On Exactitude in Writing

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naan/steak-holding toll
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On Exactitude in Writing

Post by naan/steak-holding toll »

Wanted to make a quick post about something that's been bugging me for a while: specificity. Specifically, the prevalence of questions asking for "this type" or "this domain" or "this feature" or something like that. To be clear - these questions are fine if they are very specific and/or the conceit is pretty obvious or up front. However, I think this isn't necessarily always clear, and can be exacerbated by poor research habits, lack of thinking about the player's perspective, etc.

Let me present a hyperbolic example:

"The name of a god of this domain is often interpreted as meaning "Left-Handed Hummingbird."

(buzz)...huh, so that's Huitzilopochtli...war? (neg five)

Here, the issue is one of specificity. Is Huitzilopochtli a sun god? Sure, the Aztecs sacrificed thousands of people to him to keep the sun in the sky, and he took the main role of the sun god in the Aztec empire. But he sure as hell is also a god of war! This applies to a lot of myth in general. Protip: Wikipedia should never be considered a sole source of truth, but this is an example where this is particularly blatant, as their summaries are (understandably, for a lay audience) not exhaustive! This means you can't even get around this by saying "it's not war..." since if you were a 16th century Aztec, I would imagine Huitzi could be "associated with" a lot more than just war.

Matt Jackson puts it well:
Adventure Temple Trail wrote:(* by "over-reified" I mean assuming that information is more concrete and specific than it actually is. Most deities don't have a specific "jRPG element" or domain that they're connected to one-to-one (is Ukko a lightning god or a sky god or a fertility god or all of the above?), and many objects are somewhat ambiguous (is Laevateinn a sword, a wand, a branch, or something else? No one knows!), and in such cases it's absurd to expect players to guess which of the various possibilities is the one the question writer is looking for.)
Now, a more innocuous example from a recent tournament (credit to Jason Cheng for bringing this one to my attention):
Penn Bowl 2017, Packet 1 wrote:A woman with this attribute escapes being raped by the Grand Duke by jumping into a Fabergé egg and
is interviewed by journalist Jack Walser, who follows her to Siberia. A man with this attribute disappoints
people by speaking in an “incomprehensible dialect with a strong sailor’s voice” instead of Latin and is
visited by a woman who ran out of numbers while counting her heartbeats and a man who can’t sleep
because of the noise of the stars. The “Cockney Venus,” trapeze artist Sophie Fevvers, has this physical
feature in Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus. A (*) spider girl steals the audience of a man with this unusual
physical feature, who is imprisoned in a chicken coop after being found in the mud by Elisenda and Pelayo. For 10
points, name these body parts, which title a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story about “A Very Old Man with Enormous”
Granted, this tossup fixes itself a bit when it says "unusual physical feature" later. However, if someone has read "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" but is perhaps less familiar with quizbowl, or unable to guess the writer's conceit, they could very well have no idea what to say because "attribute" is not a very specific word. You could say, to take the obvious example, "being old" - but also other things, such as "being an angel" (as a lot of the townspeople call him an angel in the story). Sure, that may well not apply to the first clue, but there's no way for the player to know that if they aren't familiar with the material in the first clue and there isn't an explicit exclusion of some sort - and that may not be workable, as one can imagine that experienced players might start thinking of the Garcia Marquez story quickly if you said "it's not being elderly, but..."

The general point is "be wary, and think about how a player might interpret your tossup if they don't understand the conceit." Critical thinking and reviews by other people (always have other people check your work over!!!) can help catch errors like this, but it requires vigilance by all parties.
Will Alston
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Re: On Exactitude in Writing

Post by 15.366 »

I have to agree with this one, Will, especially in cases where the question writer is trying to clue the type of answer they are looking for, and ends up being not only too vague, but implying the wrong meaning. For example, a few weeks ago in practice we read a tossup where the answer line was "syllable." The writer of this tossup clued it as "this constituent" and the clues were clear that they were talking about linguistics and specifically phonology (sound).

Now people who have taken an introductory linguistics course know that "constituent" is a term of art in linguistics, specifically a very important one in syntax. Thus the answer space for "this constituent" in linguistics would be {verb phrase, prepositional phrase, etc...} but it would be in the wrong field completely for it to be "syllable" and thus the clues contradicted each other to anyone who actually knows about both fields. The science people can imagine that this would be as frankly wrong as tossing up "bronze" with the identifier "this compound."

I would use this as a warning to check whether when you are using a descriptive identifier like "this domain" or "this attribute", to check whether such words are vague enough for you to use without giving away that it is a very narrow answer space (this would also relate to the discussion about concealing the gender of people tossed up), or are actually terms of art with specific meanings in that field of study.

I recall that the Naveed Bork Memorial Tournament had a tossup that clued "vagina (in myth)" as "this location." Well, technically it's not wrong, but...
Tamara Vardomskaya
University of Ottawa '08
University of Chicago '18
Coach, Lisgar Collegiate Institute '03-'08
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