Specifically Vague

31 October 2012

Many students are familiar with that red-ink criticism scrawled near an essay paragraph: ‘vague’. But what does it mean—what is ‘vague’?

 Dictionary definitions of ‘vague’ equate it with a lack of clear meaning, along the lines of ‘vagueness arises whenever the meaning of a phrase is not clear to its intended audience’. So in the following dialogue from Lewis Carroll’sThrough the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, Humpty is being vague:

“And only one for birthday presents, you know. There’s glory for you!”
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”

Was Humpty’s use of ‘glory’ vague? Yes, according to the definition given above. Yet Humpty isn’t merely being vague; rather, Humpty is playing hard and fast with language. So the dictionary definition is over-inclusive, as a bare lack of clarity does not completely define the concept of vagueness. This indicates that there must be some other feature that makes a word, or phrase, vague.

What is this feature? As humans, we should know: vagueness is something that we invented. While we use vague language to talk about the world, the world itself cannot be vague: while a poem about a tree may be vague, the tree itself is not.
We can eliminate vagueness. Artificial languages, such as those used for writing computer programs, approximate perfect clarity and precision. Nonetheless, there are no serious proposals to discard our imperfect natural languages in favour of a ‘perfect’ artificial language. And re-writing a vague essay paragraph in C++ is unlikely to appease a professor.

Why are we so attached to being vague? In part, vague language helps to maintain social conventions. Imagine rejecting an acquaintance’s coffee-invitation with actual words of rejection! No, we will always reach for vagueness by making a commitment to have coffee ‘sometime’, at an unnamed location, ‘soon’.

Vagueness enriches languages. Imagine the dullness of literature, or lyrics free of metaphor and allusion; perfect clarity requires a precision that is the antithesis of creative expression. Take the opening lines of the Interpol song ‘PDA’:

Yours is the only version of my desertion that I could ever subscribe to /
That is all that I can do /
You are a past dinner, the last winner I’m raping all around me/
Until the last drop is behind you.

The 75 different interpretations of this song on indicate that these vague lines mean something different to everyone. Many of these interpretations appear to be derived from the interpreter’s own experiences: being vague allows us to personalise the song, by forcing us to fill the gaps in meaning with our own meanings.

So maybe the label ‘vague’ isn’t such a criticism after all. Likewise, it seems that the search for the definitive meaning of ‘vague’ is a fruitless exercise. So next time someone accuses you of vagueness, perhaps you should embrace it—or adopt J.L. Austin’s pithy response to that apparent criticism:

“‘Vague?’ ‘Vague’ is vague!”

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