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 describe something in general terms before saying more precisely what it is. Here are some examples (general descriptions 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.

In (a) the general and the more precise meanings are in separate sentences, while in (b) and (c) they are not.

The sequence of a general and a more precise expression of the same idea is often termed “specification”. It is one of many possible meanings that can be created by placing two related ideas together (others examined elsewhere in these pages are 1. Simple Example-Giving,  32. Expressing Consequences and 149. Saying How Things are Similar). In all cases the two contributing ideas can be expressed either together in one sentence or separately in more than one.

The more precise part of a specification may or may not be a list. If it is a list, it will be of the “complete” kind – with all possible members of the list mentioned – rather than the “incomplete” kind that is particularly associated with example-giving (for more on this distinction, see 96. Hedging 2: Lists and Predictions). However, specification involving complete lists is not the focus here, since it is considered in detail in various other posts (see, for example, 54. Sentence Lists 1: Incidental). It is specification like that illustrated above that is the main topic of this post.



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.  Here is another example, this time a little more complicated. What is the general expression in the first sentence that 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 identifies the exact kind of ‘manipulative’ element that the writer means (cf. organizing and combining …).

Most other sentence relations, when they are complicated like this, can be made clearer by adding special language – usually a connector – to the second sentence (see 40. Conjunctions versus Connectors and 112. Synonyms of Connectors). However, specification often seems to have no suitable connector in English. A resultant common error by writers whose mother tongue is not English is to add an incorrect connector like in fact, indeed or in particular (see 20. Problem Connectors), perhaps because they normally use a similar expression when specifying in their mother tongue.



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.


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, identifications are not the only kind of information that can be found after a colon: others include definitions and reasons (see 17. Colons versus Semi-Colons).

A key feature of colon specification is that the words before the colon (the more general expression) 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 more precise part to be either a simple noun phrase, as in (c), or a possible complete sentence, as in (f). In the latter case, the colon is like a full stop, and could indeed be replaced by one.


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: clarification, identification and name-presenting. The relevant one here is the second.

Very often, identifying 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 be familiar with the person or thing expressed by the identifying 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 something they already know (see 77. Apposition). When commas are present, the word namely can be added before the identifying part of the apposition (…, namely Augustus Caesar, …).

Note 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 identifying/specifying, 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.


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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s