Statements That Give Clues

   Phil Pennington   

Phil Pennington is a retired physicist with a special interest in problems of education and misunderstanding in physics. You can find more "statements that give clues" on his web site at

Pay careful attention to what is said around you, broadcast on TV, or published in the print media and you will spot statements that indicate misunderstandings. Many mis-statements seem at first glance to simply be a poor choice of words. But look deeper. These statements often don't just highlight a lack of proper word usage, but illuminate something more-points of missed logic.

Such statements give little clues that something isn't quite understood. They call attention to simple concepts that are persistently and pervasively missed, things that stubbornly resist teaching and learning, suggesting there may be developmental issues acting here. (That is "development" in much the same sense that stereopsis, color vision, or language requires development, generally at a critical age.) In the case of these mis-statements there appears to be no critical age and, I expect, understanding is developable at any age of adulthood. The statements, however, often involve concepts that lie at, or a little beyond, the edges of human comprehension.

Consider the following statements:

  • "The Beatles introduced some of the most unique innovations in the music of the 1960s."
    The clue: "Most unique," is an illiterate usage according to most dictionaries.
    Missed: "Unique" means "the only one." (It derives from uni, meaning "one.") It has no comparative or superlative forms. Abe Burrows describes "most unique" as coming from "a weakening of a great and useful word. Or perhaps I should say a 'most divine' word and 'most perfect.'" Also, to use it to mean "unusual" confuses one with several, an all too common error of elementary logic.
    And... This slip of the mind is one of the errors of the logic of multiple, interacting elements. The persistent confusion of one with several is used by advertisers as a dodge of "Truth in Advertising."

    "Doctors recommend (insert just about any pharmaceutical here)." All too often, what is communicated is "All doctors recommend…" The pharmaceutical company can feel it's covered, even if the only doctors who actually recommend it are a couple of doctors in their research labs.

    "Unique" has a unique meaning. Today, when we hear it used, we often can't tell from the context whether the speaker really means what he says, or is trying to overstate something, or simply doesn't clearly sense a real distinction between "one" and "many" and "all." The word is in its death throes.

  • "The epicenter was two miles deep..."
    The clue: "Epicenter" is placed underground.
    Missed: "Epi" means "over, above." Earthquakes occur underground, so we need to distinguish between where the action is and where we experience the effect. We experience its effect on the surface, above the actual action. We are at the "epicenter." The earthquake is at the "focus."
    And... "Epicenter" is often used to point to where the action is when the "action" is a big event. (Earthquakes are big events!) I suspect it often gets used by a speaker hoping to sound erudite-more erudite than he's going to be seen by a person knowledgable of the word's meaning.

    More subtle is the problem many people have conceptualizing three dimensional phenomena: Two dimensional mechanics troubles most physics students who have more than enough trouble grasping one-dimensional physics. Three-dimensional physics happenings often stymie, especially when mathematical abstraction needs to be used. Rotational physics, which is decidedly three-dimensional, is well past the edges of comprehension for most. Geologists use "epicenter" because an earthquake is fundamentally an event in three dimensions. When the word slips into colloquial usage, its true meaning falls out of sight.

  • "Congress set the parameters for the budget, and then special interests tried to exceed them."
    The clue: "Parameter" is being confused with "perimeter," an outer limit.
    Missed: A parameter is one of possibly many variables that make multiple contributions, often in complex ways.
    And... Someone once suggested, "If you want to impress someone, use the word 'parameter' often; nobody knows what it means, and everyone will think you are a genius." William and Mary Morris, in Harper's Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, call "parameter" a "vogue word," one used to show off that you have acquired it. Harry Shaw, in the Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions, is less kind. He suggests it's a "fad word …constantly being misused by persons who apparently think it means 'limits' or 'perimeter' or 'boundary-line'."

    We suggest its problems run even deeper. Parameters are the mathematical aspect of multi-element complexity. This is the core of much that goes persistently and pervasively missed, and constitutes the raw material of much at, and a little beyond, the edges of human comprehension. So the things "parameter" represents aren't "seen" and we have a word which for many has no vivid referent, much like "orange vs. green" has no perceptual referent for a person without red cones on his retina (protanopia). Watch for this kind of difficulty in the other "simple but difficult" concepts buried in "statements which give little clues that something wasn't quite understood."

  • "I could care less!"
    The clue: What is meant is "I could not care less."
    Missed: Negation of negation. Multiplicative negation rather than additive negation.
    And... Of course, the more familiar form of this error is "He hasn't got no food on his plate," meaning "he has got no food on his plate." One negation after another is usually seen as one negation reinforcing another: additive negation. "I could care less" is interesting because here the error is leaving out the needed second negation. The error is still in not sensing the negation of negation. In Piaget's work, any logical operation upon another operation raises the level of intellectual development needed. This linguistic aspect of the principle demonstrates its edge-of-human-comprehension character.

  • "All these apologies from so many of our government officials [for bombing the Chinese embassy in Belgrade] are getting a little egregious; a single apology from the President would have been enough."
    The clue: That use of "egregious" jars the senses.
    Missed: Perhaps the correct meaning of "egregious" was missed, because here the intended meaning seems to be "excessive."
    And... Some words lie in a no-man's-land of comprehension of their meaning. These lie between words virtually everyone really understands, and words that are either rare and obscure-or, like "parameter" and "unique"-refer to things that are themselves at the edges of easy human comprehension. This particular use of an only moderately well-known word probably will remain a mystery: Did he really mean "egregious"? Scientific terms are especially subject to misunderstandings and frequently get used so often in some misunderstood way that the (mis-)usage becomes standard usage.

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