Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Be Definite

Be Definite

By: Ardis E. Parshall - November 26, 2010

A man I know only as “W.J.” penned this article for the Juvenile Instructor in 1885. I can see an updated version of this being used in a Family Home Evening Lesson, or Seminary, or even in some Sunday classes, if the patter were very well rehearsed by a class clown and the point didn’t get lost in the laughter. Or, if not, it reminds me of the wanderings of some threads in the Bloggernacle.


We do not all possess the ability to speak or write our thoughts clearly – to speak or write just what we mean, neither more nor less, and to do so in such a manner that our words can neither be misunderstood nor misconstrued – neither can we remember and narrate facts and events as well nor as correctly as it is our privilege to do; but it is a very good thing to be able to do all these things clearly, correctly and intelligently.

There is sometimes a lack of ability to express one’s thoughts when those thoughts are clear and distinct in the mind; but indistinctness of expression frequently arises from confusion of thought, from a pre-occupied or inattentive mind, from only a partial understanding of the subject in hand, or from a disposition to evade, misrepresent or conceal the truth, or from the labor of the mind in manufacturing lies out of whole cloth while we are speaking. It is necessary, therefore, for us to think clearly, to apply our minds to the subject in hand, to understand what we speak or write about and to be honest and truthful in all we say or write. And if the young of both sexes will remember, study and practice these simple items of instruction through their moral lives, they will be greatly benefitted by them both in time and in eternity.

There are numerous forms of expression used by the human family and among them are the doubtful, the uncertain, the indefinite, the indistinct, the equivocal, the ambiguous, the circumlocutory and other forms, and many instances illustrative of these forms might be given; but space will not permit in a short article. Here is one, however, which was published some time ago in a New Hampshire paper, and illustrates one form of expression:

In a court of justice, the other day, in a suit of malicious trespass I entering upon land and removing a fence, one of the witnesses was asked:

“Did you help build the fence?”

“I did.”

“What year was it?”

“Well, let’s see. It was the same year my brother-in-law had his leg broke in a wrestling match at Dearborn.”

“Well, what year was that?”

“Let’s see! It was just six months after we found the Dreggan boy drowned in Sabin’s well. That was – that was eighteen hundred and – and – ”

“Can’t you remember?”

“Why, yes; I ought to. Let’s see. That same summer that we took the Dreggan boy out of the well, Tyler’s second girl started to run away with a tin peddler, and we caught them just the other side of Dearborn. I squared off on the peddler.”

“But what year was it that you built the fence?”

“Why, the same year that all this happened, or may be a year or two before or after. If I could only talk with my old woman a minute I could get it exact.”


“Why, I was building the last half of that fence when she was hooked by a cow, and she’d hunt up the man that owned the beast, and hit the date square on the head.”

It was decided to let the exact date remain unknown.

Here is an illustration of how some people get things confused and confounded in their minds when they try to tell them. Some time ago Harper’s Monthly told the following anecdote of a judge who was noted for the way he got things mixed in his charges to the jury:

On one occasion a case was tried before him, the points of which may be briefly stated thus: Smith brought suit against Jones upon a promissory note given for a horse.

Jones’s defense was failure of consideration, he averring that at the time of the purchase the horse had the glanders, of which he died, and Smith knew it.

Smith replied that the horse did not have the glanders, but had the distemper, and that Jones knew it when he bought it.

The judge charged the jury thus:

“Gentlemen of the jury, please pay attention to the charge of the court. You have already made one mis-trial of this case because you did not pay attention to the charge of the court, and I don’t want you to do it again. I intend to make it so clear to you this time that you cannot possibly make a mistake.

“This suit is upon a note for a promissory horse. I hope you understand that. Now, if you find that at the time of the purchase Smith had the glanders, and Jones knew it, Jones cannot recover. That is clear, gentlemen.

“I will state it again. If you find that at the time of the sale Jones had the distemper, and Smith knew it, then Smith cannot possibly recover.

“But, gentlemen, I will state it a third time, so that you cannot possibly make a mistake. If at the time of the sale Smith had the glanders and Jones had the distemper, and the horse knew it, then neither Smith, Jones nor the horse can recover. Let the record be given to the jury.”

This certainly is mixed up enough to satisfy even a professional mixer, and should be classed as “mixed expression.”

Now, all of our youth of both sexes, while they are permitted to live, will have to communicate, more or less, either orally or in writing, with their fellow-beings; and some of both sexes, and especially the males, will have to proclaim the gospel of eternal life to many of Adam’s race, both by tongue and pen; and in doing so will have to teach the educated of the world.

Therefore – and even if their missionary labors were confined entirely to the un-educated – they should train themselves to think clearly, orderly and systematically, and to give distinct, unmistakable and honest expression to their ideas and to the sacred truths of the gospel. Let them make this a study, always living humbly and prayerfully, so as to have the aid of the Holy Spirit in all their studies and labors, and they will become efficient and powerful ministers for God and His cause here on earth.


  1. Unfortunately, such meanderings still take place in the courts of our fair land. (need emoticon wincing at the things I’ve heard in court.)

    Did you notice the expression of an expectation of telepathic communication in the post-mortal life?

    Comment by Coffinberry — November 26, 2010 @ 9:53 am

  2. Definitely! That may be what it takes not to have our words bolix up our intentions.

    We have a sister in our ward who really struggles to find her point. She meanders, with each new phrase leading her off into new directions, and I know most listeners give up in frustration and tune her out. I used to. But when I started teaching and deliberately trying to weave something from each person’s remarks back into the lesson, I had to stick with her all the way — and I discovered that she has some profound ideas that don’t express themselves in her mind as words, but as images or emotional impressions. If I can only glimpse what she is struggling to convey, it becomes something beautiful and helpful. But, oh, the effort it takes!

    She’s an extreme and different case. I’ll bet most of your court meanderers have completely different problems.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 26, 2010 @ 11:01 am

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