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The Australasian Journal of Psychology and Philosophy

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Vagueness

Bertrand Russell F.R.S.

To cite this article: Bertrand Russell F.R.S. (1923) Vagueness, The Australasian Journal of
Psychology and Philosophy, 1:2, 84-92, DOI: 10.1080/00048402308540623

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Published online: 17 Jan 2008.

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84

VAGUENESS.
By
B E R T R A N D RUSSELL, F.R.S.
E F L E C T I O N on philosophical p r o b l e m s has convinced
R m e that a much larger n u m b e r than I used to think,
or than is generally thought, are c o n n e c t e d with the
principles of symbolism, that is to say, with the rela-
tion between what means and what is meant. In dealing with
highly abstract matters it is much easier to grasp the symbols
(usually w o r d s ) than it is to grasp what they stand for. T h e
result of this is that almost all thinking that purports to be
r, hilosophical or logical consists in attributing to the w o r l d the
properties of language. Since language really occurs, it ob-
viously has all the properties c o m m o n to all occurrences, and
to that extent the metaphysic based u p o n linguistic considera-
tions m a y not be erroneous. But language has m a n y pro-
perties which are not shared b y things in general, and when
these properties intrude into our metaphysic it b e c o m e s alto-
gether misleading. I do not think that the study of the prin-
ciples of symbolism will yield any positive results in m e t a p h y -
sics, but I do think it will yield a great m a n y negative results
b y enabling us to avoid fallacious inferences from symbols
to things. T h e influence of symbolism on p h i l o s o p h y is
mainly unconscious; if it were conscious it would d o less
harm. By studying~ the principles of symbolism we can learn
not to b e unconsciously influenced b y language, and in this
way can escape a host of erroneous notions.
Vagueness, which is m y topic to-night, * illustrates these
remarks. You will no d o u b t think that, in the words of the
p o e t : " W h o speaks of vagueness should himself b e v a g u e . "
I p r o p o s e to p r o v e that all language is vague and that therefore
•a~y language is vague, but I do not wish this conclusion to
b e one that you could derive without the help of the syllogism.
I shall be as little vague as I k n o w how to be if I am to e m p l o y
the English language. Y o u all k n o w that ~ invented a special
language with a view to avoiding vagueness, b u t unfortunately
it is unsuited for public occasions. I shall therefore, though
regretfully, address you in English, and w h a t e v e r vagueness is
to be found in m y w o r d s must be attributed to our ancestors
for not having been p r e d o m i n a n t l y interested in logic.
T h e r e is a certain t e n d e n c y in those who h a v e realised
that w o r d s are v a g u e to infer that things also are vague. W e
hear a great deal about the flux and the continuum and the
unanalysability of the Universe, and it is often suggested that
*Read before the Jowett Society, Oxford.
VAGUENESS. 85

as our language b e c o m e s m o r e precise, it b e c o m e s less a d a p t e d


to represent the primitive chaos out of which m a n is supposed
t o have e v o l v e d the cosmos. This seems to me precisely a case
of the fallacy of v e r b a l i s m m t h e fallacy that consists in mis-
taking the properties of w o r d s for the properties of things.
Vagueness and precision alike are characteristics which can
only b e l o n g to a representation, of which language is an ex-
ample. T h e y have to do with the relation between a represen-
tation and that which it represents. A p a r t f r o m representation,
w h e t h e r cognitive or mechanical, there can be no such thing
as vagueness or precision; things are what they are, a n d there
is an end of it. Nothing is m o r e or less w h a t it is, or to a cer-
tain extent possessed of the properties which it possesse~
Idealism has p r o d u c e d habits of confusion even in the minch
of those w h o think that they have rejected it. Veer since
Kant there has been a t e n d e n c y in p h i l o s o p h y to confuse know-
ledge with what is known. It is t h o u g h t that there must he
some kind of identity between the k n o w e r a n d the known,
a n d hence the k n o w e r infers that the k n o w n also is m u d d l e -
h e a d e d . All this identity of k n o w e r and known, a n d all this
supposed intimacy of the relation of knowing, seems to me a
delusion. K n o w i n g is an occurrence having a certain relation
to some other occurrence, or groups of occurrences, or charac-
teristic of a group of occurrences, which constitutes what is
said to be known. W h e n k n o w l e d g e is vague, this does n o t
a p p l y to the k n o w i n g as an occurrence; as an occurrence it h
incapable of being either v a g u e or precise, just as all other
occurrences are. Vagueness in a cognitive occurrence is a
characteristic of its relation to that which is known, not a
characteristic of the occurrence in itself.
Let us consider the various ways in which c o m m o n w o r d s
are vague, and let us begin with such a w o r d as "'red." It is
perfectly obvious, since colours form a continuum, that there
are shades of colour concerning which we shall be in d o u b t
whether to call them red or not, not because we are ignorant
of the meaning of the w o r d "'red," b u t because it is a w o r d
the extent of whose application is essentially doubtful. This,
of course, is the answer to the o l d puzzle a b o u t the m a n who
went bald. It is s u p p o s e d that at first he was n o t bald, that
he lost his hairs one b y one, and that in the end he was b a l d ;
therefore, it is argued, there must h a v e been one hair the loss
of which c o n v e r t e d him into a bald man. This, of course, is
absurd. Baldness is a v a g u e c o n c e p t i o n ; s o m e m e n are cer-
tainly bald, some are certainly not bald, while between them
there are m e n of w h o m it is not true to say they must either
be bald or not bald. T h e law of excluded middle is true when
precise symbols are employed, but it is n o t true when symbols
~6 VAGUENESS.

are vague, as, in fact, all symbols are. All w o r d s describing


sensible qualities have the same kind of vagueness which be-
longs to the w o r d " r e d . " This vagueness exists also, though
in a lesser degree, in the quantitative w o r d s which science has
tried hardest to m a k e precise, such as a metre or a second.
1 a m not going to invoke Einstein for the purpose of m a k i n g
these w o r d s vague. The metre, for example, is defined as
the distance between two marks on a certain rod in Paris,
when that rod is at a certain temperature. N o w the m a r k s are
not points, but patches of a finite size, so that the distance
between them is not a precise conception. Moreover, tempera-
ture c a n n o t be measured with more than a certain degree of
accuracy, and the temperature of a r o d is n e v e r quite uniform.
F o r all these reasons the conception of a metre is lacking ha
precision. T h e same applies to a second. T h e second is de-
fined b y relation to the rotation of the earth, but the earth is
n o t a rigid b o d y , and two p a r t s of the earth's surface d o not
take exactly the same time to rotate; m o r e o v e r all observa-
t.ions have a margin of error. T h e r e are some occur-
rences of which we can 4 say that they take less than a second
to happen, and others of which we can say that they take more,
but between the two there will be a n u m b e r of occurrences of
which we believe that they d o n o t all last equally long, but of
none of which we can say whether they last m o r e or less than
a second. Therefore, w h e n we say an occurrence lasts a sec-
ond, all that it is w o r t h while to m e a n is that no possible
accuracy of observation will show w h e t h e r it lasts m o r e or
less than a second.
N o w let us take p r o p e r names. I pass b y the irrelevant
fact that the same p r o p e r n a m e often belongs to m a n y people.
I once knew a m a n called Ebenezer Wilkes Smith, a n d I de-
cline to believe that a n y b o d y else ever h a d this name. You
might say, therefore, that here at last we h a v e discovered an
unambiguous symbol. This, however, w o u l d be a mistake.
Mr. Ebenezer Wilkes Smith was born, a n d being b o r n is a
gradual process. It w o u l d seem natural to suppose that the
n a m e was not attributable b e f o r e birth; if so, there was doubt,
while birth was taking place, whether the n a m e was attributable
or not. If it be said that the n a m e was attributable b e f o r e
birth, the ambiguity is even m o r e obvious, since no one can
decide h o w long b e f o r e birth the n a m e b e c o m e attributable.
Death also is a process; even when it is w h a t is called instan-
taneous, death must o c c u p y a finite time. If y o u continue to
a p p l y the n a m e of the corpse, there must gradually c o m e a
stage in decomposition when the n a m e ceases to be attribu-
table, but no one can say precisely when this stage has been
VAGUENESS. 87

reached. T h e fact is that all w o r d s are a t t r i b u t a b l e without


d o u b t o v e r a certain area, b u t b e c o m e questionable within a
p e n u m b r a , outside which t h e y are again certainly n o t attri-
butable. S o m e o n e m i g h t seek to obtain precision in the use
of w o r d s b y saying that no w o r d is to b e a p p l i e d in the p e n u m -
bra, but f o r t u n a t e l y the p e n u m b r a itself is not accurately de-
finable, a n d all the vaguenesses which a p p l y to the p r i m a r y
use of w o r d s a p p l y also w h e n we try to fix a limit to their
i n d u b i t a b l e applicability. This has a reason in our physiological
constitution. Stimuli which for various reasons w e believe to b e
different p r o d u c e in us indistinguishable sensations. It is not
clear w h e t h e r the sensations are really different like their
stimuli a n d only our p o w e r to discriminate b e t w e e n sensations
is deficient, or w h e t h e r the sensations t h e m s e l v e s are s o m e t i m e s
identical in r e l e v a n t respects even when the stimuli differ in
r e l e v a n t respects. This is a kind of question which the theory
of quanta at s o m e m u c h later stage in its d e v e l o p m e n t m a y b e
able to answer, hut for the present it m a y b e left in doubt.
F o r our p u r p o s e it is not the vital question. W h a t is clear
is that the k n o w l e d g e that w e can obtain t h r o u g h our sensa-
tions is not as fine-grained as the, stimuli to those sensations.
W e c a n n o t see with the n a k e d eye the difference b e t w e e n two
glasses of w a t e r of which one is w h o l e s o m e while the o t h e r
is full of t y p h o i d bacilli. In this case a m i c r o s c o p e enables
us to see the difference, but in the absence of a m i c r o s c o p e the
difference is only inferred f r o m the differing effects of things
which are sensibly indistinguishable. It is this fact that things
which our senses do not distinguish p r o d u c e different effects---
as, for example, o n e glass of w a t e r gives y o u t y p h o i d while
the other d o e s n o t - - t h a t has led us to r e g a r d the k n o w l e d g e
d e r i v e d f r o m the senses as vague. A n d the vagueness of the
k n o w l e d g e derived f r o m the senses infects all w o r d s in the
definition of which there is a sensible element. This includes
all w o r d s which contain geographical a n d chronological con-
stituents, such as "Julius C a e s a r , " " t h e twentieth c e n t u r y , " or
the "solar s y s t e m . "
T h e r e r e m a i n s a m o r e a b s t r a c t class of w o r d s : first w o r d s
which a p p l y to all p a r t s of time a n d space, such as " m a t t e r "
or " c a u s a l i t y " ; secondly, the w o r d s of p u r e logic. I shall
l e a v e out of discussion the first class of words, since all of t h e m
raise great difficulties, a n d I can scarcely imagine a h u m a n
b e i n g w h o w o u l d d e n y that they are all m o r e or less vague.
I c o m e therefore to the w o r d s of p u r e logic, w o r d s such as " o r "
and "not". A r e these w o r d s also v a g u e or h a v e they a
precise m e a n i n g )
W o r d s such as " o r " a n d " n o t " might s e e m at first sight,
88 VA G UENESS.

t o h a v e a perfectly precise meaning: "p or q'" is true w h e n p


is true, true w h e n q is true, and false w h e n b o t h are false. But
the trouble is that this involves the notions of " t r u e " a n d
" f a l s e " ; and it will b e found, I think, that all the concepts o f
logic involve these notions, directly or indirectly. N o w "'true"
a n d "false" can only h a v e a precise meaning when the symbols
e m p l o y e d - - w o r d s , perceptions, images, or w h a t n o t m a r e
themselves precise. W e h a v e seen that, in practice, this is
not the case. It follows that e v e r y proposition that can b e
f r a m e d in practice has a certain degree of vagueness; that
is to say, there is not one definite fact necessary and sufficient
for its truth, but a certain region of possible facts, any o n e o f
which would m a k e it true. A n d this region is itself ill-
defined: we c a n n o t assign to it a definite b o u n d a r y . This
is the difference b e t w e e n vagueness and generality. A pro-
position involving a general c o n c e p t - - e . g . " T h i s is a m a n " - -
will b e verified b y a n u m b e r of facts, such as "'This" being
Brown or Jones or Robinson. But if " m a n " were a precise
idea, the set of possible facts that would verify "'this is a m a n "
would b e quite definite. Since, however, the c o n c e p t i o n " m a n "
is m o r e or less vague, it is possible to discover prehistoric
specimens concerning which there is not, even in theory, a
definite answer to the question, "'Is this a m a n ? " As applied
to such specimens, the proposition "this is a man'" is neither
definitely true nor definitely false. Since all non-logical w o r d s
h a v e this kind of vagueness, it follows that the conceptions o f
truth and falsehood, as applied to propositions c o m p o s e d of
or containing non-logical words, are themselves m o r e or less
vague. Since propositions containing non-logical words are
the substructure on which logical propositions are built, it
follows that logical propositions also, so far as w e c a n
k n o w them, b e c o m e v a g u e through the vagueness o f
" t r u t h " and " f a l s e h o o d . " W e can see an ideal of precision,
to which we can a p p r o x i m a t e indefinitely; but we cannot attain
this ideal. Logical words, like the rest, when used b y h u m a n
beings, share the vagueness of all other words. T h e r e is,
however, less vagueness a b o u t logical words than a b o u t the
words of daily life, because logical w o r d s a p p l y essentially to
symbols, and m a y b e conceived as applying rather to possible
than to actual symbols. W e are c a p a b l e of imagining what
a precise symbolism would be, though we c a n n o t actually
construct such a symbolism. H e n c e we are able to imagine
a precise meaning for such words as " o r " and " n o t . " W e
can, in fact, see precisely what they would m e a n if our sym-
bolism were precise. All traditional logic habitually assumes
that precise symbols are being employed. It is t h e r e f o r e not
VA G UENESS. 89

a p p l i c a b l e to this terrestial life, but only to an i m a g i n e d celes-


tial existence. Where, h o w e v e r , this celestial existence w o u l d
differ f r o m ours, so far as logic is concerned, would b e not
in the nature of w h a t is known, but only in the a c c u r a c y
of our k n o w l e d g e . T h e r e f o r e , if the hypothesis of a precise
s y m b o l i s m enables us to d r a w a n y inferences as to w h a t is
symbolised, there is no reason to distrust such inferences
m e r e l y on the g r o u n d that our actual s y m b o l i s m is not precise.
W e are a b l e to conceive precision; indeed, if we could not d o
so, we could not conceive vagueness, which is m e r e l y the con-
t r a r y of precision. This is one reason w h y logic takes us
n e a r e r to h e a v e n t h a n m o s t other studies. O n this point 1
a g r e e with Plato. But those w h o dislike logic will, I fear,
find m y h e a v e n disappointing.
I t is n o w t i m e to tackle the definition of vagueness.
Vagueness, though it applies primarily to w h a t is cognitive,
is a conception, a p p l i c a b l e to e v e r y kind of r e p r e s e n t a t i o n - -
for example, a p h o t o g r a p h , or a b a r o g r a p h . But b e f o r e defin-
ing vagueness it is necessary to define accuracy. O n e of the
m o s t easily intelligible definitions of a c c u r a c y is as follows:
O n e structure is an accurate representation of a n o t h e r w h e n
the w o r d s describing the one will also describe the other b y
being given n e w meanings. F o r example, "Brutus killed
C a e s a r " has the s a m e structure as " P l a t o l o v e d Socrates," be-
cause b o t h can b e r e p r e s e n t e d b y the s y m b o l "x R y," b y
giving suitable m e a n i n g s to x a n d R a n d y, But this definition.
though easy to understand, d o e s not give the essence of the
matter, since the introduction of w o r d s describing the two
systems is irrelevant. T h e exact definition is as follows: O n e
s y s t e m of t e r m s related in various w a y s is an accurate r e p r e -
sentation of a n o t h e r system of t e r m s related in various o t h e r
w a y s if there is a o n e - o n e relation of the t e r m s of the o n e
to the t e r m s of the other, a n d likewise a o n e - o n e relation of
the relations of the o n e to the relations of the other, such
that, w h e n two or m o r e terms in the one system h a v e a relation
b e l o n g i n g to that system, the c o r r e s p o n d i n g t e r m s of the
other system h a v e the c o r r e s p o n d i n g relation b e l o n g i n g to the
o t h e r system. Maps, charts, p h o t o g r a p h s , catalogues, etc.,
all c o m e within this definition in so far as they are accurate.
Per eontra, a r e p r e s e n t a t i o n is vague w h e n the relation of the
representing s y s t e m to the r e p r e s e n t e d system is n o t one-one,
b u t o n e - m a n y . F o r e x a m p l e , a p h o t o g r a p h which is so
s m u d g e d that it m i g h t equally r e p r e s e n t B r o w n or J o n e s or
R o b i n s o n is vague. A small-scale m a p is usually v a g u e r t h a n
a large-scale m a p , b e c a u s e it d o e s n o t show all the turns a n d
twists of the roads, rivers, etc., so that various slightly differ-
90 VAGUENESS.

ent courses are c o m p a t i b l e with the representation that it


gives. Vagueness, clearly, is a m a t t e r of degree, d e p e n d i n g
upon the extent of the possible differences between different
systems represented b y the same representation. Accuracy, o n
the contrary, is an ideal limit.
Passing from representation in general to the kinds of
representation that are specially interesting to the logician,
the representing system will consist of words, perceptions,
thoughts, or something of the kind, and the would-be one-one
relation between the representing system and the represented
system will b e meaning. In an accurate language, meaning
would b e a o n e - o n e relation; no w o r d would h a v e two mean-
ings, and no two w o r d s would have the same meaning. In
actual languages, as we h a v e seen, meaning is one-many. (It
h a p p e n s often that two words h a v e the same meaning, but
this is easily avoided, and can b e assumed not to h a p p e n with-
out injuring the a r g u m e n t . ) T h a t is to say, there is not only
one object that a w o r d means, and not only one possible fact
that will verify a proposition. T h e fact that meaning is a
o n e - m a n y relation is the precise statemenl~ of the fact that all
language is m o r e or less vague. T h e r e is, however, a compli-
cation a b o u t language as a m e t h o d of representing a system,
laamely, that w o r d s which mean relations are not themselves
relations, but just as substantial or unsubstantial as other words.
In this respect a map, for instance, is superior to language,
since the fact that one place is to the west of a n o t h e r is repre-
sented b y the fact that the corresponding place on the m a p
is to the left of the other; that is to say, a relation is represented
b y a relation. But in language this is not the case. Certain
relations of higher o r d e r are represented b y relations, in ac-
c o r d a n c e with the rules of syntax. F o r example, " A precedes
B'" and "B precedes A " h a v e different meanings, because the
o r d e r of the w o r d s is an essential part of the meaning of the
sentence. But this does not hold of e l e m e n t a r y relations;
the w o r d " p r e c e d e s , " though it means a relation, is not a
relation. I believe that this single fact is at the b o t t o m of
the hopeless m u d d l e which has prevailed in aU schools of
philosophy as to the nature of relation. It would, however,
take me too far from m y present theme to pursue this line of
thought.
It m a y be said: H o w d o you k n o w that all k n o w l e d g e is
vague, and what does it matter if it is~ T h e case which I took
before, of two glasses of water, one of which is wholesome while
the other gives you typhoid, will illustrate b o t h points. Without
(A word ts a class of series, and both classes a n d series a r e logical fictions. See
" A n a l y s i s 0! Mind," c h a p t e r x ; " l n t r 0 d u e t i 0 n to Mathematl©a! P h i l o s o p h y , " c h a p t e r xvii.~
VAGUENESS. O1

calling in the microscope, it is obvious t h a t w h a t y o u see of a


m a n who is 200 y a r d s a w a y is v a g u e c o m p a r e d to w h a t y o u
see of a m a n w h o is 2 feet a w a y ; that is to say, m a n y m e n w h o
l o o k quite different w h e n seen close at h a n d look in-
distinguishable at a distance, while m e n w h o l o o k differ-
ent at a distance n e v e r look indistinguishable w h e n seen close
at hand. T h e r e f o r e , according to the definition there is less
v a g u e n e s s in the n e a r a p p e a r a n c e than in the distant one. T h e r e
is still less v a g u e n e s s a b o u t the a p p e a r a n c e u n d e r the micro-
scope. It is p e r f e c t l y o r d i n a r y facts of this kind that p r o v e
the v a g u e n e s s of m o s t of our knowledge, a n d lead us to infer
the v a g u e n e s s of all of it.
I.t w o u l d b e a great mistake to suppose that v a g u e k n o w -
l e d g e must b e false. On the contrary, a v a g u e belief has a
m u c h b e t t e r chance of b e i n g true t h a n a precise one, because
there are m o r e possible facts that w o u l d verify it. If I believe
t h a t so-and-so is tall, I a m m o r e likely to b e right than if 1
believe that his height is b e t w e e n 6ft. 2in. a n d 6ft 3in. In
r e g a r d to beliefs a n d propositions, though not in r e g a r d to
sin qle words, we can distinguish b e t w e e n accuracy a n d pre-
cision. A belief is/yrecise w h e n o n l y o n e fact would verify it;
it is accurate w h e n it is b o t h precise a n d true. Precision di-
minishes the likelihood of truth, b u t often increases the p r a g -
matic v a l u e of a belief if it is t r u e - - f o r e x a m p l e , in the case
o f the w a t e r that c o n t a i n e d the t y p h o i d bacilli. Science is
p e r p e t u a l l y trying to substitute m o r e precise beliefs for v a g u e
ones: this m a k e s it h a r d e r for a scientific proposition to b e true
than for the v a g u e beliefs of u n e d u c a t e d p e r s o n s to be true,
b u t m a k e s scientific truth b e t t e r w o r t h h a v i n g if it can b e
obtained.
V a g u e n e s s in our k n o w l e d g e is, I believe, m e r e l y a par-
ticular case of a general law of physics, namely, the law that
w h a t m a y b e called the a p p e a r a n c e s of a thing at different
places are less a n d less differentiated as we get further a w a y
f r o m the thing. W h e n I s p e a k of " a p p e a r a n c e s " I a m speak-
ing of s o m e t h i n g purely physical---the sort of thing, in fact,
that, if it is visual, can b e p h o t o g r a p h e d . F r o m a close-up
p h o t o g r a p h it is possible to infer a p h o t o g r a p h of the s a m e
o b i e c t at a distance, while the c o n t r a r y inference is m u c h
m o r e precarious. T h a t is to say, there is a o n e - m a n y relation
b e t w e e n distant a n d close-up a p p e a r a n c e s . T h e r e f o r e the
distant a p p e a r a n c e , r e g a r d e d as a r e p r e s e n t a t i o n ot~ the close-
un a p p e a r a n c e , is v a g u e according to our definition. I think
all vagueness in language a n d thought is essentially analogous
to this v a g u e n e s s which m a y exist in a p h o t o g r a p h . M y o w n
belief is that m o s t of the p r o b l e m s of epistemology, in so far
92 VA GUENESS.

as they are genuine, are really p r o b l e m s of physics and physi-


ology; moreover, I believe that physiology is only a compli-
cated branch of physics. T h e habit of treating k n o w l e d g e as
something mysterious and w o n d e r f u l seems to m e unfor-
tunate. P e o p l e d o not say that a b a r o m e t e r " k n o w s " w h e n it
is going to rain; but I d o u b t if there is any essential difference
in this respect b e t w e e n the b a r o m e t e r and the meteorologist
who observes it. T h e r e is only o n e philosophical t h e o r y
which seems to m e in a position to ignore physics, and that
is solipsism. If y o u are willing to believe that nothing exists
e x c e p t what y o u directly experience, no other person can p r o v e
that y o u are wrong, and p r o b a b l y no valid arguments exist
against y o u r view. But if y o u are going to allow a n y infer-
ences from w h a t y o u directly experience to other entities, then
physics supplies the safest f o r m of such inferences. A n d I
believe that ( a p a r t f r o m illegitimate problems derived from
misunderstood symbolism) physics, in its m o d e r n forms, sup-
plies materials for answers to all philosophical p r o b l e m s that
are capable of being answered, except the o n e p r o b l e m raised
b y solipsism, namely: Is there any valid inference ever from
an entity experienced to one inferred~ O n this problem, I
see no refutation of the sceptical position. But the sceptical
philosophy is so short as to b e uninteresting; t h e r e f o r e it is
natural for a person who has learnt to philosophise to work
out other alternatives, even if there is no v e r y g o o d g r o u n d
for regarding them as preferable.