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For example, stating a street address with millimetric precision would be too exact and is therefore not applicable and not done. So you can be too exact. Is there an expression for this error or a phrase (like "cutting stones with a surgeon's knife" or likewise if someone uses a tool or an instrument with too much precision for a job)?

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closed as not constructive by coleopterist, Kris, Rory Alsop, tchrist, cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Feb 27 '13 at 16:38

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I understand Jim's answer about overspecifying in engineering, but I don't understand how it's possible to state a street address with millimetric precision. Can you provide an example? In the USA, there's a 4-digit house code one can add to the 5-digit zip/postal code to give a 9-digit zip code. The USPO may like that, but it's way too overspecific for ordinary Americans to use except on printed labels. Does Sweden use a metric system for addresses, e.g., "173.2968 meters south from the SW corner of Stockholm Street & ABBA Road"? –  user21497 Feb 26 '13 at 17:03
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I recommend an edit to the example. E.g, "state a geographic location to millimeter precision". (Assuming this is consistent with the OP's intent.) This might be overspecifying if you just want to tell someone where to park. It wouldn't be if you were measuring a cliff position to warn of a coming landslide. –  Jim Feb 26 '13 at 17:08
    
I think the "classic" example would be the story about a museum worker who is asked "how old is this fossil?" "It's 350,007 years old," he says. "Wow, how do you know its age so precisely?" "Well, the plaque said it was 350,000 years old when I started working here, and I started 7 years ago." –  Hellion Feb 26 '13 at 18:39
    
@BillFranke I just imagined that as an example, if someone asked me where I live would be too exact if I told them the number of inches I live from a known city square or so. The normal thing to do would be to state your street address with an error of meters i.e. stating the number of the street you live on. If I instead state exactly on the inch where my street address is then I would be too exact. Again there might be better examples as I was just trying to illustrate the idea. An example that happened for real is that I was showing a project and I was told my solution was "too exact". –  909 Niklas Feb 27 '13 at 1:29

4 Answers 4

up vote 3 down vote accepted

In engineering, we use the term overspecify

Wiktionary gives a good definition

overspecify (third-person singular simple present overspecifies, present participle overspecifying, simple past and past participle overspecified)

To specify in excessive detail.

The customer overspecified the requirements and now we're contractually required to build it this way. Does he think he's an engineer?

To specify excessive capability.

As usual the customer overspecified the requirements, it's like asking for a car that sits 20 and fits in compact car's parking space.

To provide redundant or inconsistent information.

An overspecified truth table contains at least one decision that will never be executed because it is already specified in a previous decision... A noun phrase is overspecified when it is used in a context where a pronoun would have been unambiguous. (It could also mean that the material requirement was underspecified.)

We have tools that can cut material to a very high accuracy. It wouldn't be reasonable to require high accuracy for something like wood, for example, because wood is dimensionally unstable. To create a requirement for such accuracy in this case would be to overspecify the requirement.

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These are all similar to the idea you are proposing, just not exact:

The best is the enemy of the good.

Can't see the forest for the trees.

Penny wise, pound foolish.

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A possibility would be that you are supplying false precision, that is, providing more significant digits than are actually available.

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Maybe an example for the address which demonstrates the problem would be the difference between these fictional addresses for the same location:

110 Main Street

Census Block 1310 Main Ave, 40 FT X 92 FT 4 IN, HAWKINS FARM ROAD ADDN, LOT 7

Both addresses are (fictionally) accurate, but the second provides both too much info and is also harder (for typical purposes) to use.

Some other possibilities for describing this behavior might be:

drowning in the minutae (drowns us in the minutae)

describing ad naseum

If the added details are included as an attempt to hide or confuse the truth, then perhaps it is a whitewash or an attempt to bury the truth and make it as hard to find as a needle in a haystack.

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