Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Rhetorical precision suggests that words reflect meaning, much like illustrations, symbols, and numbers. Challenging the fixed meaning of words, our languages reflect dynamic qualities and change constantly. For example, today there are more than one million words in the English language. Additionally, each word represents multiple meanings. Therefore, clear communications can be seen as an oxymoron.

Rhetorical Precision — What is an Occurrence?

Was the situation on 9/11 involving New York’s World Trade Center destruction one “occurrence” or two “occurrences”? Reportedly, the World Trade Center was insured $3.5 billion per “occurrence”. A solid example of rhetorical precision, what is an “occurrence”?  Be reminded that $3.5 billion was at risk since the property was insured per occurrence.

By 2005, insurance settlements totaled $4.6 billion, a far cry from what the owners originally wanted ($7 billion). However, clearly much more than what many pundits thought they would recover ($3.55 billion).

Prior to September 11, 2001

Rhetorical Precision and Clear Communications — What is an “occurrence”?

“‘Occurrence’ shall mean all losses or damages that are attributable directly or indirectly to one cause or to one series of similar causes. All such losses will be added together and the total amount of such losses will be treated as one occurrence irrespective of the period of time or area over which such losses occur.”

Many of use would argue that for most people insurance policies do not represent clear communications. Another compelling discussion on this topic and rhetorical precision may be found in “The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature” by Steven Pinker.

Clear Communications Rely on Language Both as an Instrument and an Environment:

Therefore, do not forget in your project, meetings, and workshops to provide a cultural glossary. Similarly, enforce rhetorical precision and ensure consensual definitions and clear communications among your meeting participants. Yet always keep in mind the dynamic nature of language:

  • Some words do not survive
  • Others mutate into existence (eg, Google, when used as a verb)

Unlike French or Italian, English is not a fixed or static language. The meanings of English words “are not established, approved, and firmly set by some official committee charged with preserving its dignity and integrity.” The “capacity for foxy and relentlessly slippery flexibility” best characterizes the English language.

Clear communications ???

 “Enron’s document-management policy simply meant shredding. France’s proposed solidarity contribution on airline tickets is a tax. The IMF’s relational capitalism is corruption. The British solicitor-general’s evidentiary deficiency was no evidence, and George Bush’s reputational problem just means he was mistrusted.”
— Economist,  (Blog, July 7, 2010)

Hence, the English language in particular represents a mashing of words from most major languages, for example:

National Origin Term Original Meaning
Greek Criterion Means of judgement
Latin Fact An act or feat
Italian Ditto Already said
Malaysian Amok Rushing in a frenzy
Persian Caravan Traveling company
Turkish Kiosk Pavilion
Dutch Cruise To cross
Hindi Guru Weighty grave
Cantonese Ketchup Tomato juice
Arabic Sofa Seat
Japanese Shogun General
Gaelic Trousers Pattern of drawers
North America Herstory Female perspective
Mayan Hurricane Mayan god, Huracan


A Rich Heritage Challenges Clear Communications

The English language is particularly rich because it has been provided with a heritage of diversity—a basis in many languages. Most noteworthy, three languages in particular contribute numerous synonyms, or words that means something similar. Unfortunately, a synonym does not imply pure equivocation. Hence, group consensus may be challenged by the similar, yet different meaning of terms borrowed from Anglo-Saxon, French, and Latin/ Greek origins as shown in the following chart.

Anglo-Saxon French Latin/ Greek
Ask Question Interrogate
Dead Deceased Defunct
End Finish Conclude
Fair Beautiful  Attractive
Fast Firm Secure
Fear Terror Trepidation
Help Aid Assist
Time Age Epoch


Dictionaries Alone Do Not Ensure Clear Communications

Dictionaries alone are insufficient because they provide a description of what something has meant and not a prescription of what it should mean. There are eight parts of speech in the English language (not true for all languages). The parts of speech explain the position of a word, but not how it is being used. Consequently, the only way to distinguish among the various meanings of words is from looking at the usage, or context. In language, the context is provided by grammar.

Single terms, without comprehensive context, challenge people. Since the buildings were insured per “occurrence”, the word “occurrence” added nearly $5.0 billion of risk for the insurance companies of the World Trade Center Towers. Similarly, even the term “country” is a surprisingly difficult term to get everyone’s agreement.

US Homeland Security offers 251 choices for the “country where you live”, a number not agreed to by other countries. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta, for example, has only two buildings in Rome but has diplomatic relations with over 100 countries. The Vatican is only four hectares in the middle of Italy’s capital and is but is only an observer at the United Nations. Israel joined the world body in 1949, but 19 of the 192 United Nations members do not accept the Jewish state’s existence. In like manner, your organization may have similar cultural differences when defining common terms like “customer.”

Grammar Does Not Ensure Clear Communications

Oddly enough, context alone does not ensure consensual meaning.  Because, the English language includes contronyms, or words that mean the opposite of themselves, in context. For example, “to bolt” can mean to fix securely or to run away; or, “to clip” that can mean to fasten or to detach, etc.

Context and standards help dictate common usage and enable us to arrive at a framework where all the participants share common meaning. Therefore, a prepared facilitator will determine many of the common usage definitions, before the meeting begins.


Don’t ruin your career or reputation with bad meetings. Register for a class or forward this to someone who should. Taught by world-class instructors, MG RUSH  professional facilitation curriculum focuses on practice. Each student thoroughly practices and rehearses tools, methods, and approaches throughout the week. While some call this immersion, we call it the road to building impactful facilitation skills.

Our courses also provide an excellent way to earn up to 40 SEUs from the Scrum Alliance, 40 PDUs from PMI, and 40 CDUs from IIBA, as well as 3.2 CEUs for other professions. (See individual class descriptions for details.)

Want a free 10-minute break timer? Signup for our once-monthly newsletter HERE and receive a timer along with four other of our favorite facilitation tools, free.

Related articles


Facilitation Expert

Terrence Metz, CSM, PSPO, CSPF, is the Managing Director of MG RUSH Facilitation Training and Coaching, the acknowledged leader in structured facilitation training. His FAST Facilitation Best Practices blog features over 300 articles on facilitation skills and tools aimed at helping others lead faster, more productive meetings and workshops that yield higher quality decisions. His clients include Agilists, Scrum teams, program and project managers, senior officers, and the business analyst community among numerous private and public companies and global corporations. As an undergraduate of Northwestern University (Evanston, IL) and MBA graduate from NWU’s Kellogg School of Management, his professional experience has focused on process improvement and product development. He continually aspires to make it easier for others to succeed.

Visit Our Website

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.