Episode 23: A Fistful of Fallacies

If you have a pulse, you have used a logic fallacy in your writing. Although I would much prefer to say that my writing is 100% certified with no logic issues, I cannot. Human writers take shortcuts, use what’s convenient, and occasionally leave holes big enough to swallow whole paragraphs, pages, sections, and books. This isn’t to say that fallacies are good, per se, but it does mean that you’d be hard pressed to patch up every slip in your writing—thus leaving wiggle room for someone to mercilessly mock you.

However, what you can do is get to know some of the major logical conundrums and do your best to plug the leaks. If you focus on the following ones, you should eliminate 95% of the problems that can creep up in your arguments, proofs, and theses.

Hasty generalization: Everyone loves Raymond, right? While the assumption may be justified, there can be logical issues when a writer makes broad, sweeping statements as fact based on a limited reference frame. We all do this from time to time (yes, that is an example right there) because some things seem to be “common knowledge,” but some hasty generalizations sneak in without justification. See if you notice it in this sentence:

After reviewing the survey hosted on our site, the committee has decided that our new logo connects with the average consumer.

While the survey may indeed point to people liking the logo, the sample is skewed because it is on the company’s website, which would likely include only those with an interest in coming to the site in the first place.

Confusing Cause and Effect: When I tap my showerhead, water comes out. Therefore, tapping the showerhead makes water. This is, of course, a silly cause-and-effect relationship, but this is actually a fairly common logical error. Two events having a connection does not mean that one causes the other.

The market is growing for Internet browsers. Just this year Chrome has gained a significant number of new users.

While Chrome may be growing in market share, this does not prove that the market itself is growing. After all, Chrome users may be moving from another browser.

Either-or Fallacy (False Dilemma): Either I’m right, or you’re wrong. If those options don’t sound satisfactory, then you’ll be glad to know that this, too, is a common error in argument. While there may only seem to be two (or more) options in a given issue, forcing a choice can ignore some novel approach that you may not have considered.

With the current market conditions, we must decide which of the research programs that we should eliminate.

Or perhaps there is another option for reducing overhead while keeping all the research going.

There are many more fallacies where those came from (in fact, there’s a whole encyclopedia of them), but the ones I’ve listed will get you started. Just keep in mind that all writers write either because the day is 24 hours or because the cheesecake is delicious.

Use the comments to list some of your favorite (or not-so-favorite) fallacies.


Episode 22: Dealing with a Diction

Writing is just as much about how you say something as it is what you say. Everything from the words you choose to the syntax (word order) can send messages to the reader about your attitude toward the subject matter or even the audience itself. Many times these “messages” can be unintended (much like body language can be), but the impact can be important.

For the purposes of this post, I am simply going to refer to how you say something as diction. The dictionary (pun definitely intended) often uses a much narrower definition of this word, but the implication is the same. Diction, succinctly, is the way you express yourself in your speech and in your writing (your writing being much easier to control). Keep in mind that diction is not the same as a writer’s “style” because the purpose of each article or story may require different means of expression. So, diction is situational: a white paper may require a more formal level of writing, while marketing copy might require something with way. too. many. periods. and action words (so act now).

The way that you get your message across is influenced by a number of factors, too many to list all of them here. However, we can look at some of the main ones.

Word choice: This is probably the most obvious influence on diction. If you are using a thesaurus to find bigger words for the sake of sounding smarter, then 1) stop it and 2) you are elevating the language of your writing—for good or bad. The message behind your message is that the subject matter is sophisticated and complex. This will serve you well for some formal writing projects if used carefully, but it can also make you sound stilted and aloof. The bottom line is that while word choice is the “quick fix” for raising or lowering the readability level of the writing, it is not necessarily the best way. That is, don’t simply search for and replace simple words to change the way you’re saying something. Doing that is like playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” with a full orchestra: it may sound more impressive, but the song is still the same. Now, however, if you change the way the song is played . . .

Writing style: This is the better way to change your diction. Your writing style is the way in which you wrap the plot, thesis, message, etc. Elevating your writing style (using more formal language, structure, terminology) impacts the way you’re saying something much more than your word choice. For example, using or not using contractions can say quite a bit about the formality of your writing, as can ending sentences with prepositions or not and using many or few parentheticals. Changes like that may not seem like much, but just try writing an article with contractions and then without and see how great the impact can be.

Tone: I have covered this before. But let’s just say that tone plays a significant role in how you say something with the written word (just as it does with the spoken word).

As I said, there are many other factors involved, but if you pay attention to those three, you should be well on your way. Plus, this gives me room to revisit the topic later.

Episode 21: Puns, Alliteration, and Other Quandaries

The whole world of writing wilts when writers whip the world with wordplay. In recent months, I have come across several instances of clever writers relying on a literary trick in order to make their works stand out. One, for example, wrote a book of short stories in which each chapter used only one vowel throughout (I will not link it here—you’ll have to find it yourself). Yes, that is an amazingly difficult task; no, that isn’t effective literature.

Don’t get me wrong. Witty repartee is a highlight of any word-lovers day. (My wife would tell you that I am one to throw around the puns with reckless abandon.) However, when the words themselves become more important than the message, you’ve lost the message. To use a worn metaphor, you’re too busy carving your initials in the trees to see that there’s a whole forest around you.

Wordplay can be a useful subtext to what you’re writing—if you are writing something informal or creative. In formal writing, such elements undermine your crediblity. That is, say you are reading a scientific paper, and you see this:

The serious scientists at the Stanford Science Center see the sea salt as satisfactory.

How many research grants do you think they’ll receive? (However, they might get some sea shells by the sea shore.)

In creative writing, you can certainly get away with—and should experiment with—some subtle twists of meaning. Shakespeare, my always-handy-literary-giant example, made a craft of it, though perhaps his wordplay works better now simply because the English language has shifted away from the nuances he intended. As he did, you will often find that poetry is especially ripe for some double entendres (ambiguity of meaning often for humor’s sake). Short stories and some non-fiction prose do allow for some of this as well, but such ludic (playful) literature draws attention to itself.

In essence, the best advice is simply to make sure that you want to draw attention to what you’re writing. Do you want the reader to pay attention to how you’re saying something more than what you’re saying? There’s no right answer here; I simply recommend that you ask yourself that question when you decide to use some of the following devices:

Puns: This is simply a double meaning to a word or phrase. These can be one of the most subtle devices, but they can also cause the most groaning.

The east wind winds around the bend.

Alliteration: As you saw in the introductory sentence, this is repeating a consonant sound throughout a phrase. (These are often used in tongue twisters.) Repeating a vowel sound has another name (assonance), but it still falls under this category.

Billy Bob bopped Brad before the bout began. (I am exaggerating, of course.)

Metaphors and Similes: Chances are, if two things are being compared, then one of these literary devices is being used. A simile uses linking words (e.g., like, as) to make the connection, and a metaphor uses either a connecting verb (e.g., a form of to be) or simple replacement. For my money, metaphors are the stronger of the two.

He came through like a linebacker chasing the ballcarrier. (simile for football season)

The moon was a Nilla Wafer in the sky. (metaphor for those thinking about banana pudding)

And there are dozens more you could pull out of your college or high school English book, but the same rule applies for almost all of them: think before you leap.

Episode 20: Elements of Style

Grammar is an imprecise science and a moving target. As much as grammar purist would love to maintain a standard of what is correct and what is blatantly bad, grammar has a way of slipping through our fingers. The graves of old usage rules are scattered about the landscape of past prose. Instant messaging and email have further transformed the landscape. In my opinion, there aren’t fewer rules now than before; there are simply different rules for the 21st century. With all that said, however, grammar still gives a quick first impression (that’s because English majors like me are still editors and publishers).

The most important aspect of using proper grammar is simply to remember that it’s situational. Formal writing demands a much higher standard of correct language usage than informal. On most blogs, for example, you can get away with a more relaxed, conversational style, and most creative writing now days demands the natural approach. (Keep in mind that you can use a more formal style if it fits the subject matter or the character.) Nonfiction and technical writing, on the other hand, often do not sound like everyday conversation and usually demand a strict adherence to a particular style guide.

Grammar does have a purpose (and it is not to make you get bad grades or to sell grammar books . . . mostly). The purpose is simply to provide a standardized language that anyone can read and understand without requiring specialized knowledge from the writer. Let’s say, for the sake my world-famous quirky examples, that syntax (word order) was not standardized in English to some degree. Then I might write something like this:

Met Harry when Sally.

Sure, you might figure out what I mean (When Harry met Sally), but only because the phrase is fairly well known in my generation. And, yes, this is a rather extreme example, but even simple comma rules can cause confusion if used incorrectly, as in one famous example:

The panda eats, shoots and leaves.

Standard grammar provides a starting point of agreement between writer and reader (and the editor who pokes his nose in here and there). You certainly don’t need to be an English scholar or know every grammar rule, but there are some excellent resources out there that will get you on the right track.

Books: The Elements of Style (Strunk and White)—still a classic and my favorite “grammar purist” book; Handy Grammar, Usage & Punctuation (Random House–Webster)—despite the lack of a serial comma in the title, a quick guide to the basics; Chicago Manual of Style—in my mind, the granddaddy tome of all things grammar (however, you can’t go wrong with any of the big name style guides)

Websites: Even though I disagree with her on some aspects of grammar (and extra-grammatical areas as well), I still heartily recommend Grammar Girl for a new take on an old topic. She covers everything from asterisks to apostrophes. There are also a plethora of free sites out there that offer primers.

Don’t fear grammar—instead, think about the people who will see you as lacking credibility if your grammar is bad.