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Author and former professor condemns use of “absolutes” in literature

Author and former professor condemns use of “absolutes” in literature
Author and former professor condemns use of “absolutes” in literature

As a former journalism professor, I spent many hours correcting student essays that contained “Absolute.”

For the uninformed, absolutes are words like always, never, everyone, and nobody. These days, it’s pretty common to use absolutes to convince the listener that the evidence is overwhelming.

Absolute statements are usually not clear and are often not supported by statistics. Absolute statements in writing damage the author’s credibility.

Sentences like “He’s always smiling” or “Everyone thought the Supreme Court ruling was perfect” raise the question: “Always?” and “Everyone?”

When I graded a paper that used an absolute value, as in the examples above, I wrote on the paper, “He smiled even when he was angry? He smiled in his sleep? I don’t believe that – you lose credibility.”

When I hear that “everyone” agreed with the Supreme Court’s ruling, it’s not only unbelievable, it’s absurd. If it’s a quote, the author is off the hook because the person who said the sentence loses credibility. But if the author presents it as fact, he gets a 6.

Absolute values ​​are wrong not only because they are inaccurate if taken literally, but they can also lead to incorrect predictions.

I remember saying to Kathe after my first marathon, exhausted, “I’ll never run a marathon like that again.” Using the word “never” was a mistake, but my excuse was that I was delusional. It took a full 45 minutes in the car before I changed my mind and started looking for my next possible marathon.

Likewise, after a bad meal at my favorite restaurant, I find myself saying, “I’m never eating here again.” That is, until I start craving the restaurant’s specialties, and then all is forgiven.

We must also be wary of the absolutes of “everyone” and “nobody.” I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Yogi Berra, the irony of which struck me when he lamented about a popular restaurant: “Nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded.”

Lately, we have been hearing generalisations about ‘everyone’ from our politicians. They no longer feel compelled to cite statistics, but simply state in debates and other formats that everyone, that is, 100% of people, have a certain opinion.

As many of these examples show, absolute statements damage the credibility of the user. The discerning listener will immediately dismiss a person who uses absolute statements and/or generalizations as untrustworthy. The problem is that with all the misinformation circulating on social media, we have fewer discerning listeners than we used to.

In my opinion, the death knell for a speaker is the misuse of the English language or the reliance on absolutes.

I was reminded of this recently when I was dining with a waitress who was doing everything right and had gained the trust of the people at our table. Then the tables turned, at least for me, when she asked, “How do you like your potatoes?” While I was annoyed at the grammatical faux pas, she added, “Everyone always comments on how much they like them.”

Many (not all) at the table let it slide, but given my aversion to the language corruption, I lost my appetite and was forced to lecture my tablemates about how the waitress had earned our trust through her behavior, only to lose credibility due to her lack of language skills.

Then there was the time I was in a weekly administration meeting and our president said something was no longer valid and that it was an irrelevant point. This error, which may have been overlooked by others, was so egregious that I couldn’t contain myself. I blurted out, “You mean an irrelevant point, right?”

The nonverbal cues I received at this meeting were similar to the nonverbal cues I received at dinner after I pointed out the waiter’s grammatical deficiencies.

This brings me to an important point. I know that I will be perceived as a grumpy person if I openly address and point out my mistakes. But at the same time, I feel that I am contributing to the common good by not letting mistakes go unnoticed.

As I watch the news of the day, I fear that my people are in the minority, and most (not all) are willing to passively watch as the country’s leaders mangle language and abuse absolutes. These all-too-frequent errors, in my view, damage their credibility, and with the loss of credibility comes distrust.

By and large, the misuse of language should be the least of our worries. At the same time, how can we trust those who choose to spread absolute statements without knowing the truth?

Harry Paidas is professor emeritus at Mount Union and writes a monthly column for The Review. He can be reached at [email protected].

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