“Everyone wants to get rich and retire.”
“Speak for yourself, not all of us want that.”
Have you ever heard a statement like that before, or perhaps used it yourself?
When communicating a point, we often make use of generalizations or sweeping statements to convey the extent of our argument. Stereotypes are also born from the same premises, including beliefs such as “men are assertive”, “old people are forgetful” or “everyone likes meat”.
However, no matter how true a statement may be based on anecdotal experience, there are always exceptions to any statement. In fact, even if a statement is backed up by scientific evidence that proves it is true in almost all cases, there are bound to be outliers somewhere. One might argue that all people have a brain, which is true for almost every person that was ever born, but there is a rare minority of people that were actually born without a brain.
As such, when you are making an argument, it is necessary for you to evaluate the strength of the claim you are making based on the evidence you are presenting. If your evidence is not strong enough to conclude that your claim is definitely true for all cases, you will need to qualify your claim using cautious language to make it more defensible.
In making an argument, there are several types of vague language you can use to weaken a claim if you do not have sufficient evidence to prove that it is definitely so. Using cautious phrases helps to qualify your arguments and make them more defensible against counter arguments that “this is not definitely true for all cases”.
Compare the two statements below. Which do you think is more defensible, and why?
Smoking cigarettes results in lung cancer.
Smoking cigarettes generally results in lung cancer.
If you thought of the second statement, you are probably right. While it is true that smoking cigarettes results in lung cancer in a number of cases, there are also people that smoke but have never had lung cancer, or people that did not contract lung cancer but some other respiratory complication. Even if we had overwhelming evidence, such as a study with a large sample size finding that 100% of the respondents contracted lung cancer after smoking, we cannot conclusively say that smoking cigarettes definitely results in lung cancer. There may be other factors such as lifestyle habits, hereditary reasons, or some other aspect that led people to contract lung cancer. Smoking cigarettes can also merely be one contributing factor out of many that results in a person having lung cancer.
As such, try to employ cautious phrases in your arguments unless you are absolutely sure that the argument is definite.
A list of cautious phrases, commonly referred to as “hedges”, includes the following:
- Adjectives: some, certain, limited
Certain children these days are being spoiled by their parents.
- Adverbs: probably, likely, perhaps, generally, basically, possibly, usually, almost
If you do not study hard, you will probably do poorly in your examinations.
- Limiting phrases: in general, in certain circumstances, in some cases
In general, eating plenty of junk food leads to obesity.
- Modal verbs: can, could, may, might, would
You might fall sick if you do not get enough rest.
- Modal nouns: assumption, possibility, probability
Our conclusion is based on the assumption that most athletes exercise at least three times a week.
- Lexical verbs: suggest, believe, assume, contribute
The survey results suggest that use of this drug contributes to volatile temper.
- Introductory verbs: seem, tend, appear, indicate, think, doubt, look like, according
According to the passer-by, the victim looked like he was writhing in pain.
Of course, there are some arguments that cannot be debated, so it is safe to use definite language such as in the following cases:
- Humans need to breathe, or they will die.
- You will get arrested if you are caught in the act.
- Nobody is perfect.
How would you qualify these statements to be more defensible by making use of hedges?
1. You need to plan better or this trip is going to be a disaster.
2.Drinking sugary beverages is not good for your health.
3. Professors are absent-minded people.
4. People are going to be travelling to the Moon in a century’s time.
5. If we don’t stop using plastic straws, we will end up harming the environment.
6. Every successful person ends up speaking to large audiences.
7. With the advances in current technology, we’ll be having robot household servants by the next decade.
8. I caught this boy with spray paint on his hands. He is the culprit we have been looking for.
9. I lost my wedding ring. My spouse is going to divorce me!
10. Are you going down without a flashlight? You’re going to trip and fall.
Making use of vague language can help to “soften the blow” of your arguments and leave room for exceptions, making it easier to qualify or defend your claim. However, be sure to avoid the fallacy of hedging – changing the meaning of your arguments through refuting your claims using cautious language. For example:
Father: Using the computer all day is bad for anyone.
Child: But you use the computer all day, Dad.
Father: Well, yes, but I’m an adult. Using the computer all day is bad for children growing up.
Using cautious language tends to work hand in hand with detecting logical fallacies in your arguments and weeding them out. Some logical fallacies can be avoided by using more vague terms instead of definitively drawing a conclusion.
Find out more on how to avoid logical fallacies and make your arguments more defensible in the next article.
How many instances of cautious language were used in this article itself?
There is definitely more than one answer to each statement here, but these are just some of the suggested answers.
1. You need to plan better or this trip is likely going to be a disaster.
2. In most circumstances, drinking sugary beverages is not good for your health.
3. Certain professors tend to be absent-minded people.
4. People are likely going to be travelling to the Moon in a century’s time.
5. If we don’t stop using plastic straws, we could end up harming the environment.
6. Almost every successful person ends up speaking to large audiences.
8. I caught this boy with spray paint on his hands. It seems he may be the culprit we have been looking for.
9. I lost my wedding ring. I think my spouse might divorce me!
10. Are you going down without a flashlight? You’re probably going to trip and fall.
Jan 02, 2020