As a writer, I often struggle to utilize the most pin-pointedly, absolutely precise words to describe the idea or the image I am trying to convey, or the scene I am trying to create as vividly as humanly possible for readers who cannot be inside my head. (I assume a lot of writers do this.) In fact, I often sit and agonize over word choice, in effect “trying on” different locutions to see not only what works best in meaning, but also what “sounds” best, in the spirit of the famous quote from Truman Capote: “To me, the greatest pleasure about writing is not what it’s about, but the music the words make.”
Yet at the same time I am always painfully aware of the inherent imprecision of words and of language itself. To give you an idea of what I am talking about, you might think about what’s known as the Sorites Paradox. “Sorites” comes from the Greek word for “heap,” and one variation of the paradox goes like this: Let’s say we have a large heap of beans, say, piled on your kitchen table. I take one of the beans away and ask you, “Is it still a ‘heap’ of beans?”
“Of course it is!” you reply.
I take away another bean and ask you the same question, and of course your answer is the same as well. “Silly question,” you chide.
However, a problem arises as the process continues and I continue to take away the beans one at a time. When does the “heap” cease to be a heap, or to put it differently, when does the “heap become a “non-heap”? To push a little further, what intrinsic property makes a heap of beans (or anything else for that matter) a “heap”? Is it not actually the beans themselves but the characteristic of some beans sitting on top of other beans? Is that the “heap” component in the concept, “heap of beans.” We seem not to have a very precise definition, or concept even, of “heap.”
The Sorites Paradox has some profound philosophical implications regarding the nature of human knowledge, of what we like to think we know and can describe but which in fact, I would argue, we really don’t know and can only approximate in description ultimately; the idea that there is no such thing as “absolute” knowledge.
But I think it also effectively illustrates the imprecision of words and language, which I think is a good thing. Because it means that words and language are plastic; they can be molded to endeavor to fit the ideas and images and meanings that writers strive to convey. And I think it makes the craft of writing even more fun and exciting—and anguishing, too—by making it an infinitely more creative enterprise. The philosopher Wittgenstein said in essence that language and words are tools; we may put them to many different uses, including unconventional ones that others might not have thought of.
Although, the paradox may also have disastrous implications for things like strict rules of grammar and usage and punctuation—in short all of those inviolable tenets your eighth grade English teacher may have pounded into your psyche. And I kind of think that’s a good thing, too!