Exquisite precision, and why it matters

Here’s a quote about the power of language to end the year on.

You and I belong to a species with a remarkable ability: we can shape events in each other’s brains with exquisite precision.


It’s by Steven Pinker, linguist, cognitive scientist, and marvellously clear communicator of the complex.

The ‘species’ gets our attention. It’s a little jibe, a tease for all those who prefer not to think of people as animals, and it’s a little tiny hint that Pinker is a strongly evolutionary thinker.

But it’s what comes after that’s particularly thought-provoking, the idea that we can shape events in other people’s brains. Note that he doesn’t say we shape events in other people’s minds, but their brains. The truth is we do both. But talking about events in brains is vivid and a little surprising. The notion that we can change the physical characteristics of someone else’s brain is a striking one.

That’s exactly what good writing (and good speaking) does. It reaches in and plants ideas in other people’s minds. It changes them.

But it can only do so if it is precise, and preferably exquisitely precise. Language is a marvel, an instrument of staggering power. Pinker reminds writers of this and, in his book A Sense of Style, shows us how to be more exquisitely precise. I recommend it.