Language and rhetoric - summary of chapter 2 of Critical thinking: A concise guide by Bowell & Kemp (4th edition)

Critical thinking
Chapter 2

Language and rhetoric

Linguistic phenomena

Once we’ve determined that a text or a speech contains an attempt to persuade by argument, the remainder of argument-reconstruction is largely a matter of interpreting the speech or text as accurately as possible.


Ambiguity can be used, often deliberately, to obfuscate the content of an argument or rhetorically to obscure the persuaders true point.
A sentence is ambiguous in a given context when there is more than one possible way of interpreting it in that context.

There are two types of ambiguity:

  • Lexical ambiguity
  • Syntactic ambiguity

Lexical ambiguity

Lexical ambiguity: a property of individual words and phrases that occurs when the word or phrase has more than one meaning.

Extension: the set or group of things to which an expression applies.
(for example, the extension of the word ‘cow’ are all the cows in the world).

An ambiguous word or phrase has two or more separate and different extensions.
Ambiguous words and phrases can bring their ambiguity into sentences, making those sentences capable of having more than one possible interpretation.

Words that are potentially lexically ambiguous are not necessarily ambiguous in every context.

When interpreting sentences that are lexically ambiguous, we have to focus on the context in which they are written or said and the consequent probability of each of the possible interpretations being the correct one.

Syntactic ambiguity

Syntactic ambiguity: when the arrangement of words in a sentence is such that the sentence could be understood in more than one way.


The meaning of a word or expression is vague if it is indefinite or if it is uncertain what is conveyed by the word in the context under consideration.

Sometimes, someone aware of the weakness of their own position will deliberately leave their meaning vague in order to camouflage that weakness and to evoke strong feelings of approval or disapproval in their readers or listeners.

Words can also have a clear meaning, but which have an indefinitely demarcated extension.
(like colors)

Primary and secondary connotation

The rich secondary connotation (bijbetekenis) of some words provides a further source of vagueness.

Primary connotation: a given thing falls within a word’s extension if, and only if, it fist a certain rule associated with the use of that word.
(For example, the rule for the noun ‘ram’ is ‘male sheep’).

This rule will be some set of characteristics which, by definition, everything to which the word applies must have.
All of a term’s primary connotation must apply to an object for that term to apply to it.
If you know the primary connotation of a term, then you at least know the necessary and sufficient conditions for something to count as part of that term’s extension.

Secondary connotation: the further characteristics of a term.
(like a ram is woolly)

Things that fall under the term will generally exhibit these characteristics, but there is not logical contradiction in supposing there to be a thing that falls under the term but lacks a characteristic included under the secondary connotation.

In the case of vague words, the distinction between primary and secondary connotation tends to break down, or be difficult to draw.

The secondary connotation of many words gives the sentences in which they appear their rhetorical force.

Metaphors often function by bringing only the secondary connotation of a word into play.
In most cases the primary connotation is in fact not true of the object or person in question.

In the course of interpretation, we should take care not to treat metaphors as literal claims and not to confuse a metaphorical use of a word with an ambiguous one.

Rhetorical questions

Rhetorical questions: take the form of a question but indirectly assert a proposition. They are not really used to ask a question, but to make a point in an indirect way.

You should avoid rhetorical questions.


Irony: a form of language that, taken literally, would convey the opposite of what they wish to convey, or something very different from it.

Implicitly relative sentences

Implicitly relative sentences: sentences that make a comparison with some group of things, but that comparison is not explicitly mentioned.
(for example; it is the best of its kind)

Implicit relativity is often compounded by other sources of vagueness.

Problems with quantifiers

Quantifiers: words and phrases that tell us how many/much of something there are/is, or how often something happens.
Not all quantifiers specify an exact quantity of the thing, rather, they provide a rough guide.

There are three potential problems with quantifiers:

  • speakers and writers don’t always use quantifiers with sufficient precision, so that the proposition they intend to convey is unclear and open to misinterpretation and rhetorical abuse.
  • Some quantifier-words and phrases are themselves vague.
  • Often people omit quantifiers

Counterexamples: cases that we use to challenge the truth of a generalising claim.

Quantifiers and generalisations

Generalisation: a statement about a category of things.
There are two types of generalisations:

  • Hard generalisations
  • Soft generalisations

We use soft generalisations when we want to express the idea that such and such tends to be true of certain things normally, typically, generally, usually, on average, for the most part.

Hard generalisation does intend it to apply without exception.

If someone makes a claim that is intended as a hard generalisation and we can find a counterexample for it, then we have refuted their claim.

Quantifier-free generalisations are not typically intended as hard generalisations.

Soft generalisations are rhetorically dangerous.

  • many people are not very clear about the possible ambiguities of such a statement. It might wrongly be taken as a hard generalisation or otherwise misinterpreted.
  • Generalisations (even soft ones) about groups of people do often cause people to take offence.

Aspects of meaning

Depending on how we use a sentence, it may express aspects of meaning additional to its factual, propositional content.

Rhetorical force

Rhetorical force: the rhetorical aspect of a sentence’s meaning.
It is not part of the propositional content that it expresses. It is the emotive or otherwise suggestive window dressing surrounding the proposition, which may be used to persuade us.

The sentence in question can reasonably be taken to express this rhetorical message given the linguistic connections according to which the words involved are normally used.


Implicature: meaning which is not stated but which one can reasonably take to be intended given the context in which the sentence is written or uttered.

Implicature cannot typically be interpreted according to conventions covering our ordinary use of the words in the sentence used.
In order to recognise implicature, we need to know the context in which a statement is made.

Contextual factors include who the speaker is, who she is addressing and the circumstances surrounding the particular use of the sentence.

Implicature can serve as a source of rhetorical power when the unsaid, implied aspect of a sentence’s meaning is employed to stimulate responses motivated by emotion or prejudice.
It is also a way of communicating something without incurring the full responsibility of having explicitly said that.

A statement implicates a given proposition only if a listener who is fully aware of the relevant context would reasonably take that proposition to have been intended.
Something can be implicated even when the speaker does not intend it.


Definitions: tell us what it takes for something to qualify as a particular type of thing.

A dictionary definition of a word explains the normal use of a word by providing synonyms for its various uses.

Some definitions tell us the necessary and sufficient conditions for counting that kind of thing.
The necessary conditions for being something or some phenomenon X are the conditions that a thing must satisfy if it is to count as an X.

When devising definitions we start with some plausible candidate(s) for necessary and sufficient conditions. We then test them by seeing if there are any counterexamples to them.
When faced with a counterexample, we either alter the definition to accommodate something we strongly believe should count as a case of the X in question, or accept the definition and admit that the thing in question does not count as a case of X.

Rhetorical ploys

Attempts to persuade us in ways that appear to provide motivation for doing or believing something but do not give us good reasons to do or believe that thing fall into two categories:

  • rhetorical ploys
  • fallacies

Neither rhetorical ploys nor fallacies provide us with good reasons to do or believe that of which they attempt to persuade us.

Fallacies are argumentative, they give reasons why their conclusion should be accepted, but they constitute bad reasoning.

Rhetorical ploys are non-argumentative. Some of these persuasive devices may pretend to provide reasons for accepting a claim, but their real persuasive capacity depends on something non-argumentative.

Rhetorical ploys typically make a more or less direct appeal to feeling an emotion rather than to reason, which is the domain of argument.

Appeals to specific feelings

Appeal to novelty

Often this ploy appeals to our desire not to miss out on a new trent, or arouses our fear of appearing outdated in our tastes.
Sometimes it appears to our (vain) sense of ourselves as flexible and willing to try out new experiences.

It may also persuade us that, because the product is new, it must be an improved version of the existing product.
The appeal can be employed to persuade us to adopt new ideas or beliefs.

Appeal to popularity

This ploy appeals to our desire to run with the crowd, not to appear different from the norm and not to miss out on what others have.

Appeal to compassion, pity or guilt

This ploy operates by attempting to move us to do something purely by evoking a feeling of compassion towards the recipients of the suggested act or belief, or a feeling of guilt about their plight.
The feeling alone does not provide a good reason for us to perform the act in question.

Appeal to cuteness

This rhetorical technique supplements its words with images of children, animals, or animated characters to deliver a message. The product that we are urged to buy or the action we are urged to take is made to seem attractive by its association with the cute character that urges us to buy or take it.
The appeal can also work by helping us to remember a product via its association with the cute figure delivering the sales pitch.

Appeal to sexiness

Similar to the appeal to cuteness, but it uses a different image.
It has also a further dimension. To those would desire the sexy person depicted in the advertisement, the product is made to seem desirable by its association with the sexy person. It also seems desirable to those who would like to think of themselves as sexy in the way that the sexy person is.

Appeal to wealth, status, power, hipness, coolness, ect.

By analogy with the appeals to cuteness and sexiness

Appeal to fear (also known as scare tactics)

Trying to elicit fear in one’s readers or listeners in order to influence their behavior and attitudes.

The appeal to fear should be distinguished from genuine warnings. In instances of the fromer, there is not warranted connection between the fear elicited and taking the suggested course of action or accepting the claim.
In the case of a warning, we are given a good reason to act. This is usually because the circumstances of the warning are themselves such as to warrant the belief that the warning is well-founded.

Appeal to ridicule

This ploy occurs when a speaker/writer attacks their opponent’s position or claim by casting it in a light that will make it seem ridiculous to their audience.

The direct attack and hard sell

A direct command.
For example ‘Say no to higher tuition fees’ or ‘drink tea’. We are given no reason to drink tea.

The hard sell is the direct attack repeated persistently.

The belief of those who use the direct attack is that the more we hear or read these commands and internalise them, the more likely we are to do as they advocate, despite having been given no reason to do so.

Scare quotes “”

This tactic is a means of influencing opinion against a view that one opposes.
The speaker/writer takes key words in terms of which their opponent expresses their views and attempts to discredit those views by making them appear ridiculous or suspicious through scare quotes.

No reason is given for rejecting the view, we are simply manipulated into rejecting it because it has been made to appear ridiculous or suspicious.

This tactic can also be used more subtly, but to similar effect. In such cases an opponent’s opinion is made to seem dubious by placing scare quotes around words used to describe what would be perfectly normal, acceptable facts about them.

Trading on an equivocation

This ploy deliberately exploits the ambiguity, and in some cases the vagueness, of a word or phrase in the given context. Although nothing false is claimed, the speaker or writer manages to influence our actions or beliefs by misleading us.
It is generally used when someone attempting to persuade us of the benefits and virtues of their policy or product.

To equivocate is misleadingly to use the same word in more than one sense. The ploy is to get us to interpret a message in a way that favours the product or view being advanced.

The ploy of equivocation also occurs when someone attempts to mislead with statistics by saying something that is true, but which they expect their audience to understand according to an interpretation that is false.

Trading on implicature

Using a statement’s implicature to mislead the audience. Since the proposition implicated is not actually stated by the speaker, the speaker can hope to avoid responsibility for having misled the audience.

Many questions (aka leading question or complex question)

The tactic of posing a question that appears to seek an explanation for some proposition, p, thereby misleadingly implying that p is true.
(For example, why do cats fly?)

Smokescreen (changing the subject)

This is the tactic of avoiding discussion of an issue or acknowledgement of a point through diverting or distracting one’s opponent from the issue at hand by addressing a different (possibly related) issue. The issue is irrelevant to the discussion, thereby acts like a smokescreen by obscuring our view of the real issue.
The more subtle the smokescreen, the more effective at distracting the listener or reader it tends to be.

Buzzwords, jargon and acronyms


The technique of using fashionable or otherwise currently ‘hot’ words or phrases that are loaded with rhetorical power due to their rich secondary connotation.
Buzzwords can be enormously provocative and therefore had to tame, and this makes them especially problematic for the critical thinker.

If we want to make an objective analysis of a passage or speech act, we should rephrase what is said or written in such a way as to eliminate the buzzwords, and then embark on the analysis.


Jargon: an often impenetrable way of speaking or writing that uses words or phrases that are likely to be unfamiliar to most of the audience, or which uses familiar words in unfamiliar ways.
Like buzzwords, jargon tends to develop over time.

Jargon wields strong rhetorical power.
If you use jargon correctly then you appear to be ‘in the know’, one of the in-crowd.
It functions to provide its users with a kind of exclusivity and excludes those who don’t understand or know how to use the insider’s language.

Jargon is also used to obscure the true meaning or implication of what’s being said.


Acronyms are a series of initials used as though they are a word to provide an abbreviation (afkorting) for a name or phrase.
The rhetorical power of use of acronyms lies in their ability to create insiders who are able to decode them and understand what they are being used to convey, and to exclude those who aren’t ‘in the know’.

Acronyms tend to obscure what’s being conveyed.

When we use acronyms we should do so with attention to what is appropriate in the context of our audience.


The term ‘spin’ is a way of referring to techniques that employ rhetorical ploys to good effect in influencing people’s opinions.
If we don’t really understand the phrase, then the spin will have done the job of obfuscating what is said, thereby making us less likely to understand and to oppose it.

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