How can you get less vague?

These slides are a summary of my essay:

Vagueness in the use of technical language. In: L. Hoffmann / H. Kalverkämper / H.E.Wiegand: technical languages. An international handbook for language research and terminology science. (Handbooks of Linguistics and Communication Studies). Volume 1. Berlin 1998. pp. 383-390.

Pre-academic attitude

In technical language practice, even within technical language research, the thesis is sometimes put forward that the difference between technical language and common language consists mainly in their properties of "exactness" versus "vagueness".

This widespread misjudgment (based on the analytical philosophy of the beginning of the century) has three main reasons:

Vagueness, apart from expressions "technical colloquial language", is not seen in technical language texts (differently Schmitt 1986)

The intention of exactness and explicitness is equated with the linguistic, logical or communicative exactness of an utterance.

In terminology work (Arntz / Picht 89) and classification, great value is placed on a targeted and methodical approach to the establishment of terminology or nomenclature in order to avoid vagueness.


But: The use of terminology usually follows completely different laws. (Fraas 89: "... unilaterally favors a very specific doctrine").

Subjects that have well-organized and stable terminology are therefore not exact in all usage modes.

There are also well-founded doubts as to whether there are any utterances that are per se exact, as the "philosophy of normal language" has clearly shown. P>


An expression is indefinite if it can only be assigned a truth value "true" or "false" under certain conditions. Such conditions can be semantic or pragmatic in nature.

Vagueness and nonsense

In the colloquial use of a "nonsensical question" it is nonsensical to use such utterances as violating the presuppositions:

"Has Department 2b stopped promoting this product?" (With the situation: Dept. 2b has never advertised anything, because it's purchasing)

or represent type violations: "Is the solvent large or small"

Such statements or questions cannot be reasonably answered directly. Usually one reacts with a question or a correction: "What do you mean? X has no Z at all"

Vagueness and uncertainty

Many statements elude a clear assessment, as they e.g.
  • lie in the future:

  • "Our company will generate 5% more sales in the next year"
  • or for reasons of unexplained or unexplained facts, such as scientifically unexplained facts.
Here the communicative problem lies in the fact that one has to be uncertain about the occurrence of the fact or one can have different opinions about its probability. The invitation to be less vague seems fruitless.

Vagueness and generality

More specific as opposed to more precise is an expression that uses lower classes:

Dog-dachshund, ship - sailing ship

The same applies to the pair of opposites "vague / general". Vague is: not precise and general is: not specific (Pinkal 1985a, 48)

Vagueness and intelligibility

Vagueness does not hinder communication.
The advantage or disadvantage of vagueness is determined by the communicative boundary conditions, not by the properties of isolated linguistic units.

Often there is even a positive connection between intelligibility and vagueness:
In a technical discussion it can be useful to initially remain very indefinite in order to establish a uniform level of knowledge and then to move on to more precise formulations in the further course of the discussion through agreements.

"I will now call that Schmidt's solution 2"

This funnel-like procedure within the same language is made possible by fuzzy, vague or inexact expressions.

Is innovative problem-solving language behavior associated with this ability?

(a) "The conversion of the system costs more than 7,000 DM
(b) "The conversion of the system costs a little more than 7,000 DM"

(b) is linguistically and logically less clear ("a little more"), but communicatively more clear, because (b) limits the truth range of (a) ("more") open to the top, but still clearly.

In a transfer text between science and the public, a scientifically exact expression can even become a hindrance to communication.

Pinkal's taxonomy

Pinkal's taxonomy

Indeterminacy and uninformativity

Illocutive indeterminacy:

The speech act type is not fixed.
"We will increase our income by 5% next year!" It's not clear if this is a promise, a warning, a guess, or a joke.

The statement is so general that it does not allow a meaningful response:

"Patients Have Diseases"

is literally uninformative; mostly to be understood in a figurative sense ("The hospital has its duties towards the patient").
Uninformative statements violate Grice's maxim to only give as much and as little information as is currently needed.

Indeterminacy in the strict sense

Homonymy and polysemy

Homonymy: Words like "lock" or "bank" have several meanings that are usually not understood as belonging together.
The question is, of course, whether ambiguities due to homymy even occur in the same context, i.e. whether there are situations in which the bank can be misunderstood as a financial institution and seat.

Polysemy: "Court" is a polysemic expression in the sense that it "sits in judgment", but also

  • the courthouse,
  • the institution or
  • a body
can mean.

Syntactic ambiguity

"Screw the swivel arm to the guide on the housing"

means either:

  • the swivel arm has a guide or else
  • the housing has a guide.
(PP attachment)

The example goes in a more semantic / logical direction:

"All doctors have an enemy"

There the scope of "all" and "a" is unclear (each one or all together a single one).

Comparable ambiguities also occur on the text level: coherence features are not unambiguous and the relationship between two sentences can therefore be indefinite.

Referential ambiguity

Deictic expressions are potentially misleading. Outside of the original situation, indexical expressions such as "I", "here", "on the previous page" can usually not be clearly assigned. For this reason, such referential expressions are avoided, for example, in texts that are often quoted in excerpts, such as laws
? "§ 24b This can then do the same"

Elliptical ambiguity

The expression:
"The company delivered"

is ambiguous without the context of a specific order.

Elliptical questions: "That too?"
(Pronoun resolution and action of the preceding sentence)

"Tropical woods will soon be considerably more expensive"

leaves open whether compared to native woods or compared to the previous price. This is also typical for the normal use of progressive forms.

Metaphorical ambiguity

"Sheet" can be used for a newspaper or just a page in certain contexts.


"Is a substance that has the same chemical and physical properties as gold, but also emits an unknown radiation, gold?" (Pinkal 1980, 14)

This situation occurs frequently in research and development. The concepts and terminology of a field inevitably become porous as knowledge increases. The term no longer covers all knowledge.

-> Reorganization of the terminology up to the highest levels.