If you want to know whether you’ve been reporting or commenting, count your adjectives and adverbs.

The most effective commentary comes across as reporting, because it lets the facts speak for themselves. If they can’t, and so they have to be supplemented to be saying anything, then by whatever it is with which you’re supplementing them you’re interpreting them, and if you’re interpreting them you’re hoping your reader or listener will accept your judgment rather than exert the effort to come up with her own. This works well enough when preaching to the converted, as does Fox to Republicans or CNN to Democrats. But people who prefer to think bridle at being told what to think. Adjectives and adverbs are synesthetic. They produce a stench, the stench of propaganda.

Put another way, if you refer to “the invasion of Afghanistan” you’ve made one claim, namely that Afghanistan was invaded. But if you refer to the “unconscionable invasion of Afghanistan”, you’ve made two claims, namely that it was invaded and that that invasion was unconscionable. So if you’re either unable or unwilling to defend that second claim, don’t make it, especially if you don’t need it to go on to what you’re wanting to say next.

Eliminating adjectives and adverbs goes half the distance. The second half has to do with nouns and verbs. Good writing requires the strongest possible noun or verb. “Mansion” outdoes “large expensive house”. But good argumentation, oddly enough, requires the weakest possible noun or verb. How so? Because an “invasion” suggests would-be resistance on the part of the invaded, whereas “liberation” suggests welcome. Are you able and willing to defend what’s implied by the word you’ve chosen? If so, go right ahead. But if not, opt for something with fewer implications, like “incursion”.

“Less is more!” is the essence of what I teach my students. It’s more because incursion invites the question of whether it’s resisted or welcomed, whereas invasion or liberation would have that question closed off. Knowingly or not, all of us, myself included, are guilty of this closing off. The trick is not to give it uptake. The next time your interlocutor uses the word invasion or liberation, demand that she defend the implications of her choice. Trust me in this. Nine times out of ten, she won’t want to go there.

Calling people out on their choice of words is just churlish. It’s not how to make friends, nor how to influence people. But it does leave you more time for walking your dog, because he knows it’s neither a stroll nor a perambulation. It’s a walk!

Categories: Critical Thinking

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