Dean's Corner, March 1927


by O. J. Ferguson

 Writing is an accomplishment in which few persons excel. It is one to which too little attention is given, one which deserves careful, long continued effort, and one which pays well for the study put upon it.

Of course, we may not desire to become renowned authors. That form of success we do not covet. But there is possible a wonderful accuracy and a beautiful precision in the artistry of using words which should appeal strongly to the technical mind.

The engineer uses standards of electric current ac-curate to the fourth significant figure. Six figures are used in expressing the relation between the mile and the meter. For some purposes we use eight, ten or twelve-place logarithmic tables. As a matter of curi-osity, the mathematicians have calculated the value of pi to seven hundred and seven places. We are proud of our precision and insistent upon the value of accuracy. But we seem to limit our practice in this respect to terms or quantities which may be expressed in a mathematical way. We do not feel the necessity for, or even recognize the possibility of, expressing our other ideas with any high degree of accuracy or precision.

For example, how many of my readers have a clear conception of the difference between these two common words which I am using—"accuracy" and "precision"? Or if I should say, "We will all make mistakes in our English," how many would distinguish between what the sentence really means and what they presume I mean to say? How many know where to put "only" in a sentence?

Only I went to the theater.
I only went to the theater.
I went only to the theater.
I went to only the theater.
I went to the only theater.
I went to the theater only.

Do any two of these mean the same? Are there any ambiguities present? May each form be used for some specific thought? Should "alone" replace "only" in any of these statements?

And, thus, we abuse that most capable vehicle of thought which has ever existed—the English language. Is there any wonder that lawsuits exist, that wills are contested, that terms of contracts are disputed, that mistakes are made in shipments, that "specifications" are full of holes?

What shall we do about it?

Whole lives are spent answering this little question, and it does not befit me to claim either originality or
 wisdom in my few observations. I cannot content myself, however, with merely remarking upon the need. May I not recall to your attention certain practices which are productive of much good?
Study words—their derivation, their associates, their near synonyms, their antonyms, their significance, their limitations.  A good dictionary is the textbook for this course.   (Incidentally, it is a good practice to spell words the way the dictionary does.)
Practice simplicity of form. Recast your sentences until they are clear and direct, rather than complex and abstruse.
Strive for accuracy and precision in thought ex-pression. Clarity and definition will result.
Differentiate in style of writing for different pur-poses. Take on the mood of the occasion. A letter may be a technical report, a tactful negotiation with an olTrmlcd customer, a personal chat with a friend, or an application for a job,
Consistently discipline yourself and court correction. Would you write well? Why not begin improving today ?
The hardest work in the world is that which accom-plishes least. It is natural law that the larger the result the less must be the work. Less effort, less time, with more efficiency, gets double and treble the production of wealth for use. Work should be meas-ured not by the motions it makes but by what it gets done.
If we wish to be just judges of all things, let us
first persuade ourselves of this: that there is not one of us without fault; no man is found who can acquit himself; and he who calls himself innocent does so with reference to a witness, and not to his conscience. —Letters of Seneca.
The Mann report of the Carnegie Foundation, pub-lished some years ago, indicated that the qualifications for the senior job-seeker, in the order of their desira-bility, are as follows: Character, Judgment, Efficiency,. Understanding of Men, Knowledge, Technique. Study this list and measure or rate yourself.
Ideas are what really count in this world. From little ideas, every business, every famous product, every artistic achievement, every personal success, grows! Are you alert for new ideas ?