The Useful Manipulation of Language
Using Picturesque Language
It is often useful for writers to explain a concept through artistic or descriptive prose. This strategy can serve as an icebreaker for a full argument, or it can bring clarity to a simple subdivision of a larger piece. For instance, if a writer wanted to discuss the effects of homelessness on a community or a population of people actually living outdoors, he or she might begin an essay with an extended description of what a homeless camp might resemble. Lizzy Acker, a reporter for Portland’s The Oregonian newspaper, does just this in her piece “Life on ‘Tweaker Island'”:
On a peninsula that juts out into the Columbia Slough sits a homeless camp that underscores the contradictions, challenges and beauty of living outside.
The area, known to some longtime residents as “Tweaker Island,” is not an island and doesn’t really contain any “tweakers.” Instead, it’s home to a fluctuating family of roughly 30 men and women, a community built around a core group of older homeless people, many in their 50s, struggling to make it together among the blackberry bushes across the slough from the Portland International Raceway.
Acker’s story then uses both photography and written text to illustrate the juxtaposition between a harsh standard of living and the natural beauty of one of Portland’s many urban parks.
Another useful way of employing picturesque language is to literally manipulate an audience into visualizing a concept being explored in the text. In her award-winning article “The Really Big One,” Kathryn Schulz does an admirable job of coaxing her audience into understanding how the movement of tectonic plates might ultimately spell disaster for the people of the Pacific Northwest:
Tectonic plates are those slabs of mantle and crust that, in their epochs-long drift, rearrange the earth’s continents and oceans. Most of the time, their movement is slow, harmless, and all but undetectable. Occasionally, at the borders where they meet, it is not.
Take your hands and hold them palms down, middle fingertips touching. Your right hand represents the North American tectonic plate, which bears on its back, among other things, our entire continent, from One World Trade Center to the Space Needle, in Seattle. Your left hand represents an oceanic plate called Juan de Fuca, ninety thousand square miles in size. The place where they meet is the Cascadia subduction zone. Now slide your left hand under your right one. That is what the Juan de Fuca plate is doing: slipping steadily beneath North America. When you try it, your right hand will slide up your left arm, as if you were pushing up your sleeve. That is what North America is not doing. It is stuck, wedged tight against the surface of the other plate.
Without moving your hands, curl your right knuckles up, so that they point toward the ceiling. Under pressure from Juan de Fuca, the stuck edge of North America is bulging upward and compressing eastward, at the rate of, respectively, three to four millimetres and thirty to forty millimetres a year. It can do so for quite some time, because, as continent stuff goes, it is young, made of rock that is still relatively elastic. (Rocks, like us, get stiffer as they age.) But it cannot do so indefinitely. There is a backstop—the craton, that ancient unbudgeable mass at the center of the continent—and, sooner or later, North America will rebound like a spring. If, on that occasion, only the southern part of the Cascadia subduction zone gives way—your first two fingers, say—the magnitude of the resulting quake will be somewhere between 8.0 and 8.6. That’s the big one. If the entire zone gives way at once, an event that seismologists call a full-margin rupture, the magnitude will be somewhere between 8.7 and 9.2. That’s the very big one.
Flick your right fingers outward, forcefully, so that your hand flattens back down again. When the next very big earthquake hits, the northwest edge of the continent, from California to Canada and the continental shelf to the Cascades, will drop by as much as six feet and rebound thirty to a hundred feet to the west—losing, within minutes, all the elevation and compression it has gained over centuries. Some of that shift will take place beneath the ocean, displacing a colossal quantity of seawater. (Watch what your fingertips do when you flatten your hand.) The water will surge upward into a huge hill, then promptly collapse. One side will rush west, toward Japan. The other side will rush east, in a seven-hundred-mile liquid wall that will reach the Northwest coast, on average, fifteen minutes after the earthquake begins. By the time the shaking has ceased and the tsunami has receded, the region will be unrecognizable. Kenneth Murphy, who directs FEMA’s Region X, the division responsible for Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska, says, “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”
Her harrowing piece won a Pulitzer Prize as a keen example of what the agency called an “elegant scientific narrative.” Much of that elegance stems directly from Schulz’s use of picturesque language in literally guiding her audience through a potential geological catastrophe.
Skillful writers implement a variety of strategies to establish a connection with their audiences. Some of the strategies that follow work well in creating that connection through artistic phrasing, colorful description, or clear explanations of difficult or abstract concepts. Other strategies (such as some of those found in the “Shortcuts” subdivision) listed in this section should be avoided by the judicious writer. (1)
Directions: Select each topic below to reveal information on each one.
Using Concrete Language
When writers describe the literal, physical dimensions of a subject or concept, they are using concrete language. This compositional style surfaces often in technical writing, where engineers, architects, assessors, or appraisers must carefully record and describe details and dimensions of a building project or a plot of land. Location, size, and topography are often chronicled in a straight-forward passage of concrete description, which should be reported without subjective or personal influences. (1)
Concrete and Abstract Language
Experienced writers develop a knack for using both concrete and abstract language in advancing their arguments. Concrete language describes actual objects, circumstances, and events, and these passages are typically laden with adjectives. In The Structure of Argument , Annette T. Rottenberg and Donna Haisty Winchell note:
…arguments use abstract terms far more extensively than other kinds of writing. Using abstractions effectively, especially in arguments of value and policy, is important for two reasons:
- Abstractions represent the qualities, characteristics, and values that the writer is explaining, defending, or attacking.
- Abstractions enable the writer to make generalizations about his or her data. (282)
Remember that inductive reasoning relies heavily on generalizations about a specific body of supporting materials. Terms like “beauty” or “altruism” are subjective, which can make it difficult to advance a line of reasoning in describing them. A writer might use concrete language (velvety, dark crimson roses), for instance, to describe an abstraction (natural beauty).
While writers should, where appropriate and applicable, incorporate picturesque, concrete, and abstract prose in their writing to inspire reader interest and describe concepts accurately, there are also some strategies they should avoid when it comes to the manipulation of language. Many of these strategies are what we might call argumentative “shortcuts,” and they often fall into the categories of logical fallacies due to their brevity or irrelevance.
Some Common Shortcuts
Clichés are expressions, phrases, or idioms that have grown stale through overuse. Relying on a cliché as part of the rhetorical process can be viewed as weak or lazy argumentation, simply because many of these statements are too “common” or antiquated. Who in modern life, for instance, actually has to avoid anything “like the plague”? Common clichés include phrases such as “opposites attract,” “as old as the hills,” and “time heals all wounds.” If a writer finds himself or herself resorting to a cliché to drive home a particular point, it might be time to go back to the well. Oh, wait…hold your horses while I revise the conclusion of this segment…
Slogans are used to deliver brief, truncated messages. They are designed to become memorable, although they represent underdeveloped and overly simplistic ideas or solutions. Companies often attempt to brand themselves with slogans. Wal-Mart, for instance, implores its potential audience of shoppers to “Live better.” The message is concise, optimistic, and instructive (the inverse of the message would be to “Live worse,” so the slogan implies that shopping at Wal-Mart is an intelligent choice), although it never delves into the actual experience of visiting a Wal-Mart store. It doesn’t address Wal-Mart’s business model or trade practices.
Think of slogans as “bumper-sticker” arguments. If an ideology can be summarized on a bumper sticker (and many can, unfortunately), then it probably shouldn’t find its way into your collegiate writing.
Sometimes, a writer can use language to sanitize an unpleasant or unmentionable act or ideology. The most common example we encounter is using the phrase “passing on” in the discussion of death and mortality. Astute job seekers exchange boring, ordinary phrasing in their resumes for more dynamic choices. Oregon, for instance, is one of two states (along with New Jersey) that prohibits self-service at gas stations. In Oregon, the workers that pump gasoline are called “petroleum-transfer technicians.”
A recent, high-profile example of the public use of euphemisms occurred in Texas in 2015. The state board of education voted to unilaterally revise their K-12 textbooks to refer to the slave trade as the “Atlantic triangular trade” (Moser).
The use of euphemism can be, depending on the intent of the writer and the context of the rhetorical situation, viewed as a fallacy of diversion. Arguers need to carefully deliberate on how they position certain subjects in their work and which terms they use to advance their arguments. (1)
Each of these tactics is an example of the thoughtful use of language. As always, writers should step back and appraise the communication situation, the size and context of the argument being advanced, and the piece’s intended audience before making critical choices on how to incorporate them into an argument.
Another important component of advancing successful arguments is the author’s use of definition. Definition is, of course, important for clarifying the grounds of an argument, but it can also be used as an organizational approach to writing about such vague and ambiguous terms as “success,” “terrorism,” and “abuse.” Courses in rhetoric, philosophy, and political science often include definition essays as assignments so that students can practice the activity of applying specific criteria to a vague concept. (1)