Semantics Actually Matter



Some conspiracy theories are born of people collectively attributing false meaning to things or meaning where there isn't any. Not all deep dives are conspiracy theories, though. Deep analyses of famous works of literature, for example has uncovered meaning that is interesting and useful and brings new perspectives.


Ali Almossawi's first chapter of An Illustrated Book of Loaded Language covers methods by which information in news sources can be concealed with vagueness. The chapter covers different types of vague language and useful tools with which people can interpret what they are reading. If that is the purpose of the chapter, then that purpose has been addressed effectively.


It's important to note that there are some types of vague language that are so entrenched in natural vernacular that it doesn't read or sound vague. While Almossawi could have addressed this, this could deserve its own section and might take away from the purpose of the chapter. I'm sure that this disclaimer could apply to other types of language that will be discussed in this book.


Misattributing Actions


This is when the action taken within a statement is attributed to objects or those who have been affected by an action. One example that Almossawi uses is an adaptation of a headline reading, "Beloved Woodland Bookshop Becomes a Casualty of Rabbit-Badger Conflict" (Almossawi, 2021).


Throughout the chapter, the culprits are usually the headlines, what we'd define as "clickbait." The wording of this particular heading leaves out mention, as Almossawi states, of the specifics of the conflict or the party responsible for the downfall of the bookstore. Based on the heading, it looks like it's a collective effort for which both parties are at fault.


Speaking only to the language, I do buy that argument. Headlines are not very direct, but the problem isn't necessarily the headline, but the way that they're interpreted. This is not to negate that there are headlines that improperly frame the stories given and are solely for profit. Those definitely exist. This is absolutely a book for readers.


If a person's foot steps on a cardboard box, flattening it, the responsible party for flattening the box is the person, not necessarily their foot. While there can be nuance as to whether the person intended to step on that box, the person is ultimately responsible for stepping on that box.


Misattributing Quotes/Thoughts


I added "thoughts," but the next type of vague language that Almossawi identifies credits the work of many for the actions of one. If a headline states that a speculation has been made by scientists, it's unclear as to whether this means one or two scientists or whether this is a consensus made by many.


The next two types identified are passive voice and omission of language, more common types of vague language that are good to be mindful of and easier to find examples of and very useful to keep in mind when reading any headline. By mentioning them in this way, I don't want to diminish their importance, but for the purpose of this post, I intend to focus on the types that Almossawi highlights that are lesser known.


Waffling, With Intention


I appreciate "with intention." There are some news outlets and materials published through companies who have to do this in order to avoid legal repercussions. The way to identify waffling is by looking for words such as "seem," "allegedly," and "probably."


When I began discussing post-process theory, the intention behind using these words is to impart a truth for some that isn't universally held or known. For example, "X method of planning appears to be a useful strategy for those who require Y accommodations." This is waffling, but with very different intentions. Not every method of planning will work for every writer, and it's not productive to prescribe a universal truth where there isn't one.


In a piece of news, waffling can be done with the intent to deceive or to omit information that would otherwise aid in providing clarity. An example I particularly like is, "Following my visit to his house, we agreed to abide by a set of terms. The ones I agreed to happened. The ones he agreed to might not have happened" (Almossawi, 2021). A reader might easily uncover that one person favored their terms over those of the person they presumably made an agreement with. However, we must accept that some readers might not make that connection or might make a very different meaning. This is not to say that news headings can't be catchy or can't do these things, but it's important that more people are able to think critically about what they read. Identifying vague language is a part of that.


Conflating Confusable Concepts


This happens often in speech, and it's commonly made use of in different pieces of writing to advance an intention. People might conflate sex (biologically defined) with gender (associated with internal sense of self). Continuation of a given conflation doesn't change the definition of the terms, but this confusion can be used to prey on the readership of those who have preconceived notions.


"Concealing With Apparent Precision"


Again, highly effective wording. Specifically, Almossawi is referring to news articles that make use of statistics. People are taught in grade school that writing a "hook" using numbers and statistics can lend credibility to their essays. I know that when I was taught this, the instruction was given very flippantly. The idea was to teach me how to prove a point, any point.


When an author gives a percentage, what is it a percentage of? What are those numbers and what do they mean?


An example that Almossawi gives is, "At West Meadow Tech, beavers and hamsters make up only 15% and 3% of undergraduates, respectively, whereas 45% of area high school seniors who meet WMT requirements are beavers and 4% are hamsters" (Almossawi, 2021). We've left out a lot of information with these statistics. We don't know the diversity of the pool of applicants relative to those admitted. We don't know the qualifications of those admitted relative to those who would not. Generally, we don't have a lot of context, so we don't know what this information intends to prove. However, there are outlets that might rely on the lack of context for their audience.


Again, this is very clearly a book about readers for readers, about mindfulness of use of language. I believe that the information given is very engaging. The method of presentation and paraphrasing far exceeds my initial expectations. The framework created is both entertaining and language-focused.


Readers should be mindful of what they consume. Everything we read has intention behind it. Vague language can carry an intention effectively and be used to demonstrate something useful. Otherwise, it can serve to distract and confuse. It's up to us to determine which.

 

Thank you to everyone who has given feedback to Purposeful Prose thus far.


An Illustrated Book of Loaded Language is, so far, something that I would recommend for any reader. If you are interested, I do encourage you to purchase a copy from a local bookstore and follow along. If you are unable to purchase from a local bookstore, I highly recommend purchasing your titles from Bookshop.org. Everything purchased from this website supports local independent bookstores.


Purposeful Prose has a page on LinkedIn where I will be posting additional content. You can also become a member of the Purposeful Prose site to like and comment on posts and participate in discussions on my forum.


As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Sources:


Almossawi, A., & Giraldo, A. (2021). An Illustrated Book of Loaded Language: Learn to Hear What’s Left Unsaid (Bad Arguments). The Experiment.


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