Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Sounding the vague alarm

I'm having a vague problem, or perhaps my students are having a problem with my use of the word vague on the margins of their papers. Vague, I tell them, might sound like a soft, squishy little word, but it ought to flash and squeal like an air-raid warning--although of course they didn't spend their tender years diving for cover under wooden desks during air-raid drills so they don't know what I'm talking about. See what happens when I try to be specific? They miss my meaning entirely.

I should go back to being vague, like the word vague, which, according to the OED, comes to us from the French vague and, ultimately, the Latin vagus meaning "wandering, inconstant, uncertain, etc." (Is there anything more vague than etc.?) Students complain that my use of vague is itself vague, or, as the OED says, "couched in general or indefinite terms; not definitely or precisely expressed; deficient in details or particulars." How are they supposed to know what to do when they encounter vague in the margin?

The easy answer is "be specific," which could be expressed as "don't be vague," which is just a tad circular, and suddenly I'm reminded of a wonderful student who, years ago, came crying down the hallway near the English department kicking and throwing a paper in front of her. The problem? A professor in another department had marked the margins of the paper with her own private code for "Be Specific": B.S.

The student interpreted that abbreviation very specifically but, alas, not correctly.

Now I have a whole new group of students who are trying to learn what it means to be specific, to write without wandering uncertainly into the ether, and it's not easy. Vagueness beckons like a soft, comfy chair, and I'm the annoying prankster sneaking up behind them with an air-horn sounding the vague alarm. 

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