117. Saying More Precisely What is Meant

There are many ways to first describe something in general terms and then say precisely what it is



Professional writers often like to mention something in general terms before restating it more precisely. There are numerous ways of doing so. Some are considered elsewhere within these pages: example-giving involves more precise restatement of only some of the general idea (see 1. Simple Example-Giving), while some forms of listing restate all of it with a list (for various posts on this, see 54. Sentence Lists 1: Incidental).

An alternative to both of these is restatement that fully equals the general idea without being a list. Here are some examples (restatements underlined):

(a) Africa has great wealth potential. It possesses enough fertile land to feed itself and other countries.

(b) The future of South America is to become very rich.

(c) There is a workable strategy for reducing traffic: road charges.

It is combinations like these that I wish to focus on in this post. The name I give them is “specification”.

In (a), the more precise restatement is in a new sentence, whereas in (b) and (c) it is not. This ability of specifications to occupy either a single sentence or at least two places them in a special group of combinations that are also illustrated in this blog in the posts 32. Expressing Consequences,  149. Saying How Things are Similar and 162. The Language of Classification.



When the two parts of a specification are in neighbouring sentences, the specification as a whole is an example of a “relation” between the sentences (see 18. Relations Between Sentences). As with most such relations, no special language is required to show that specification is present – it is usually clear just from the kinds of ideas involved, in this case a general idea in the first sentence and a more precise equivalent in the second.

What is unusual about the relation of specification, however, is that it is not normally able to be made clearer with connectors and connector synonyms; such words – seemingly available for specification in many other languages – do not appear to exist in English. This characteristic means that many writers whose mother tongue is not English are likely to insert an incorrect connector like in fact, indeed or in particular into the second sentence (see 20. Problem Connectors). The closest equivalent to a specification connector in English is perhaps the word there placed at the start of the first sentence (see 161. Special Uses of “There” Sentences).

In reading, a lack of experience with specifications can make them quite difficult to identify. In the following example, what general idea in the first sentence is being expressed more precisely in the second?

(d) Gestures were a crucial stage in the development of language, but what they lack is any ‘manipulative’ element. All languages, including sign language, require the organizing and combining of sounds or signs in specific constructions.

The second sentence here specifies the exact kind of ‘manipulative’ element that the writer means (cf. organizing and combining …). The key to recognising specifications like this without difficulty is practice – reading as widely as possible.



Most specification seems to be of this kind. There seem to be three major ways of including a general idea and its more precise equivalent together in the same sentence: placing the verb BE between them, placing a colon between them, and placing nothing between them.

1. Linking with BE

This kind of specification may be illustrated as follows:

(e) The first Roman Emperor was Augustus Caesar.

(b) The future of South America is to become very rich.

(f) The lesson of history is that poverty breeds violence.

In sentences like this, the more general expression must be the subject of BE (everything before it in these examples) and the more precise equivalent must be the complement (everything after). The equivalence between the two must be exact: the subject must not have a wider meaning than that of the complement. The complement can always be a noun (or equivalent) and, after certain subjects, can also be a modified verb, whether with to as in (b) (see 119. BE before a “to” Verb), or that as in (f) (see 153. Conjunction Uses of “that”).

Not all sentences with BE are specifying. If, for example, the subject and the complement of (e) were to exchange their positions, the complement would no longer be a more precisely-described equivalent of the subject but would rather be communicating one of the subject’s characteristics, or naming its category (see 162. The Language of Classification).


2. Linking with a Colon

This way of specifying is shown in the following examples:

(c) There is a workable strategy for reducing traffic: road charges.

(g) A promising future awaits South America: it will become very rich.

Nothing other than the colon comes between the initial general description and subsequent precise identification. Note that, as with BE, specifications are not the only kind of information that can be found after a colon: reasons are one common alternative (see 17. Colons versus Semi-Colons).

A key feature of colon specification is that the more general words before the colon must also be able to stand alone and unchanged as a complete sentence. This is not the case with BE specification as illustrated in (b), (e) and (f). A similarity to BE specifications, however, is the ability of the second, more precise part to be either a simple noun expression – road charges in (c) – or an ordinary statement, as in (g). In the latter case, the colon is the joining device allowing the new verb will become to be in the old sentence, corresponding to that after BE.

For more about sentences like (c), see 161. Special Uses of “There” Sentences.


3. Linking with Nothing

A general expression can be linked to its more precise equivalent without any special language in between like this:

(h) The first Roman Emperor, Augustus Caesar, reigned at the time of Christ.

The grammatical structure here is said to be one of “apposition”, a topic discussed in detail in the Guinlist post 77. Apposition. Three main uses of apposition are identified there: describing, naming and name-presenting. The relevant one here is the second.

Very often, naming by means of an apposition construction will involve the use of two bracket-like commas like those in (h). However, sometimes no commas are possible, e.g.:

(i) (The) Beatle John Lennon was killed in 1980.

The reason for the absence of commas here is that the general expression (the) Beatle is not unique to its holder (John Lennon), since other people – the three other Beatles – possessed this description too. This means that John Lennon is not just identifying who precisely (The) Beatle is, but is also separating him from the others. The grammar is similar to that of the relative pronoun who used without commas (see 34. Relative Pronouns and Commas).

Compare (i) with (h), where the general expression the first Roman emperor does not refer to anyone other than the identified person Augustus Caesar, so  that Augustus is not being distinguished from any other people. In cases like this, there is a choice concerning commas. Their presence is desirable if the reader is not expected to know the name given by the naming words – in other words if these words are informing rather than reminding. On the other hand, absent commas seem to suggest that the reader is being reminded of a name they already know (see 77. Apposition).

Note that when commas are present, the word namely can be added before the naming part of the apposition (…, namely Augustus Caesar, …).

Note also the possibility of dropping the before the first noun (Beatle) in (i). It exists only when four conditions are met: the purpose of the apposition must be naming, the first (more general) noun must represent a human or humans, commas must be absent, and the context must be informal. A place where these conditions are often all met, with consequent dropping of the, is newspaper reports (see 166. Appropriacy in Professional English).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

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