We don’t get to know the intended message. The only thing we can do is guess. When a good guess at the intended message seems worth the analysis, there are a few things to watch for. They’ve been part of writing (and speaking) for a long, long time.
Logical patterns are fairly easy to spot in the wild; they contain any of the following.
- either, or
- all, every
- if, then
When you see these words, you are very likely seeing the surface feature of something logical – some potential clue about an intended message. The thing to remember is that, for example, in the case of an “and” statement, you are seeing a sometimes-implicit, sometimes explicit claim about the truth of at least two statements.
statement one is true AND statement two is true
E.g., It is cool and breezy outside today.
This could be translated into:
It is cool outside today AND It is breezy outside today.
If, just for the moment, you represent each of these provable statements about the weather as variables, then you’ll start to see why paying attention to logical patterns can be useful when dealing with more complex statements. We can even use a symbol for the “and” feature.
A = It is cool outside today
∧ = and
B = It is breezy outside today
So, we could represent this innocuous claim about coolness and breeziness as: A ∧ B. And, if we can assume that this statement was not preceded by something like, “The following is a lie,” or by a sarcastic facial expression, then we can safely assume that each statement is true. If they are each true, then we can confidently go forth knowing that the entire original statement is true. If it’s cool out, but not breezy, then the whole original statement – because of the “and” – is not true; if it is breezy and hot, the original statement is false.
Intuitive, right? For simple sentences that no one really cares too deeply about, this kind of logical reconstruction is, well… a breeze. Cool.
The Truth Problem
I leave it to you to experiment with the rest: the either/or statements, the if/then statements, and the rest. Find out firsthand how words can signal (or how they can explicitly be) claims about truth. Soon enough, you might find yourself thinking about true-for-me versus true-for-you or true-for-someone-else. Oof. This is a problem.
Could we, for example, agree on a definition of “truth”? I heard a definition once, somewhere long ago, that I liked: Truth is correspondence with reality. But as concise as this definition may be, it really just points out, in a tidy way, the underlying mystery of “reality;” are we talking about my reality? Yours? Someone else’s? Arg! Back to square one!
When I am attempting to understand – to make, for some reason, an intelligent guess about – an intended message, I need to at least understand that logical patterns exist and use specific truth-related rules. As readers and listeners, we may not get to a 100% rock solid place in such analyses, but I think you need to at least be aware of the way these core communication elements function. When people write and speak, they often make implicit statements about truth and reality, and there are systematic ways to perform an analysis. This, for me, is step one: comprehend the statement. You have to decide how much context and how much depth is sufficient for your purposes.
If English were just math, we’d be done. A ∧ B. Done. But English is English, and English contains more than just logical patterns.
In the quest to guess a writer’s intended message, you can also watch out for figurative language – or, as I sometimes call them, analogies. Implicit metaphors. Statements which are only true/false within a broader, assumed context characterized by an analogy.
In his latest podcast episode, Bert really knocked it out of the park.
Okay, let’s talk about knocking things out of parks. The writer of this statement is likely confident that his readers are familiar with this idiomatic phrase. Of course, there are many scenarios wherein such a choice could fail. What if the audience is completely unfamiliar with baseball? The same things that make English arguably ‘colorful’ also potentially make English remarkably difficult.
And again, here’s a relatively harmless-looking sentence – but what happens when the truth claims hidden in a non-literal statement are weightier matters?
Incidentally, I chose the word, “weightier,” to illustrate another degree of analogy – another form of figurative language. It’s not just the idiom (knocking it out of the park) that you have to watch for in your analyses of intended messages, but also the core-level, embedded analogies: as when something is described as having substantial weight as a way of suggesting it has substantial importance.
The Persuasion Problem
If all we ever wanted was to know the truth and be set free by it, we might do well to just abandon English and go straight to variables and mathematical equations. The problem is, as I’ve suggested, people have all sorts of opinions about reality. True-for-me things might directly oppose true-for-you things; if the two worldviews oppose each other and there is some kind of power, or freedom, or lifestyle at stake, then declarative statements take on a new function.
To me, persuasion is bizarre. We use language to try to change people’s worldview. I might almost concede that this sounds like a fun game – and one in which interesting, good things can happen. But I suspect that there is more to the phenomenon. What if, for example, someone skillfully uses language to convince me of something that isn’t true? Or, what if I don’t want my worldview altered? Is there, at least, some method by which I can understand when this is happening?
Yes. And that is why I decided to focus, in this episode, on “intended messages,” impossible as they may be to know with certainty. Even if a writer’s intentions are ultimately private – and even if the truth and reality discussion is equally challenging – we, as readers and listeners, can at least recognize that persuasion, for example, is happening. Or trying to happen. Part of how we do this is by matching our own proof against that offered by those who would persuade us. Eventually, we each make a decision about depth of analysis and logical soundness.
Recognizing Persuasion in the Wild
Some of the words to watch for when analyzing persuasive messages:
- should, could, would
These are just a few that come to mind. The shoulds and coulds of the world, remember, are suggesting a reality that may not currently exist. Either/or statements are a great place to offer pairings of options at the expense of third, or fourth, or nth alternatives. And comparatives and superlatives neatly package comparisons into a three-chambered construction – likewise designed to have me choose from the provided list, and potentially comprised of suggested worldviews.
Reading for purpose, or seeking the intended message, is how we decipher a writer’s trajectory. The line between “informative” and persuasive prose is not distinct, and knowledge of purpose or intention can only be guessed. The guessing, however, is worthwhile; the popular alternative is frequently a noisy, sensationalist, and surface-level fight.