I have inventified a new tensy thing in English

I think I’m going to call it the imprecise tense, or maybe the inexact tense. I haven’t decided yet.

It’s a very important tense, and we need to use it more often.

But it must be used precisely.

It is not used to convey imprecision of understanding in the subject (e.g. “these new-fangled computery thingies”), it is used to convey imprecision in the object of the sentence (e.g ”I’ve got some datary stuff on this topic”).

We are taught to be precise and professional in our speech, especially when presenting information or writing professional reports.

The problem is that precise language can be misleading.

It overstates the accuracy of what we’re talking about, appealing to the “precision bias” in us all.

If we’re basing decisions on data we feel we’re on much more solid ground than if we’re basing decisions on datary stuff.

If the quality of the data is poor, calling it “datary stuff” is a much more precise name for it. Calling it “data” overstates its value and is therefore a misleading name for it.

Equating precision with accuracy (or truth) is the error that precision bias forces us to make.

Precision bias is a cognitive bias, or a type of “heuristic” (Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky). It means that we irrationally overvalue information that appears to be precise – like 28.6% of people think our customer service is fantastic sounds a lot more reliable than saying 2 of the 7 people I asked think our customer service is fantastic.

I used this with my ex-boss once.

He was getting all uppity with me because I refused to draw any conclusions from the seven questionnaire returns we’d had. My argument was that we didn’t have data yet, we had a little bit of datary stuff, so any conclusions we drew from it would probably be flawed.

In fact, you cannot conclude anything from datary stuff, you can only concludify from it, but I didn’t go into that at the time, I needed the job. I have a mortgage to pay and kids to feed, clothe and annoy.

He didn’t like that I wasn’t giving him the precision he craved, he wanted numbers shown in a graph because, he reasoned, numbers are data and graphs are facts.

So I drew a graph, showing that 28.6% of customers think our customer service is fantastic.

He was happy, I felt like I’d violated the laws of precision, but at least I kept my job.

This precision bias is common in all of us.

They say this is exacerbated by great presentation style, and is one of the reasons that government decision-making led to some shoddy public policy back in the late 90s when PowerPoint was taking over the world and implying we knew more than we did with overprecise claims made on pretty slides by articulate presenters.

This is why I don’t claim to have invented a new tense, I only claim to have inventified a tensy thing – making my claim imprecise by adding –ify to the verb stem.

I inventify
You inventify
She/He/It inventifies
You, We, They iventify

If we still used the singular form of you (like we should, but that’s another story), it would be:

Thou inventifiest

This form can then be put into past (inventified) future (will inventify) conditional (would inventify) continuous (be inventifying), even the imperfect (used to inventify) and perfect (have inventified) forms.

I’ll have to have a little think about what to do with verbs that already end in –ify like identify. I suspect many people reading this article initially read “identify” instead of “inventify” anyway. I keep doing that and I wrote the damn thing.

Imprecision doesn’t just apply to verbs.

As in the above example of data / datary stuff, both nouns and adjectives can be made appropriately imprecise with the addition of a –y or an –ish suffix.

It’s not necessary for the adjective, noun and verb to agree when using the imprecise tense. Different variations of imprecise suffixes imply different levels of imprecision.

For example, the other day I “draftified a measury system” which meant that not only was my first draft very drafty indeed, but the system itself only aspired to offer a rough estimate, not a precise observation.

The name made it clear that it wasn’t a precision instrument and its output should be treated with appropriate caution.

If I’d said that I would “draftify a measurement system”, then the draft would be rough, but the measurement system would be precise.

The name didn’t stick, it’s now called a “diagnostic tool” which is a less good name and clashes with the subjective nature of its moving parts.

I’ve a long way to go before the imprecise tense becomes the norm.


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