The importance of vocabulary II

I admit I can sympathize with people who struggle with understanding jargon terms that get used as a matter of course.  Look in the back of any biology textbook and there you’ll find a nice, concise definition of ‘species’.  A definition that serves a practical purpose as a shorthand way to communicate an enormously complex concept, and is a gross oversimplification of reality.  And it’s not alone.  Pretty much any definition in the back of a biology textbook is an oversimplification of one form or another, so that you can find examples that could be taken to either fit or not fit the term being defined.

Biology isn’t alone, of course, in its acceptance of fuzziness around the edges of definitions of terms and concepts.  Creativity is, I would argue, absolutely essential to critical thinking, as critical thinking requires considering challenges to the information presented rather than blind acceptance, but Barkley (2010) separates student engagement techniques into categories that include “Analysis and critical thinking” and “Synthesis and creative thinking” as separate techniques. I certainly don’t think that Barkley would try to argue that the two are completely unrelated, and I’m reasonably sure they’d acknowledge that there is some overlap between them. Such “fuzzy concepts”* can be accepted as useful shorthands, but when using such shorthands and oversimplifications we do need to be careful to not entirely forget the complexities that exist in the system or concept we’re trying to describe. Using such terms may risk people accepting the oversimplification as “fact”, rather than recognizing it as “an oversimplification that we’re temporarily accepting for the sake of efficiency in communication during this particular discussion”. I think it’s OK to do that, to accept fuzzy terms or imprecision for the sake of efficiency in communication when required.

(Image from

*…and if you venture to read that Wikipedia entry, darned if it doesn’t look as though “fuzzy concept” as a term is itself a fuzzy concept! And that’s not even considering how mathematicians use the term ‘fuzzy’… 😛

Now let’s face it: humans generally like to communicate with each other.  If you’re face to face with someone you have the benefit of being able to use all sorts of nonverbal communication tools, whether you’re consciously aware of (or controlling) them or not. So it seems a bit easier to see (literally!) if someone you’re communicating with is misunderstanding you or not, or is puzzled by what you’re saying when you think you’re being clear. It’s not necessarily foolproof; misunderstandings definitely take place during face-to-face interactions! But the problem can become amplified if you remove the nonverbal feedback that one can receive from a discussion partner, and simply present someone with a block of text on paper or on a screen, or “lecture at” a group of people without attending to their reactions. Communication to captive audiences does at least allow the presenter the option of inserting all sorts of caveats and addendums to the main text that can help clarify their position… but will those be attended to by the audience? Will they be remembered alongside the single-sentence summary presented as “The Essential Explanation Of This Concept”? Is it unrealistic to expect an audience struggling to remember a new term they just learned, to also remember all the caveats, exceptions, and gray areas associated with that term?

I’m coming to believe that the best way to handle the fuzziness of language is to either:
(1) present any definition of a ‘fuzzy concept’ with an acknowledgement that “this is the definition we’re using for this discussion/class/moment; there are some grey areas that we can talk about at another time but for now this is the central concept”, or
(2) ask others to help define a ‘fuzzy concept’ that’s to be discussed further, to lead them through the process of categorizing things for practical purposes when those things can’t necessarily in reality be tidily categorized. The knowledge that there’s going to be some ‘fuzziness’ is therefore implied (although of course it could be made explicit as well).

Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student Engagement Techniques. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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