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Qualifiers and Counterclaims

Some inexperienced writers wrongly assume that the strongest and most persuasive writing projects a voice of utter confidence, complete certainty, with no room for doubt or for the possibility of reaching alternative conclusions. That view could not be more mistaken. If communicating with your readers is like having a serious, mutually respectful conversation with them, then the last kind of person you want to talk with is someone who is reluctant to give alternative perspectives, variant contexts, and competing claims their due attention.


Adding Qualifiers and Delimiters | Avoiding Absolutes

In a first draft, eager to pin down our claims and reasons, writers at times overstate their cases, making “bare bones” claims that act more as placeholders for points rather than fully-articulated claims, readied for readers (who may be skeptical or critical or simply inquisitive about the certainty of your ideas). Readers of academic prose typically prefer qualified claims over starkly unqualified assertions.

To begin, seek out sentences that overgeneralize or depend for their force on absolutes (like never, always, every, all, etc.) Consider, instead, limiting your claim by including such terms as at times, sometimes, typically, mostly, on the whole, in some cases, etc. The reason to cushion pronouncements in this way is that if you overstate the case with absolutes, only one exception to your assertion will cause the architecture of your argument to develop cracks and fissures.

Compare these two passages:

1. For more than a century now, every liberal has vehemently argued against any kind of censorship of art and/or entertainment. And in the last 20 years, the courts and the legislatures of Western nations have found these arguments so persuasive that no remembers any rebuttals to these arguments. Censorship has simply ceased to exist.

2. For almost a century now, many liberals have argued against the censorship of art and/or entertainment, and in the last 20 years, courts and the legislatures in most Western nations have found these arguments fairly persuasive. Few people now clearly remember what the rebuttals to these arguments were. Today, in the United States and other democracies, censorship has just about ceased to exist.

Twenty pages of the first passage’s prose would quickly grow wearisome. It is too strident, too flat-footed, completely unnuanced. But some may say the second passage is wishy-washy, too hedged about with qualifiers and delimiting adjectives. Here is a third version, which neither proclaims nor hedges:

3. For a century now, liberals have been arguing against the censorship of art and/or entertainment, and in the last 20 years, courts and the legislatures in Western nations have found these arguments so persuasive that few now remember what the rebuttals to these arguments were. Today, in the Untied States and other democracies, overt censorship by the central government has largely ceased to exist.

It is hard to give completely reliable advice bout hedging and emphasizing because different writers have different opinions about it, and different academic displines prefer varying levels of equivocation. But something most of us share is a sense of caution. (Notice that we said “most of us.”) Clearly, qualification is a complex matter that touches on ethical, epistemological, and rhetorical interests. Generally, however, intellectual discourse (unlike the discourses associated with, say, advertising or political campaigns) is marked by a kind of conditional logic that attempts to recognize the contingencies within which such-and-such hold true.

As you review your draft, looking for overstatements, consider specifying the conditions in which your remarks hold true by using phrases such as: “in cases where. . . ” “if we operate with XXX assumptions, then. . .,” “given the historical moment. . .,” “for those who already accept . . . “, and others.


Stipulating Definitions of Key Terms

Another technique for enhancing the way readers will understand your argument is to offer them a sense of how you are using important terms.  As a writer, you are free to stipulate how you want a term to be understood: “Here, I define XXX as. . .,” “XXX is often understood as YYY, but in this argument XXX means ZZZ,” “XXX has been used to mean YYY or ZZZ, but there is an advantage to considering it as WWW.” 


Plausibly Contradictory Evidence

Another kind of reservation you ought to make room for in your papers is plausibly contradictory evidence. No matter what position you take on a source text, there will always be some evidence in it that someone can use as a basis to disagree with you.

Lincoln may have been willing to let his readers associate the founders with the North, but it is not clear that he actually believed that they would have supported the Union. He does not specifically say so. Although he describes what the founders did in the past (“Four score and twenty years ago”), he does not say what they would do in the present.

The shrewd writer considers these kind of objections before readers do, and may include the objections in the essay. Once you think you have constructed an argument that fully supports your claim, skim the source text you are referring to once again specifically looking for evidence that might support a different conclusion. Then raise that evidence and counterclaim in order both to acknowledge and, if you can, rebut them. Even if you can’t fully rebut them, you can suggest that the weight of evidence is still on your side. Don’t worry that including counter evidence will make your argument less persuasive. On the contrary. While there are exceptions, most academic readers are much more persuaded by writers who acknowledge their reservations then by writers who insist that they are always absolutely correct.  Again, qualifying phrases may be in order: “Granted, XXX may lead other analysts to see. . . ,” or “If one chose to focus on XXX, then that opens an alternative pathway to interpretation.”