Monday, November 16, 2015


"He was here for a half-hour after lunch, but then he said he had to go to a meeting."

One of the things Brunetti liked about Signorina Elettra was the merciless accuracy of her speech. Not, "had to go to a meeting," but the more precise, "said he had to go to a meeting."
Donna Leon, A Sea of Troubles

The theater was in what she would euphemistically call an "interesting neighborhood."
Melanie Benjamin, The Swans of Fifth Avenue

One afternoon last week I found both of the above passages in two novels I am reading. It occurred to me that they describe opposite approaches to our use of language. One employs precision in our speech and writing, the other ambiguity. Both serve essentially the same purpose: self-protection.

In the Donna Leon mystery, Signorina Elettra, a clerical worker in the Venice police department who also does amazing investigative work with her computer, opts for precision when speaking of her boss. Rather than say he "had to go to a meeting," she says "he said he had to go to a meeting." Is she implying her boss lied to her? Not really. She is simply stating what she actually knows: He said he had to go to a meeting.

I learned very early in the newspaper business to attribute everything that can be attributed. That's how newspapers protect themselves from libel suits. An Associated Press story on the front page of today's Tampa Bay Times uses such phrases as "Iraqi intelligence officials say," "a Defense Ministry statement said" and "French officials revealed." The Times itself is not always this careful. An inside headline today boldly states "Man hit, injured badly illegally crossing road." It's not really a newspaper's place to accuse someone of breaking the law, although a sheriff's office report is cited in the body of the story.

Even gossips can use this strategy. Instead of saying that someone is having an affair or has a drinking problem, they use phrases like "I heard" or "a friend told me." If the rumor turns out not to be true, well, it's not their fault.

In her novel, Melanie Benjamin tells of writer Truman Capote taking socialite Babe Paley to movie in a cab. They pass through a neighborhood she terms interesting.  That's a useful word  that can sound complimentary, whether it is so intended or not. Here ambiguity, rather than precision, protects the speaker or writer. Similarly a woman may be described as striking. Sounds like a compliment, doesn't it? But she could be striking because she is ugly or poorly dressed or because her makeup is a mess. An imposing man may look strong and powerful. Or he may simply look obese. Ambiguity helps a person be truthful without revealing the real truth or the whole truth.

Most of us, especially those of us who seek to be truthful without offending anyone, become skilled in the use of both precision and ambiguity to communicate. Whichever works.

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