It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it

As a phlyarologist, I understand that words matter.

It’s often not what you say that counts, what’s far more important is how you say it (as a very good friend of mine is so fond of pointing out). Choosing one’s words wisely can make all the difference.

This principle is demonstrated clearly in the following table:

Table of some jargon scientific terms, demonstrating confusion

Here’s the same content in plain text:

Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public

Scientific term 	Public meaning			Better choice

enhance			improve				intensify, increase
aerosol			spray can			tiny atmospheric particle
positive trend		good trend			upward trend
positive feedback	good response, praise		vicious cycle, self-reinforcing cycle
theory			hunch, speculation		scientific understanding
uncertainty		ignorance			range
error			mistake, wrong, incorrect	difference from exact true number
bias			distortion, political motive	offset from an observation
sign			indication, astrological sign	plus or minus sign
values			ethics, monetary value		numbers, quantity
manipulation		illicit tampering		scientific data processing
scheme			devious plot			systematic plan
anomaly			abnormal occurrence		change from a long-term average

Why the duplication in the second table?

Well, I thought it was worth taking the trouble to try to make the content available to web spiders, too; they can’t read text in images (not reliably, anyway). I did, after all, start off by agreeing that the ‘how’ is as important as the ‘what’. And the ‘how’ isn’t just simply the choice of words; of equal importance is the choice of medium by which the words are transmitted, and that can depend upon who (or what) the message is aimed at. One has to always consider who the audience is — which is (a) why I prefer to write than speak, as writing gives me more time to think about what I’m saying and who I’m saying it to and (b) probably why I’m often misunderstood, since I cannot possibly know who you are (dear non-web-spider reader) so I’m unable to choose my words to suit you (and thus the words are chosen instead to suit… me!). It’s all very confusing, and, oops, there I go, I’ve strayed from the main message, bad move — ignore this aside, please: look back at the words in the table above and see if you agree.


  1. (Blog) Callan Bentley Words Matter 17 October 2011
  2. (Article) Richard C J Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol Communicating the science of climate change Physics Today October 2011 Page 48. PDF (free).

About pendantry

Phlyarologist (part-time) and pendant. Campaigner for action against anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and injustice in all its forms. Humanist, atheist, notoftenpist. Wannabe poet, writer and astronaut.
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2 Responses to It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it

  1. witsendnj says:

    Brilliant assessment. Add to that the confusion about extreme weather events being a 100 year occurrence, a statistical measurement which is also thoroughly misunderstood by the general public, generally speaking…and the misfortunate use of 2100 as a baseline for predictions of ice loss, sea level rise etc., which is so far out as to be meaningless for most people.

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