Archive for the ‘Word’ Category

Testing your understanding of an author’s words

February 22, 2008

There is one other test of whether you understand the proposition in a sentence you have read.  Can you point to some experience you have had that the proposition describes or to which the proposition is in any way relevant?  Can you exemplify the general truth that has been enunciated by referring to a particular instance of it?  To imagine a possible case is often as good as citing an actual one.  If you cannot do anything at all to exemplify or illustrate the proposition, either imaginatively or by reference to actual experiences, you should suspect that you do not know what is being said.

Propositions do not exist in a vacuum.  They refer to the world in which we live.  Unless you can show some acquaintance with actual or possible facts to which the proposition refers or is relevant somehow, you are playing with words, not dealing with thought or knowledge.

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren

Costly misinterpretation of a single word

October 1, 2007

Even simple sentences can be misinterpreted.  Here’s an example of a misread sentence that proved very costly.

The (computer) program’s specification read, in part,

“The exception information will be in the XYZ file, too.”

The programmer took this to mean,

Another place the exception information appears is the XYZ file.”

He assumed, therefore, that the exception information was duplicated somewhere else, so he saw no need for his program to preserve it.

Actually, the writer meant,

“Another type of information that appears in the XYZ file is the exception information.”

Nothing was implied about this information being duplicated elsewhere, and, indeed, it wasn’t duplicated.  As a result, valuable and unrecoverable information was lost.  Before the differing interpretations were discovered, the cost of the lost information had mounted to about $500,000 – rather a large bill for one carelessly placed “too.”

Are Your Lights On? by Donald C. Gause and Gerald M. Weinberg