Vagueness is Bad

And so is this article's title. In what way is vagueness bad? Bad could mean hazardous to your health, but I have written my share of unclear sentences and remain in reasonably good physical condition. Likewise, bad could mean illegal, but politicians would never outlaw vagueness, since if they did, they might have to present detailed policy proposals in their speeches.

With that wisecrack, I have gotten to the core problem that vagueness represents. An unclear sentence, with ill-defined terms, at best makes its point poorly and at worst makes no point at all. Remember: we judge a paper by its success at informing and persuading readers. A paper fails this test if facts are left vague and opinions are stated unclearly. Consider the following sentence:

Invaders from Planet Rugby is a great movie.

What's the problem? Surely we can all agree that Invaders from Planet Rugby is one of the greatest films ever made up for the sake of the writing guide. (Then again, maybe not: see the next section for a consideration of this point.) Yet the bare assertion that the film is great leaves all sorts of questions unanswered, both about the movie and about the writer's criteria for greatness. Vague sentences of this kind are ill suited to the tasks of informing and persuading an audience. Keep reading, and you will see why.


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