toward a goal; development means productive change, and suggests an unfolding growth. The verb grow means to increase, and increase means to become greater in size or capacity. It seems obvious, then, that the two predicate terms, grow and increase, are redundant; the writer has merely said the same thing twice, pushed on most likely by the mistaken belief that saying more will make more meaning. But the trouble really began with the vagueness of the two subject terms. If we assume for a moment that progress and development refer to the subject’s emotional life, progress can mean all manner of things.

But meaning all manner of things, speaking in generalities, works counter to precision and thus to distinctive style, and the only way to find the specific is to pose over and over the master question what does that mean? To mean means principally to intend, and what we mean, we do. And so the question what does that mean? can also be answered by the question what happened?, what did the subject do? Which then finally leads us to this one of many possible revisions: He learned to put words to his thoughts and feelings instead of lashing out emotionally, and he behaved more civilly with his peers. And now the reader knows exactly what was meant.


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