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Author Topic: The Perils of Sweeping Generalizations  (Read 159 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: June 11, 2017, 01:24:20 PM »

A common pitfall in writing is to mistake possibility or simple probability for certainty. Either from faulty grammar or faulty thinking, writers can unknowingly make sweeping generalizations—statements that assert too much on too little evidence. They thus overstate their case and undermine the very argument they are making.

Consider this opening statement of a recent advice column: “Your greatest weakness is the one that you are unaware of. Because you do not know that it exists, you become vulnerable to the one who spots it.” By using the superlative “greatest” without qualification, this statement makes an assertion that can’t be possibly proven. Being unaware of a weakness doesn’t necessarily make it one’s greatest weakness; more likely, one’s greatest weakness would be the weakness that one actually suffers from and is fully aware of. The premise thus proves logically indefensible.


 

A simple grammar fix can straighten the logic of such sweeping generalizations: qualify their premise as a possibility instead of an absolute certainty. See how the modal “could” efficiently eliminates the sweeping generalization from the statement above: “Your greatest weakness could be the one that you are unaware of. Because you do not know that it exists, you become vulnerable to the one who spots it.” Depending on the degree of possibility or conditionality, of course, the modals “can,” “may,” and “might” can also be used to qualify such statements.

Logic is also violated when conditional statements are made to appear like absolute truths. Take this lead sentence of a recent newspaper feature story: “Did you know that the country’s top chefs get their ingredients from Farmers Market in the Araneta Center in Cubao?” Although the story cites six Metro Manila-based chefs as getting their ingredients from the same market, this statement turns out to be a sweeping generalization because (1) it makes the unwarranted general claim that the country’s top chefs get their ingredients from that market, and (2) it makes the gratuitous implication that the five chefs mentioned in the story are the country’s top chefs, although they are only cited as examples of Metro Manila chefs sourcing their ingredients from the same market.

Such breaches of logic can be avoided by properly qualifying words or phrases that imply totality. See how much more credible the statement above becomes when we use “many” to qualify “the country’s top chiefs”: “Did you know that many of the country’s top chefs get their ingredients from Farmers Market in the Araneta Center in Cubao?” But even this statement may still be too sweeping, for it can be argued that “five well-known Metro Manila chefs” is not synonymous to “many of the country’s top chiefs.” Here’s a more accurate restatement that probably stands a better chance of silencing all objectors: “Did you know that many of Metro Manila’s top chiefs get their ingredients from Farmers Market in the Araneta Center in Cubao?”

In face-to-face interactions, making sweeping generalizations may not be so harmful because our listeners will usually prompt us and give us the opportunity to qualify our statements until their intended meaning gets clear enough. When we make sweeping generalizations in writing, however, we risk being totally misunderstood or being deemed unreliable because the opportunity to qualify our ideas is no longer available. We thus need to be very precise in stating our premises, arguments, and conclusions. In particular, we should be extra cautious with words that imply absoluteness or totality, such as “always,” “never,” “everyone,” “everybody,” “completely,” “totally,” and “constantly.” As the old saying goes, there’s always an exception to the rule, so we should make it a point never to make absolute statements without properly qualifying them.

When proving a point, we must also beware the all-too-common temptation to use “all” for “some” or “most,” “none” for “few” or “hardly anyone” or “hardly anybody,” “always” for “usually” or “frequently,” “surely” for “probably” or “perhaps,” and “never” for “rarely” or “seldom.” One single imprecise qualifier can throw our statements out of kilter. For instance, even allowing for literary license, the following lead statement of a recent personality feature (the subject’s identity has been changed) obviously oversteps the bounds of its argument: “All her life (italics mine), Jennifer del Mar wanted to be a schoolteacher to help her poor parents make ends meet.”

By using “all her life” as a qualifier, the statement risks inviting disbelief. The subject could not have wanted to be a schoolteacher “all her life”; at most, she must have started wanting to become one when she was already in grade school or high school. The statement gets a better temporal perspective with this more realistic qualifying phrase: “Even as a child, Jennifer del Mar already dreamed to be a schoolteacher so she could help her poor parents make ends meet.” (circa 2007-2008)

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times and subsequently appeared as Chapter 136 of his book Give Your English the Winning Edge  published by the Manila Times Publishing Corp, © 2009 by Jose A. Carillo. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: June 11, 2017, 01:50:10 PM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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