Logic

Ask Yourself

What explanation or evidence is necessary and sufficient to help your readers understand the claims and implications of your prose? Does the semantic structure make the prose feel connected?


Wondering how to use the Logic Guide?

Curious why WriteLab identified a Logic issue or want help fixing it? You've come to the right place. Each Logic issue WriteLab identifies corresponds to an entry on this page.

To find instances of these Logic issues in your own writing, log into WriteLab (or create an account), input your writing, and take a look at WriteLab's Logic Comments. If you want more information about a Comment, click the ? icon above the Comment text, then click See an Example to go directly to the corresponding Logic Guide entry.

But WriteLab doesn't yet identify every Logic issue mentioned here, so consider reading through the Logic Guide on your own to strengthen the logic of your prose.



Introduction to Logic: Reasoning and Coherence

Reasoning is the cornerstone of clear and cohesive writing. When we draw conclusions, we exercise thinking in writing — we consider evidence and make statements based on our interpretation of that evidence.

A. A lack of proper lighting caused the orchid to die.

Nothing is necessarily wrong with this sentence. It answers the question: how did the orchid die? But in logical terms, we have to be certain that "a lack of proper lighting" is a sufficient cause for the plant dying. If not, then it must have died for some other reason. Was it watered properly? Did the dog eat it? We need more evidence in order to know for sure.

Logic requires us to articulate the steps in our thinking. In argumentative writing, readers do not always know or understand our reasoning, and so we must prove that our claims proceed from concrete details.

A. It will probably rain tomorrow.

In our arguments, we want to achieve the highest possible degree of certainty. The sentence above is weakened by the word "probably," which detracts from the statement by suggesting uncertainty. We can remedy this by citing a specific probability:

B. According to weather.com, there is a 90% chance of rain tomorrow.

We can write logically by clearly defining premises and conclusions. When we make statements, readers will expect us to support them with relevant evidence. We have to show readers how and why we arrive at our conclusions.

Supporting Logic With A Coherent Semantic Structure:

Semantic structure refers to the meanings behind our words. Style aside, we have to ensure that the words we use make sense to our readers. Here's an absurd example:

The paper toaster lambasted papal pancakes.

This sentence is incoherent, as there isn't much sense in it. We can define each of the words and understand them separately, but they do not combine to form coherent meaning.

Sometimes we write incoherent sentences due to a misplaced or misused word:

Moby-Dick contains many illusions to the Bible.

This sentence is incoherent because we write "illusions" when we mean "allusions." Most readers will understand what we meant to say, but they will also notice that we failed to say it. For this same reason, it is better to find original ways to express yourself than to write with clichés.

Semantic structures can fall apart quickly when we employ known words in new ways without redefining those words. This is especially important in academic writing. For example, if we say "mystification" when writing about art reproduced through photography, we risk incoherence unless we explain what specifically "mystification" means in that context.

When you have created a concentrated, coherent semantic structure for your prose, you enable your readers to follow your argument with ease and understanding.


Abstraction

The Short Version

Support abstract concepts with evidence or clear, concrete descriptions.

The Long Version

The terms abstract and concrete refer to the word choices writers make. Concrete words point to what our senses can perceive — to the tangible and practical elements of our experience. Abstract words point to whatever does not directly result from our sense experience, such as concepts and states of mind.

Most of our thinking moves naturally between the abstract and the concrete, so much so that we often pay little attention to their interplay. We believe that effective writing balances abstract concepts with concrete evidence.


WORKING WITH ABSTRACT CONCEPTS

The Short Version

Use strong, descriptive verbs to make your writing more concrete.

The Long Version

Abstractions are vague terms which concrete evidence can help to focus and clarify.

The word "abstract" derives from the Latin verb meaning "to remove, to draw out, to pull away." The adjective "abstract" points to whatever doesn't result from direct observation. Words such as "hope," "justice," and "dignity" are abstract because they articulate concepts or states of mind. We can use concrete words to organize abstract ideas into convincing arguments.

You write with more force and conviction when you present evidence for your claims. Concrete writing is specific. It refers to our observations of people, objects, and behaviors. When we write concretely about a subject or an idea, we draw on our own sense experience to explain or demonstrate our point. Expressive, unequivocal verbs can help to make your writing more concrete and memorable.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
At her press conference, the president addressed conflict and terrorism.

Revision:
At her press conference, the president addressed the conflict in Gaza and terrorism in Mosul.

Explanation:
The first sentence gravitates toward unspecified issues: "conflict" and "terrorism" are abstract. The revision moves from the abstract to the concrete by adding specific locations to these abstractions: "Gaza" and "Mosul."

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
Orchids enjoy short lives.

Revision:
Orchids enjoy short lives. In fact, all my orchids die quickly.

Explanation:
The first sentence talks about orchids in general. The revision is more concrete, citing particular orchids to support the abstract claim of the original sentence.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
The executive stayed strong despite shareholder pressure.

Revision:
The executive resolved to improve employee benefits despite shareholders demanding that she increase company profits.

Explanation:
The revised sentence is concrete because we employ the expressive verbs “resolved” and “demanding” in place of the abstract concepts “wavered” and “pressure.” These verbs also allow us to provide concrete details: “resolved to improve employee benefits” and “demanding that she increase profits.”


PRESENTING ABSTRACT CONCEPTS

The Short Version

Support abstractions with concrete examples.

The Long Version

Writers can use abstractions effectively, especially when they support them with concrete examples. You might find it helpful to view abstraction as a process, a method of selection. When we abstract from our experience, we single out a part of it, some quality or attribute of it. Identifying such an element is to abstract it from the whole of our experience. For example, consider how abstraction in thinking is like focusing a lens in photography. From the broad field in front of them, photographers focus on someone or something and highlight a specific feature of that subject. Our minds — and our words — move in a similar pattern: a focus and field of abstract and concrete.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
Studying class material, whether for math, english, history, or any other discipline, will help you get good grades.

Revision:
Studying will help you get good grades.

Explanation:
"Studying" is an abstract concept, but it works in this sentence because readers know what "studying" is. We don't need to specify precisely what is being studied — when we do (as in the first sentence), the concrete details of what is being studied do little to enhance our understanding of the concept.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
She refuted what he argued.

Revision:
She refuted his argument.

Explanation:
In the second version of this sentence, we use an abstract word ("argument"). "Argument" is abstract because it describes an action, but is not a verb. Yet the abstract produces a clear sentence that is more concise than the original, concrete version.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
Eight years of playing drums in a rock band damaged Isaac’s ability to hear.

Revision:
Eight years of playing drums in a rock band damaged Isaac’s hearing.

Explanation:
Though both the original and revision contain the concrete evidence, “eight years of playing drums in a rock band,” the revision employs this evidence to support the abstract term “hearing.” The concrete phrase, “ability to hear,” contributes no more to the reader’s understanding of the sentence’s subject than the abstract term “hearing.”


CONSTRUCTING CONCRETE WRITING

Detected by WriteLab.

The Short Version

Use strong, descriptive verbs to make your writing more concrete.

The Long Version

Concrete words refer to the tangible and practical elements of our experience, to specific people, places, and things. Abstract words refer to concepts and states of mind rather than to sense experience. Most of our thinking in writing moves effortlessly between the abstract and the concrete, so much so that we often pay little attention to their interplay and are unaware of the specific advantages of using each effectively. You write effectively when you balance the abstract with the concrete, and the best way to do this is to use expressive, unequivocal verbs.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
The casually dressed burglar left the house.

Revision:
The burglar, an elderly man dressed in slacks and a dark green sweater, escaped the house through the kitchen window.

Explanation:
The first sentence doesn't provide sufficient detail to identify the burglar. "Casually dressed" and the verb "left" are abstract details. The revised sentence concretely specifies how he dressed, in addition to explaining how he left the house.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
The dispute was resolved by the manager without bloodshed.

Revision:
The manager resolved the dispute without bloodshed.

Explanation:
The less abstract revision states an agent (the manager) who performs the action ("The manager resolved…"). The unequivocal, concrete verb "resolved" leaves no room for doubt about what the manager did.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
Natasha has a locket that is holding photos of her daughters.

Revision:
Natasha wears a locket that contains photos of her daughters

Explanation:
The revised sentence uses the informative, concrete verbs “wears” and “contains” instead of the abstract terms “has” and “is holding.”


Appeals to Probability, Truth, and Authority

The more specific the facts you provide readers, the more convincing your argument will be. When you tell readers exactly how likely something is or explain the cause behind an event, you'll give your readers a compelling reason to believe your claims.


UNDERSTANDING PROBABILITY

Detected by WriteLab.

The Short Version

Instead of simply saying that something is likely or unlikely, tell your readers just how likely or unlikely that thing is.

The Long Version

Probability is the likelihood that an event will occur. For example, suppose we have a fair coin (a coin with one side heads and the other tails). If we flip this coin, there is a 50% probability that it will land on heads.

In some cases, statements of probability can lead to logical conclusions. We may find it helpful to cite probability to lend greater credence to our arguments.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
I checked the weather, and it says that there is a 70% chance of rain today. I should take an umbrella in case it rains.

Revision:
I checked the weather, and it says that there is a 70% chance of rain today. I should take an umbrella because it will rain today.

Explanation:
The first conclusion is justified because there is a 70% chance of rain. It would be wrong, however, to presume a stronger conclusion: the second conclusion would only be true if there was a 100% chance of rain.

We must take care to ensure that words like "probably" and "likely" do not signal uncertainty or hesitation. When used in this way, these function as hedge words rather than indicating probability.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
The author probably wrote this chapter to demonstrate the negative effects of censorship.

Revision:
As she explains in her autobiography, the author wrote this chapter to demonstrate the negative effects of censorship.

Explanation:
This first statement is not the basis for a compelling argument. It expresses uncertainty rather than asserting a point that can be defended with evidence. The second remedies this by both expressing certainty and citing evidence.

To be useful, expressions of probability must be specific. In some cases, this means citing specific values. We might want to determine if the probability of one event occurring depends on another event, or if they occur independently.

Additionally, we can increase the likelihood of our conclusions by collecting a sizable amount of evidence. The more compelling examples we can gather, the more probable our conclusion will seem to readers.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
It is unlikely that Celeste will be invited to play for the soccer team until she turns fifteen years old.

Revision:
Because of their strict age requirement, the team will not invite Celeste to play soccer with them until she is fifteen years old.

Explanation:
The original sentence uses the hedge word “unlikely” to ineffectively convey probability. The reader may not understand that the team invitation depends on Celeste’s age. By providing the information about the team’s “strict age requirement,” the revision explains why she can’t be invited and provides the concrete conclusion, “the team will not invite Celeste.”


MAKING CAUSAL STATEMENTS

Detected by WriteLab.

The Short Version

When describing a cause and effect relationship, provide readers with evidence and explanation.

The Long Version

Causation occurs when one event happens as a result of another event.

When we interpret evidence in academic writing, we might make a claim about the cause or effect of an event. In these cases, we need not express a cause and effect relationship as a proven fact. Instead, we must supply supporting evidence.

EXAMPLE 1:

I dropped a pencil and it fell on the floor.

Explanation:
The pencil in this example falls on the floor (the second event, the effect) only because we dropped it (the first event, the cause).

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
Different languages can cause confusion, as demonstrated by Montag when he says, "We simply can't understand each other."

Revision:
When Montag says, "We simply can't understand each other," he demonstrates that different languages can cause confusion.

Explanation:
Each of these sentences is an example of a causal argument. The first sentence begins with a claim and argues from effect to cause, while the second sentence begins with evidence and argues from cause to effect.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
Smoking causes cancer.

Revision:
Smoking increases the probability of cancer.

Explanation:
Strictly speaking, this is not an example of causation because smoking is not always followed by cancer. This kind of statement is acceptable in an argument when supported with concrete evidence. From statistics, however, we know that smoking increases the probability of cancer – that is, it correlates with cancer.

Correlation establishes a relationship between two or more variables. For example, the advertising revenue of Facebook correlates with its number of users.

We must remember that correlation does not imply causation. Event A may occur around the same time as event B without causing it to happen. Correlated events can be associated with one another, but they do not describe a causal relationship. Writers who use correlation to imply causation commit a "questionable cause" logical fallacy: they mistakenly assume that if two events occur at the same time, then one event must cause the other.

EXAMPLE 4:

Original:
The amount of food the U.S. consumes causes the number of foreclosures in the U.S. to increase.

Revision:
As the amount of food the U.S. consumes increases, so does the number of foreclosures in the U.S.

Explanation:
These events are correlated (they both increase), but there is no causal relationship between them. The first sentence doesn't acknowledge this; the second does.

EXAMPLE 5:

Original:
The sales of a book increase the longer it appears on the New York Times bestseller list.

Revision:
The New York Times bestseller list can cause the sales for a book to increase by raising public awareness of the book.

Explanation:
The first sentence is an example of correlation, not causation. To revise for causation, we have to explain how the bestseller list can directly influence the sales of a book. Ideally, this statement would be reinforced with more concrete evidence.


Conclusions, Inferences, and Deductions

The Short Version

Make sure your evidence points to and supports a clear conclusion.

The Long Version

When we write, we design arguments to convince readers to agree with us. But the most carefully constructed argument is little use unless you indicate what it's arguing. It is not sufficient to present evidence; to convince your readers, you must ensure that the evidence points to a specific, well-supported conclusion, inference, or deduction.

The conclusion of your draft provides you the opportunity to review your argument and ensure that your ideas result logically from the assembled evidence. By the time you reach your conclusion, you've (presumably) assembled, presented, and explained evidence to support your idea. At this point, you have one last obligation to readers: write a succinct and convincing conclusion. Drafting such a conclusion involves more than simply marshaling evidence. It involves ensuring that the conclusion reflects the substance and significance of the evidence you've assembled. You need to give your readers a reason to care about the evidence.


DEFINING RESULTS

The Short Version

When you claim that something is "enough" or "so __," make sure to answer the question "enough that what?" or "so that what?"

The Long Version

When we speak informally or to an audience already familiar with our claims, equivocal words like "enough" and "so" don't require specificity: we need not answer the question, "enough for what?" However, an audience not familiar with the context of our assertions will require more specific information about the results of these claims.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
We ate so much candy.

Revision:
We ate so much candy that our stomachs ached.

Explanation:
We ate so much candy that … what? What resulted from our eating so much candy?

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
The window is open enough.

Revision:
The window is open enough for the fresh air to come in.

Explanation:
The window is open enough for … what? The revision answers this question.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
The garden was so parched.

Revision:
The garden was so parched that the plants all died.

Explanation:
The garden was so parched that … what?

EXAMPLE 4:

Original:
Are you hungry enough?

Revision:
Are you hungry enough for dinner?

Explanation:
You were hungry enough for … what?

EXAMPLE 5:

I am so tired!

Explanation:
"So" is an emphatic. This sentence, like the previous examples, lacks a result. Using this phrase colloquially is quite acceptable. In formal writing, however, readers will expect you to complete your thought — "so tired that …."


ASSERTING TRUTHS

Detected by WriteLab.

The Short Version

Support claims with evidence.

The Long Version

Some statements casually claim a truth. Readers expect you to validate these truth claims and statements of fact with appropriate evidence. You will make your writing more convincing when you support your claims with specific and accurate evidence.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
While gun sales are increasing, the percentage of Americans who own them is decreasing.

Revision:
A recent Gallup Poll reported that while gun sales are increasing, the percentage of Americans who own them is decreasing.

Explanation:
The first iteration of this sentence does not identify the source for this information. To revise, we identify a source and validate the claim.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
75% of American pedestrians think that they have the right of way at an intersection.

Revision:
The latest Department of Transportation survey concludes that 75% of American pedestrians think that they have the right of way at an intersection.

Explanation:
While the first sentence simply presents facts, the revision cites a survey.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
California’s ozone pollution is greatest in the cities of Los Angeles, Riverside, and Long Beach.

Revision:
California’s ozone pollution is greatest in the cities of Los Angeles, Riverside, and Long Beach, according to the American Lung Association’s 2015 report.

Explanation:
The validates the claim “California’s ozone pollution is greatest in the cities of Los Angeles, Riverside, and Long Beach” by citing a specific source, the American Lung Association’s 2015 report.


MANAGING PURPOSE CLAUSES

The Short Version

Try to include agents in purpose clauses.

The Long Version

A purpose clause explains to readers why the main action in the sentence occurred and who performed it. Common indicators of a purpose clause include: "to," "in order that," "in order to," "so as to," "so that," and "for the purpose of."

A weak purpose clause requires explanation. Because an action is happening in a purpose clause, it is appropriate to include an agent that performs the action.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
Dinner was eaten early.

Revision:
They ate dinner early so that they wouldn't miss the start of the show.

Explanation:
Why was dinner eaten early and who ate it? The revision answers this question.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
Everyone evacuated the building.

Revision:
Everyone evacuated the building to save their lives.

Explanation:
In the first instance, the purpose clause lacks both agent and reason (or "purpose"). We know why the building was evacuated, but not who evacuated it or why. The revision adds this important information.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
The student pulled an all-nighter.

Revision:
In order to finish the essay on time, the student pulled an all-nighter.

Explanation:
The first version does not include a reason. By providing a purpose, we can make the statement clearer.


CONCLUDING LOGICALLY

The Short Version

Make sure your conclusion is supported by evidence. Make sure your evidence points to no conclusion other than yours.

The Long Version

Good arguments make claims, provide evidence, and draw conclusions. Concluding statements are effective if they follow logically from the assembled evidence.

A conclusion has logical integrity if the evidence points directly to that conclusion. When your evidence suggests a conclusion contrary to the one you have put forth, readers will be confused and unsatisfied with the logic of your argument.

When you're faced with an unsupported conclusion, you have two choices. You can rethink your conclusion so that it reflects your premises and evidence, or you can gather more evidence.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
Frances thinks that restaurant patrons don't tip enough. Frances is a waiter. His claim that restaurant patrons don't tip enough is false.

Revision:
Frances thinks that restaurant patrons don't tip enough. Frances is a waiter, which may explain his interest in the issue. Recent studies indicate that tips always allow waiters to meet the base cost of living. This suggests that Frances' complaint is unfounded.

Explanation:
The first conclusion is based solely on the vested interest of Frances as a waiter. This conclusion is unsupported and offers no evidence. The revised conclusion addresses Frances' potential bias, then proceeds to offer evidence to support a claim.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in the early seventeenth century, yet the action of Hamlet takes place in Denmark at an unspecified time in the past. The play references sixteenth and seventeenth century technology, religious thought, and political theories. Shakespeare didn't do sufficient research when he wrote the play.

Revision:
Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in the early seventeenth century, yet the action of Hamlet takes place in Denmark at an unspecified time in the past. The play references sixteenth and seventeenth century technology, religious thought, and political theories. Hamlet reflects Shakespeare's own time as well as the unspecified time in which it is supposedly set.

Explanation:
The first conclusion is unjustified. It does not reflect the evidence, which proves only that a) Hamlet is set in the past, and b) Hamlet is anachronistic, with references to Shakespeare's time. We offer no evidence, however, to prove that Shakespeare did not do sufficient research.
In revising, we reexamine the evidence and draw a logical conclusion. From the available evidence, we know that Hamlet was set in the past and is anachronistic, with references to Shakespeare's time as well as the fictional time of the play.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
Some schools provide non-nutritious, high-fat meals. Research suggests that a healthy diet aids a child’s cognitive development. Students who regularly eat unhealthy school meals will have low grades.

Revision:
Some schools provide non-nutritious, high-fat meals. Research suggests that a healthy diet aids a child’s cognitive development. Studies have also shown that a child’s grades provide little indication of his or her cognitive development. Regularly consuming unhealthy school meals is unlikely to interfere with a student’s grades.

Explanation:
The original conclusion states the outcome of eating unhealthy school meals is specifically “low grades” without citing evidence that states grades are an indication of a child’s cognitive development. In revising, we include the evidence countering this claim, “Studies have shown a child’s grades little indications of his or her cognitive development,” to support the logical conclusion, “Regularly consuming unhealthy school meals is unlikely to interfere with a student’s grades.”


INDICATING CONCLUSIONS

Detected by WriteLab.

The Short Version

Can your conclusion stand alone without words such as "thus" and "therefore"? If not, consider reevaluating your evidence, argument, and conclusion. If so, consider removing the word.

The Long Version

Valid and convincing arguments need not rely on words such as "thus" and "therefore." These words create the impression that a conclusion logically follows from its premises. To discerning readers, however, these words are superficial: they weaken good arguments and expose bad ones.

This applies to concluding sentences as well as concluding paragraphs. Other phrases that can signify shaky conclusions are "in summary," "in conclusion," "in closing," and "to sum up.”

If your conclusion doesn't seem like a conclusion without words such as these, you might consider rethinking the logic of your argument. How can you indicate that this is a conclusion without relying on "thus," "therefore," or related words?

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
Frances thinks that restaurant patrons don't tip enough. Frances is a waiter, which may explain his interest in the issue. Recent studies indicate that tips always allow waiters to meet the base cost of living. Therefore, this suggests that Frances' complaint is unfounded.

Revision:
Frances thinks that restaurant patrons don't tip enough. Frances is a waiter, which may explain his interest in the issue. Recent studies indicate that tips always allow waiters to meet the base cost of living. This suggests that Frances' complaint is unfounded.

Explanation:
These sentences draw a conclusion based on the evidence they present. Because the conclusion follows logically from the evidence, the indicator "therefore" is unnecessary. It's obvious that the last sentence is a conclusion; pointing it out merely makes the conclusion sound awkward and unnatural.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in the early seventeenth century, yet the action of Hamlet takes place in Denmark at an unspecified time in the past. The play references sixteenth and seventeenth century technology, religious thought, and political theories. Thus, Shakespeare didn't do sufficient research when he wrote the play.

Revision:
Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in the early seventeenth century, yet the action of Hamlet takes place in Denmark at an unspecified time in the past. The play references sixteenth and seventeenth century technology, religious thought, and political theories. Hamlet reflects Shakespeare's own time as well as the unspecified time in which it is supposedly set.

Explanation:
The first conclusion is unjustified. It does not reflect the evidence, which proves only that a) Hamlet is set in the past, and b) Hamlet is anachronistic, with references to Shakespeare's time. We offer no evidence, however, to prove that Shakespeare did not do sufficient research. Additionally, the conclusion is artificially reinforced by the word, "thus."
In revising, we reexamine the evidence and draw a logical conclusion. From the available evidence, we know that Hamlet was set in the past and is anachronistic, with references to Shakespeare's time as well as the fictional time of the play. Because the conclusion is justified by the evidence, we need not prefix it with "thus."

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
Daisy hides her affair with Gatsby because her comfortable life is built on her orthodox marriage to Tom Buchanan. Daisy and Gatsby’s affair is viable only in the utmost privacy of Gatsby’s remote cottage. In conclusion, public judgement hastened the affair’s demise.

Revision:
Daisy hides her affair with Gatsby because her comfortable life is built on her orthodox marriage to Tom Buchanan. Daisy and Gatsby’s affair is viable only in the utmost privacy of Gatsby’s remote cottage. Daisy cannot be in a recognized relationship with Gatsby without upsetting the status quo.

Explanation:
The conclusion that “public judgement hastened the affair’s demise” makes some sense only if the reader guesses from the evidence. An effective conclusion flows directly from the evidence provided. The phrase “in conclusion,” creates a false sense of logical reasoning. The conclusion in the revision is more compelling because it stems directly from the evidence provided.


Asking Questions

Detected by WriteLab.

The Short Version

Consider your argument from all angles to make sure it holds up.

The Long Version

How do you ensure that the prose you write makes sense? That your claims are supported and justified? These are questions that WriteLab can help you with.

WriteLab asks questions to help you think through the implications of your claims. There's no right or wrong answer to these questions, but answering them will help you arrive at a fuller understanding of what you want to say.

You don’t need to answer all of these questions in your essay. Incorporating the answers into your essay can strengthen your argument, but simply thinking about them will give you a clearer idea of what you want to say.

Catachresis

The Short Version

If using unusual combinations of words, make sure the connection between words makes sense to your readers.

The Long Version

Catachresis occurs when we use words in unusual or unexpected ways.

We use catachresis unintentionally when we mistake one word for another. In these cases, it's best to revise with a word that fits the context.

Catachresis can draw connections between words, connections which our readers might not easily understand. These connections may make sense to us, but, unless they make sense to our readers as well, they aren't likely to be of much practical use in communicating.

Sometimes, however, you can use catachresis effectively by manipulating and reworking the meaning of certain words to present your point more vividly and originally.


Introducing unfamiliar ideas to readers

Detected by WriteLab.

The Short Version

Does your sentence say what you mean? Will your readers understand not only your overall meaning but the meaning of each part of your sentence? If not, consider rewriting your sentence.

The Long Version

If you rely on abstract terms without thinking carefully about the meanings that underlie them and your purpose in using them, you can end up generating prose that's incoherent to your readers (and possibly to you as well).

Think about what you want to say. Then reread your sentence. What does it say? Does it communicate the meanings you want? If not, you might consider rethinking your wording and sentence structure.

Look at your original sentence. What, specifically, does each part of it, each clause and each word, mean? Which parts are coherent, and which aren't? Why?

Once you've identified parts of your sentence that don't make sense, you can start to think more concretely about how to rework them. We recommend three steps:

First, you can make these abstractions more coherent by unpacking the idea (adding explanation or examples).

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
As newspapers became cheaper and literacy increased, even middlebrow intellectuals began to fear the ability of the “press baron” to manipulate and control the thoughts and tastes of the middle and lower classes.

Revised:
As newspapers became cheaper and literacy increased, even middlebrow intellectuals, those intellectuals who privileged mainstream culture, began to fear the ability of the “press baron” to manipulate and control the thoughts and tastes of the middle and lower classes.

Explanation:
The first sentence doesn't describe who "middlebrow intellectuals" are. Without this information, readers unfamiliar with the concept of "middlebrow intellectuals" will be lost. The revision provides this information, ensuring that all readers will be able to understand what the agents in this sentence are and how they relate to the rest of the sentence and the draft as a whole.

Second, you might try giving your readers an idea of what this term means, why you use it here, and why it's relevant. Help them situate it in their minds.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
Food is the most fundamental rumination of humankind.

Revised:
Humans think about food before anything else.

Explanation:
The phrase "fundamental rumination" is nonsense — babel, if you will. How can food be a "rumination"? To put it another way, we can use a simpler term for "rumination": how can food be a "thought"? The writer would need to either explain what "fundamental rumination" means, or rewrite the sentence.

Finally, you'll help the coherence of not just this sentence, but your whole draft, by showing readers how this idea coheres with the rest of your draft. How does this idea help you develop your argument? How does it relate to your thesis? Have you referred to it before or will you return to it later?

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
Because most of the injunctions are exposed by creativity, injunctions which relent reminisce to the same extent.

Revised:
Because creative thought exposes injunctions as artificial, some injunctions are enforced less.

Explanation:
No meaning lies behind the clause "injunctions which relent reminisce to the same extent." The revision is our best guess at what this sentence means, but, without clarification from the author, we can't know what the original sentence really means.

You can also try rewriting your sentence. Think about what you want to say, and try writing it again, without looking at your first attempt. Try using a different sentence structure, different words, using several sentences instead of one, and so forth.

EXAMPLE 4:

Original:
We know that a quarantine will inspect authorization.

Revised:
We know that, when a group is quarantined, their authority is undermined. another option We know that you must show the correct authorization to quarantine someone.

Explanation:
The first version of this sentence is incoherent. It's difficult to discern any meanings behind the phrase "inspect authorization" and, even after we've thought of a couple of possible meanings (the two revisions), we still don't know which the author meant. To make the ideas behind this sentence intelligible, we have to rewrite the sentence completely, not rework it.


Using Unusual Modifiers

The Short Version

When you use unusual modifiers, make sure that the logic behind the connection between modifier and modified will be clear to your readers.

The Long Version

Modifiers are simple: they’re words that describe other words. We use modifiers to add detail and energy to our writing. The most common modifiers are adjectives and adverbs, but we can use a variety of other words as modifiers as well; there are even verb forms that can serve as modifiers.

Readers understand modifiers best when they're familiar with them, when they can easily understand the connection between modifier and modified word. For instance, if we modify the noun "sky" with the adjective "blue," readers will easily comprehend our meaning because it's commonly accepted that the sky is blue. If you modify "book" with "best ever," our readers will understand our meaning although they may not agree with it (depending on whether they also think that particular book is the "best ever").

When you use a modifier to provide unexpected details about the modified word, you ask more of your readers. If readers are unfamiliar with the connection you draw between modifier and modified word, they may have difficulty grasping your meaning.

This does not mean you shouldn't use unexpected or unusual modifiers. They can help you convey your meaning in original ways. But when you do use an unusual modifier, you should take care that the meaning that lies behind it is well-thought out. If the relationship between modifier and modified doesn't make sense to you, it's hardly likely to do so for your readers.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
The law-abiding jaywalker crossed the street.

Revision:
The jaywalker crossed the street.

Explanation:
Jaywalking is illegal, so abiding by the law while jaywalking is impossible. The revision acknowledges this.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
The light lead paperweight fell off the desk.

Revision:
The heavy lead paperweight fell off the desk.

Explanation:
If something is made of lead, it is likely heavy. Unless the writer explains this discrepancy, readers will likely be confused. To avoid confusion, we can revise with a more plausible adjective.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
The graceful elephant lumbered across the path.

Revision:
The bulky elephant lumbered across the path.

Explanation:
How is the elephant graceful? In comparison to other elephants, perhaps? These are things the author must specify before we can make sense of the phrase "graceful elephant." Without such explanation, it's most effective to use a more expected modifier, such as "bulky."


writing coherent phrases

The Short Version

When you use unusual modifiers, make sure that the logic behind the connection between modifier and modified will be clear to your readers.

The Long Version

We use modifiers to describe other words. If we refer to the "blue sky," for instance, we're using the modifier "blue" to describe "sky." We use modifiers to add nuanced, descriptive details to our prose, making it more vivid and informative.

In order to interest and inform our readers with modifiers, we must make sure our readers understand the connection between the modifier and the words it describes. When there's no plausible connection between the modifier and the modified words, or if readers are unfamiliar with the connection, readers are unlikely to derive any added value from the modifier. In fact, it may confuse them or discourage them from reading further. If the connection makes sense but is still unlikely to be immediately understood by your readers, you can simply explain it in surrounding words or sentences.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
He pickled the building.

Revision:
He preserved the building.

Explanation:
Since pickling is a way to preserve food, and since buildings (gingerbread cottages excepted) aren't edible, this description doesn’t make a great deal of sense. How can you pickle a building? The revision uses a more accurate verb ("preserved") to describe what was done to the building.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
The fundamental embroidery of the plot was its undoing.

Revision:
The superficial embroidery of the plot was its undoing.

Explanation:
How can embroidery be fundamental? Embroidery is decorative surface level sewing; it doesn't help hold stuff together. To revise, we substitute "superficial," an adjective which more accurately describes "embroidery."

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
I looked through the window of furiously lavender glass.

Revision 1:
I looked through the window of furiously red glass.

Explanation:
The original sentence describes a window made of "furiously lavender glass." This is an unusual combination of modifier ("furiously") and modified ("lavender glass"). Furiosity is an emotion usually reserved for describing living creatures, not inanimate objects. How can a color be furious?

We can draw out the connection between an emotion and a color until it reaches a meaning likely to be understood by our readers. While "furiously lavender" seems odd, "furiously red" might make more sense, because red is a color associated with anger or ferocity.

Revision 2:
I looked through the window of bright lavender glass.

Alternatively, we can change the modifier to something that readers will recognize as commonly associated with the modified. Consider the second revision: "bright glass" is a concept readers are likely familiar with, so saying "bright lavender glass" should cause no confusion.

Figurative Language

You can use figurative language to add interest to your prose. But when you do, make sure that the descriptions you employ are original and will make sense to your readers.


DEALING WITH CLICHÉS

Detected by WriteLab.

The Short Version

Use original phrases, not cliches, to make a stronger impression on your readers.

The Long Version

Clichés are words or phrases that innumerable people have said and written. Rarely specific and never unique, clichés do not reflect original thinking. You will make your point more clearly and effectively if you use concrete words specific to the situation you describe. For instance, instead of using clichés, you can enhance your writing with original metaphors or similes.

Sometimes a metaphor, colloquialism, or expression becomes commonplace when used by many people. Often, we use sayings such as these without thinking much about what they mean. We might say someone was "frightened to death" when watching a horror movie, and we likely don't mean that that person actually died. Our audience will probably know what we mean, but we could convey our meaning with greater strength and emphasis if we used an original description.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
She really lost her marbles when he spilled the beans.

Revision:
She stopped thinking clearly when he revealed everything.

Explanation:
There are two clichéd metaphors in the first sentence. We convey the same meaning more specifically when we simply describe the action.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
Use your own words, not those of others, when you're writing, and to thine own self be true.

Revision:
Use your own words, not those of others, when you're writing.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
She is the apple of my eye.

Revision:
She is very special to me.

Explanation:
The overused cliché, “apple of my eye,” lends little significance to the original sentence. We can revise with our own words to convey the same meaning with more specificity.


Creating Metaphors

The Short Version

Effective metaphors make sense. When writing a metaphor, make sure the comparison you make is backed with logic.

The Long Version

Metaphor compares one thing with another by equating the two. Because it blatantly equates two distinct things, metaphor allows us to draw stronger comparisons than we can with simile or other methods of comparison. We can use metaphors to ask our readers to think about connections between things in new and original ways. Some metaphors have been around for a while ("time is money," for instance), and can be useful when you want readers to understand a concept quickly and immediately. You should, however, be careful not to overuse old metaphors: if you do use an old metaphor, it will be most effective if you use it in a new or unexpected way.

It's important to ensure that your metaphors make sense. An effective metaphor does more than simply sound clever: it also suits the context described. Metaphors work best when logic underlies them.

A copular metaphor equates one thing with another by saying that A is B. It relies on a form of "to be" to do this.

Like all metaphor, copular metaphor relies on the reader to understand that the things equated are not, in fact, identical; metaphors are meaningful lies or exaggerations that push readers to see the things equated in a new light. Metaphors capture our attention because they redefine our experiences in new and sometimes unexpected ways, resulting in powerful images that are stronger and more vivid than many other comparison techniques.

To be an effective comparison technique, metaphors must compare the things they equate. If the things being equated do not share any similarities, the metaphor won’t make sense. Metaphors work when they equate two distinct things which nevertheless share some (perhaps unexpected) characteristics. Metaphors only work when they’re backed with careful thought. An effective metaphor makes sense.

To write an effective metaphor, look for similarities between the two things you wish to equate. Consider actions which they share, or descriptions that could apply to both. What lies behind your claim that A is B?

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
"All the world's a stage..."

Explanation:
The world is not literally a stage. A stage is a platform on which actors, musicians, or other entertainers perform. The world is a rock with some stuff growing on it. But they share some characteristics. A stage has performers on it, people who do actions. If you think of the world as a stage, you might think of people as performers. The author says all this more effectively with metaphor: he equates the world with a stage, he says it is a stage.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
"Time is money."

Explanation:
What characteristics do time and money share? We “give,” “spend,” or “waste” time, and we do the same for money. We often describe both time and money with words like “precious” or “valuable," or with phrases like “I haven’t got enough…” These similarities justify the comparison.

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
"Life is a journey."

Explanation:
This copular metaphor relies on “is,” a form of "to be," to equate “life” with a “journey.”


Using Personification

The Short Version

When you personify something, make sure your readers will understand the connection between the inanimate object and its verb.

The Long Version

We use personification when we give human characteristics to inanimate objects or abstract ideas. One way to do this is to describe inanimate objects (objects which, unlike people, aren't alive) with animate verbs (verbs usually used to describe the actions of humans or other animate beings).

When using personification, it's important to make sure that there is a coherent connection between the inanimate object and the verb that accompanies it.

EXAMPLE 1:

Original:
Opportunity knocks.

Explanation:
Opportunity is not a person. It's an abstract concept, and it can't literally knock. We personify this abstract concept with the human action of knocking.

EXAMPLE 2:

Original:
"Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me…." (Emily Dickinson).

Explanation:
Death is not a person, but here Dickinson describes death as a person, personifying it with the animate verb "stopped."

EXAMPLE 3:

Original:
The star howled.

Explanation:
This example of personification doesn't work as effectively as the others. The connection between stars and howling is not as clear as, for instance, saying something like "The wind howled."

Logic Checklist

  • Use concrete details to support abstract ideas
  • Recognize when you can use abstract terms effectively to write clear and concise sentences
  • Use words such as "probably" and "likely" to describe specific probability rather than uncertainty
  • Recognize the difference between causation and correlation, and support both with adequate evidence
  • Define results when using words such as "enough" and "so"
  • Support statements of fact and other claims with appropriate evidence
  • Clarify the purpose of a sentence by including the agent who performs the action, and why the action is performed
  • Ensure that your conclusions result from the available evidence
  • Write concluding statements that need not depend on words such as "thus" and "therefore"
  • When introducing an idea your readers may be unfamiliar with, include additional information to help them understand your point
  • Double-check words modifying other words to ensure that they make sense: there should always be a plausible connection between modifiers and the words they describe
  • Whenever possible, write original expressions and metaphors while avoiding overused phrases and cliches
  • Compare distinct things which share some characteristic by equating them with the verb "to be," forming a copular metaphor