Clear Thinking, Critical Thinking, and Clear Writing
Clear Thinking, Critical Thinking, and Clear Writing
The argumentative essay is the kind of writing that most demands critical-thinking techniques. An argumentative essay aims at defining and defending a position; and principles of critical thinking help us keep the essay focused on its subject, with arguments that genuinely support its position. Thus Chapter 2 will first devote itself to organization, which can help your writing overcome the illogicality and irrelevance that often plague argumentative essays. We then turn to clarity in communication, and the threats to clarity from ambiguity and vagueness.
3. Good argumentative writing is also clear. A piece of writing can be hard to understand when it uses words poorly.
We can avoid certain kinds of problems by defining the key terms in a claim.
Definitions serve a number of purposes, but they almost always aim at the general purpose of facilitating understanding.
Stipulative definitions assign a meaning to a word: "We will call those data that help predict the economy's future 'leading indicators.'"
Explanatory definitions illustrate the implications of an already known but difficult concept: "Every use of the word 'beauty' implies some suitability to a purpose."
Precising definitions narrow down the meaning of a potentially unclear term: "By 'walking' we will specifically mean 'moving under one's own power while keeping at least one foot on the ground.'"
Persuasive definitions aim at influencing their audience: "That word 'casualties' refers to our sons and daughters killed in battle."
Different structures of definitions can achieve these purposes.
One may define by example, naming representative members of a group: "Ants are typical insects."
One may define by synonym, substituting a word or phrase with the same meaning: "'Ophidophobia' is the fear of snakes."
One may define by analysis: "Precipitation is water that reaches the earth's surface from the atmosphere as the result of meteorological causes."
Whatever kind of definition you use, be aware that many words also carry an emotive or rhetorical force, that is, the coloration of feeling that a word arouses. "Steed" and "horse" have the same literal meanings but different emotive force.
We can avoid other problems simply by not loading our writing down with too many words or too many twists in grammatical structure. Avoid complexity and prolixity.
4. Clarity at the level of meaning (in words and phrases) is most often threatened by ambiguity and vagueness.
A claim is ambiguous if it can have more than one meaning, without clues from the context about which meaning to assign.
We call the claim semantically ambiguous if its multiple meanings result from the ambiguity of a word or phrase.
This is an ambiguity about what the parts of a claim mean when taken individually.
"Our cabdriver is green" may mean that the driver seems to be carsick, or lacks experience: The word "green" has not been pinned down.
The best solution to semantical ambiguity is the replacement of an ambiguous term with an unambiguous one.
When the sentence's ambiguity derives from its structure, we have a syntactically ambiguous claim.
Syntactical ambiguity arises more often as the sentence grows more complex, for modifying phrases and pronouns leave room for multiple interpretations.
The words in "This is a small men's college" are all perfectly clear on their own, but the arrangement lets them refer either to a small college for men or to a college for small men.
Replacing a word will not remedy most syntactical ambiguities: We need to rewrite the sentence (e.g., "This is a small college for men").
Grouping ambiguity occurs when the reference to a group of individuals may be taken as applying either to the individuals taken separately or to the group as a whole.
This is a type of semantical ambiguity.
"Flies outweigh humans" takes the individuals separately if it says that one fly outweighs one human; it refers to the collection as a group if it says (truly) that the mass of all flies exceeds that of all humans.
The unclarity in grouping ambiguities makes possible certain fallacies that we may therefore classify with ambiguities.
The fallacy of composition is the mistaken belief that what holds of things individually must hold of them collectively--for example, the conclusion that a shirt made of the best material must be the best shirt.
The fallacy of division attributes the group's characteristics to all of the group's members: "America is rich, so all Americans must be rich."
Classifying ambiguities correctly is far less important than spotting and avoiding them.
Common sense often tells us the intended meaning of a claim. But you are still better off writing so as to keep ambiguity to a minimum.
A claim is vague when its meaning is excessively inexact.
Whereas an ambiguous claim has too many meanings (all of which may be clear), a vague claim has no clear meaning at all.
We can't avoid certain degrees of vagueness in ordinary speech and writing; but we must take pains to avoid undesirable degrees of vagueness.
Intrinsically vague words have no defining borders: "bald," "rich," and "heap" all have some quantitative meaning, but no precisely delimited one.
Vagueness can also enter a claim at the level of vague comparisons. Especially in advertisements and political speeches, people praise an object or idea with comparisons that leave out essential information (such as what the thing is being compared to). Five critical questions help us evaluate such comparisons:
Is important information missing? That is, has the comparison left out some relevant data?
Is the same standard of comparison being used? The "apples and oranges" problem.
Are the items comparable? In such instances, you should watch for the appeal to exceptional cases, such as the safety record of one company's heaviest car as opposed to another company's lightest.
Is the comparison expressed as an average? Here too, information may be missing.
What does the comparison mean by "average"? The word "average" is ambiguous in that it can refer to a mean (arithmetic average), a median (halfway point), or a mode (most frequently occurring figure).