August 13, 2009

Educating Stephen about generalizations

Consider the following statements:

  • The sky is blue.
  • Two and two is four.
  • Space is empty.
  • Water is wet.

  • I suspect every English speaker in the world understands that these are generalizations. Every English speaker in the world except Newspaper Rock reader Stephen, that is. They're generally true, not universally true.

    Exceptions prove the rule

    Why aren't they universally true? Here are the non-general parts of these statements--the parts that are implied to every English speaker in the world (except Stephen):

  • The sky is blue (in general, but it's white or gray during storms and black at night).
  • Two and two is four (in general, but 2+2 can equal 5 or something else in non-Euclidean geometry).
  • Space is empty (in general, but it's occupied by minute amounts of matter and energy).
  • Water is wet (in general, but as water vapor or ice it has no liquid texture).

  • Whenever any English speaker in the world writes something in the form A=B, every other English speaker (except Stephen) understands that it's a general statement about A and B. It doesn't mean every case of A is B. Unless you explicitly say there are no exceptions, there are always exceptions.

    In fact, we use words such as "every" (every A is B) or "all" (all A are B) precisely for this reason. If A=B covered the universe of possibilities, there'd be no need for words such as "all" or "every." The fact that these words persist proves the need for them.

    More exceptions and explanations

    Now that I've explained grade-school English to Stephen, I trust there won't be any more misunderstandings. When I write sentences such as these:

  • Chickens lay eggs.
  • Indians have brown skins.
  • Americans are ignorant about foreign affairs.
  • The Lakota lived in tipis.

  • They're generalizations. Every statement such as these has exceptions, so it isn't literally true. It's only figuratively or generally true.

    Why aren't the above statements literally true?

  • Chickens lay eggs (in general, but not males and not females with diseases or birth defects that prevent reproduction).
  • Indian have brown skins (in general, but some are more white or black than brown).
  • Americans are ignorant about foreign affairs (in general, according to studies, but some are knowledgeable).
  • The Lakota lived in tipis (in general, but some lived in huts or lodges before the tipi era and others lived in houses after the tipi era).

  • Why writers avoid unnecessary qualifiers

    Why don't professional writers write "in general" every time it's technically true? Because it clutters a text with unnecessary verbiage. Prose that isn't lean and taut is the death of good writing. Writing is supposed to serve the cause of communication--to convey ideas and impressions effectively even if they aren't literally true.

    If we took the approach Stephen prefers, here's how we'd have to change one text to make it more accurate:Four score and seven years ago, in general, our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, in general, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, in general.

    Now, in general, we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, in general, can long endure. In general, we are met on a great battle-field of that war. In general, we have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. In general, it is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

    But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate--we can not consecrate--we can not hallow--this ground, in general. In general, the brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract, in general. In general, the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here, in general. In general, it is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced, in general. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, in general--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion, in general--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, in general--that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, in general--and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth, in general.
    Any questions, Stephen? Do you need me to explain that Lincoln didn't mean that every American state, city, neighborhood, and individual was literally at war? That he meant America was generally at war even though many citizens continued to live peaceful lives untouched by violence?

    We could go through this text line by line and discuss why the qualifier "in general" is technically true. The United States wasn't literally founded in one year; the founding period arguably stretched from the 1770s to the 1790s, at least. Not every soldier literally fought bravely or nobly; some acted cowardly or deserted. Lincoln didn't expect every American, including the weak and infirm, to literally take up arms; he wanted people to support his cause morally if not physically.


    Sheesh. Now do you understand that the qualifier "in general" is unnecessary, in general, because it's understood? I hope so, because I'm sick of your parsing my language unnecessarily. It's an utter waste of time.

    Please let me know if you need any other aspects of grade-school English explained to you. As a professional writer who makes his living with words, I'm here to help those who can't read or write well. Think of it as just another benefit of your friendly, neighborhood Newspaper Rock service.

    Below:  9/11 was bad. Oops, I mean 9/11 was bad in general, although some good things, such as an increased emphasis on homeland security, came out of it. All clear?

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