Language and Thinking

Language / 8.1 Language and Thinking Questions: 0 of 3 complete (0%) | 0 of 1 correct (0%)

Language and Thinking

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When you’re actually doing critical thinking—considering a claim, making a decision, trying to work through a point of confusion, questioning the validity of an argument—how much of this takes place in your head in the form of words?

Language shapes our perceptions and reflects our thinking. And our thinking and perceptions shape our language. The two are inextricably connected.

Critical thinking is harder when your language is vague and sloppy. If your language is ambiguous, terms are not defined, and the issue you’re considering is only vaguely understood, your thinking will be difficult and unproductive. By the same token, when your thinking is unclear, your language will be as well.

This chapter is about the relationship between language and thinking—how unclear thinking muddies language, how definitions clear it up, and how persuasive language shapes our thinking.

It seems appropriate, then, to begin with two crisp definitions:

Form: The literal, grammatical structure of language is called its form. If you were to diagram a sentence, you’d be pulling apart the form.

Intent: Intent is the meaning behind the sentence, or what the speaker intended to convey.

At first glance it seems that these two would be one and the same. “The dog is on the rug” means that, well, the dog is right there, on the rug. But in everyday communication, we know that the intent can be far greater than the form. “The dog is on the rug” might mean “Quick, grab the dog and take him outside before he stains that rug again.”

If your friend asks, “Do you know what the date is?” she is probably not looking for a yes or no answer, and if an employee asks his boss, “Can I leave work early today?” he is probably not seeking affirmation about his physical ability to exit the office building. The purest example of form and intent being at odds is sarcasm, when the speaker means the opposite of what is said. Few sales representatives would take “Wow, awesome job antagonizing our biggest client on the sales call, ace!” as complimentary feedback.

While disparities between form and intent are often obvious, it’s useful to get in the habit of paying attention to them and consciously reading between the lines, especially when the intent of the language is to persuade us of something.

With that settled, we can move on to two great enemies of critical thinking: vagueness and ambiguity.


Vague words or phrases are those where you know the meaning, but they’re relative terms that have borderline instances. Sometimes you still get the gist of what someone’s saying even if you don’t know exactly what they mean by their vague phrase, but other times it does matter.

Hand me that thing.

This may be sufficient given the context.

Somebody stole my stuff!

This may not be enough for the police to go on.

Vague language can be used to the speaker’s advantage. For example, politicians demanding that laws be “fair” without specifying what they mean, advertisers promising that they’re “better” than the competition, and horoscope writers predicting that “something unexpected” is coming are all strategically using nonspecific terms to influence others and to protect their own claims from being disproven.


Ambiguity is a close relative of vagueness. Vagueness comes from an absence of clear definition, whereas ambiguity is created by using a definition open to multiple interpretations. If you use a word with multiple meanings and don’t make it clear which meaning you intend, then you’re being ambiguous.

There are two common types of ambiguity:

· Meaning—If the words themselves can be interpreted in different ways, it’s the meaning that is ambiguous, and we call this semantic ambiguity.

· Arrangement—If the arrangement of the words can be interpreted in multiple ways, it’s the syntax that is ambiguous, and we called this syntactical ambiguity.

Whether Alicia gets a share of her grandmother’s inheritance depends on whether she has the will.

Because the word “will” has multiple meanings, you would need more context to determine whether Alicia’s odds of getting the inheritance depend on her strength of character or her possession of a legal document.

Johann didn’t want to discuss his wife’s affair with his brother.

The arrangement of the words leaves it unclear as to whether Johann is reluctant to have a conversation with his brother about his wife’s affair, or whether his wife had an affair with his brother and he doesn’t want to talk about it.

Tips for Dealing with Unclear Language

· Examine the context in which the ambiguous language is being used in order to figure out the intended meaning.

· Try to avoid ambiguity in your own arguments.

· Watch out for ambiguity in other people’s arguments. If the context doesn’t make it obvious what the arguer really means, it’s legitimate to ask for clarification.

Answer the following questions about the material above.

Which of the following BEST describes the relationship between language and thinking?

· Language and thinking mean the exact same thing.

· The degree to which your language is clear affects the degree to which your thinking is clear, but thinking has no impact on language.

· Language and thinking are completely separate from one another.

· The degree to which your language is clear affects the degree to which your thinking is clear, AND vice versa.


Explain how the following sentence could be read in two different ways: Da’Shawn gave her dog food.

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Natalia claims, “Our society would be better off if we reformed education, improved the health care system, eliminated government waste, and stopped giving handouts to people who don’t deserve it.” Provide at least two examples of vague words or phrases in Natalia’s sentence that would need clarifying before you could truly understand and evaluate her argument.

Language / 8.2 Practice: Language and Thinking Questions: 0 of 7 complete (0%) | 0 of 4 correct (0%)

Practice: Language and Thinking

Multiple Meanings

The fact that the same words can carry multiple meanings illustrates both the beauty and the frustration of language. The first video below is a short film called “Words,” created by Radiolab and NPR, that celebrates the power of small words to mean completely different things in different contexts. The second video, “Language as a Window into Human Nature,” is an RSA Animate narrated by renowned experimental psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker, who explores the cultural functions of ambiguous language and explains why it is so tempting to use.

Watch the video below, and then answer the following questions.

YouTube video. . Uploaded August 9, 2010, by Radiolab WNYC. To activate captions, first click the play button and then click the CC button in the embedded player. For a text transcript, follow the link below.

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How do you think a nonnative English speaker’s response to this video would be different from that of a native English speaker?

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Using one of the words depicted in the video, come up with a phrase that has an ambiguous meaning.

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Watch the video below, and then answer the following questions.

YouTube video. . Uploaded February 10, 2011, by the RSA. To activate captions, first click the play button and then click the CC button in the embedded player. For a text transcript, follow the link below.

How does Pinker describe the bribe offered by the driver in the movie Fargo?

· as a bad idea

· as a point of confusion

· as a social faux pas

· as an indirect speech act


Pinker discusses how the sentence “If you could pass the guacamole, that would be awesome” is really a request or command to pass the guacamole. Which language concept does this illustrate?

· semantic ambiguity

· the difference between form and intent

· the dangers of unclear thinking

· vague generalities


The relationship between you and a person selling you a used car falls into which of Pinker’s three major relationship types?

· business

· communality

· dominance

· reciprocity

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Give an example of a behavior that is acceptable in one relationship type but not in another.

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While vagueness, ambiguity, and indirectness are generally considered negative qualities when you’re aspiring to be a clear speaker and critical thinker, the RSA Animate video suggests that there are times when veiled and indirect language serves a useful purpose in our interpersonal interactions. What hypothesis does the video offer as to why we often avoid explicit language?

· Indirect language creates mutual knowledge, empowering people to come together and challenge the authority of an unjust government.

· Indirect language makes it impossible for the listener to know what we really mean, and thus completely disguises our intentions.

· Indirect language prevents us to moving from one relationship type to another.

· Indirect language creates individual knowledge, while explicit language creates mutual knowledge that we cannot take back.

Language / 8.3 Define Your Terms Questions: 0 of 2 complete (0%) | 0 of 1 correct (0%)

Define Your Terms

Many arguments, conflicts, and disagreements are simply the result of failing to define terms clearly. Likewise, unclear definitions routinely lead to disappointment and unmet expectations among coworkers and customers. Defining terms well is essential to clear thinking and communication in both our personal and professional lives.

Some arguments are based almost entirely on definitions. For example, no one would argue in favor of killing babies, so the abortion debate could be seen as one of competing definitions over when a growth of cells becomes a human being.


The definition of a word is an explanation of what the word means. But meaning can come from more than just the dictionary definition. What follows are four broad categories of meaning that we use regularly to determine what a particular word means in a specific context.

Denotative Meaning

Also known as lexical, semantic, or cognitive meaning. This is the literal meaning of the word and what you would find in the dictionary.

Consider the word “freedom.” If you looked it up in the dictionary, you would probably find a definition something like this:

Freedom: the quality or state of being free: as the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action (Merriam-Webster)

Connotative Meaning

The emotions and values associated with a word, which can have a big impact on the denotative meaning. The word “freedom” brings to mind different concepts among different people:

To Walter, the word “freedom” brings up positive feelings regarding an uninhibited ability to do what you want; to Jesse, it means having numerous lifestyle options; and to Skyler, it refers to political ideals about protected rights.

Syntactic Meaning

Meaning that is established by how a word relates to the other words around it in a sentence. Here the word “freedom” is used to refer to a political right:

One of our natural rights as Americans is the freedom to make our own choices about how to live our lives without interference from the government.

Pragmatic Meaning

What a word means in the full context of the situation—who is saying it, where are they, what’s happening, and so on. In this context, you could assume that “freedom” refers to the right to own and carry firearms:

“One of our natural rights as Americans is the freedom to make our own choices about how to live our lives without interference from the government,” proclaimed the president of the National Rifle Association as the crowd cheered wildly.

Answer the following questions about the material above.

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As mentioned above, many contemporary debates stem from a disagreement over how a word should be defined. Give an example of an issue where the divisiveness is in part rooted in controversy over the definition of a particular word.

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Lynet is flattered when people tell her, “You’re so slender!” She is insulted, however, when people exclaim, “You’re so scrawny!” Her different reactions can most likely be explained by the fact that the words used are different in which of the following ways?

· in their pragmatic meanings

· in their connotative meanings

· in their denotative meanings

· in their syntactic meanings

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Language / 8.4 Practice: Define Your Terms Questions: 0 of 8 complete (0%) | 0 of 4 correct (0%)

Practice: Define Your Terms

How Do You Define “Cult”?

As discussed above, many contemporary debates revolve around confusion about how to define certain terms, and complications often arise when people either disagree over a definition or disagree over whether you can even set a concrete definition in the first place. The following clip from The O’Reilly Factor features political commentator Bill O’Reilly and author and mental health counselor Steven Hassan discussing some of the questions that come up when the government provides federal money to faith-based groups.

Watch the video below, and then answer the following questions.

YouTube video. . Uploaded June 2, 2010, by Slave Obeys. To activate captions, first click the play button and then click the CC button in the embedded player. For a text transcript, follow the link below.

This discussion is essentially about the controversies involved in defining which term?

· faith-based group

· initiative

· belief

· Scientology


What is the first claim made by Steve Hassan?

· The Catholic Church has lost its credibility.

· We should evaluate groups based on their behavior, not their beliefs.

· People do not have a right to believe nonsense.

· Scientology is a dangerous cult.


O’Reilly brings up good things that “controversial religious groups” have done and bad things the Catholic Church has done. What is his point?

· The Catholic Church does not deserve faith-based initiative funds because Catholics have been guilty of controversial practices.

· The Catholic Church uses deception to systematically recruit people and raise money.

· Moonies, Scientologists, and Hari Krishnas do more good than Catholics.

· Evaluating groups based on their behavior is tricky, because most religious groups have done both good and bad things.


At one point, Hassan states that his problem is with “groups that use systematic deception and mind control to undermine people’s ability to think for themselves.” Explain how O’Reilly’s counterpoint can be understood as an argument about definitions.

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Which of the following statements seems closest to Hassan’s central argument?

· People who join cults have weak minds.

· Cults should be outlawed by the federal government.

· Groups that use systematic deception are undeserving of federal funds.

· Cults generally don’t have enough money to be worth suing.

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O’Reilly brings up Tom Cruise’s testimony that the Scientologists “helped him out” as evidence that Scientology has done some good things, and he implies that Tom Cruise is credible because “he doesn’t look like a lunatic.” Do you think this is valid reasoning or an example of the fallacy of unqualified authority? Explain your answer.

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In your opinion, how should “faith-based groups” be defined regarding the issue of government funding?

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Based on the information provided in this video, indicate the extent to which you agree or disagree with the following statement: It’s totally impractical to try to differentiate between cults and faith-based groups.

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· Strongly agree

· Agree

· Not sure

· Disagree

· Strongly disagree

Are you sure?

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Language / 8.5 Word Games Questions: 0 of 3 complete (0%) | 0 of 1 correct (0%)

Word Games

Sometimes we are persuaded without sufficient evidence just because of the language being used. Identifying seven of these misleading patterns will hopefully help you to spot them and avoid being inappropriately swayed by them.


When you substitute a milder, more positive, or more indirect expression for one that is blunt, harsh, or has negative connotations, you’re employing a euphemism. The opposite of a euphemism is a dysphemism—the deliberate use of an expression that has more negative connotations. These words are commonly used in government, the military, corporations, the media, etc.



freedom fighter


enhanced interrogation techniques


collateral damage

civilians killed


firing employees

pre-owned vehicles

used cars

lower income


Emotive Language

Emotive language, also called “loaded language,” is language with strong connotations that produces certain emotions. People often have immediate emotional reactions to certain words, and speakers and writers can take advantage of such reactions in their word selection (this tactic is especially popular in politics and advertising). Sometimes emotive language is blended into observational statements so that the speaker seems to be merely stating a fact when they’re actually issuing a personal opinion.

It’s undeniable that the crime rate in this city has exploded ever since the swarm of freeloading illegals arrived.

Words like “exploded” and phrases like “swarm of freeloading illegals” carry with them strong negative connotations that may distract the audience from objectively evaluating the facts in the argument at hand.

Watch out for arguments that rely heavily on emotive language, especially if the emotive language is in place of factual information and reasoning. We often have psychological tendencies to react to emotive language without taking into account other considerations.


Innuendo is when you heavily imply something without actually saying it. The advantage of using innuendo is in being able to plant an idea in your audience’s mind without having gone on record as actually saying it. Scare quotes can sometimes function as innuendo; so can downplaying your opponent or target.

I suppose my car mechanic wants credit for his “honesty,” since he hasn’t exploited me yet.

While this speaker has not actually made any direct accusations against her car mechanic, the scare quotes around “honesty” downplay the sentiment, and the emphasis on the word “yet” at the end implies that the speaker has good reason to assume that the mechanic will attempt to exploit her in the future.

Loaded Questions

A loaded question is when you pose a question that contains an unjustified assumption.

Did you plan out how you were going to cheat in advance, or did you do it off the cuff?

Since women are smarter than men, shouldn’t they be the ones to run our government?

The first question offers the respondent an either/or situation that requires him to admit he cheated no matter what. The second question carries the assumption that women are smarter than men.

Weasel Words

Weasel words are qualifiers like “possibly,” “may,” “arguably,” “perhaps,” and others that weaken what you’re actually saying in a way that lets you off hook for supporting the full claim even though you’re planting the idea of it in the audience’s mind.

Our studies have suggested that the increase in explicit lyrics in popular music may have a possible link to the rise in teen pregnancy rates.

The fact that the studies have “suggested” that the lyrics “may have” a “possible” link waters down the claim so much that the speaker is not really claiming much of anything at all.

Proof Surrogate

When you hint that you have proof or that evidence is out there, but you don’t actually commit to providing it or citing your sources.

People have said that Dr. Halloway has ties with some controversial pharmaceutical companies. As everyone knows, this will inevitably create a conflict of interests.

The phrases “people have said” and “everyone knows” implies an already-proven, well-known fact, yet the speaker fails to follow up with any concrete evidence and doesn’t identify which people have said or know these things.

Answer the following questions about the material above.

Explain how weasel words function to water down the meaning of the claims in the following advertisement:

Try Hannah’s Homeopathic Headache remedy! Made with the possibly beneficial essences of red onion and stinging nettle, Hannah’s cure may result in noticeable improvement in up to 50 percent of the people who use this remedy!

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Which of the following phrases could be BEST described as a euphemism for “killed”?

· assassinated

· slaughtered

· murdered

· neutralized


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Most contemporary controversial issues are frequently discussed in loaded language. Give an example of how two sides of one issue might describe the same thing differently using either emotive language, euphemisms, or dysphemisms. 📖

Language / 8.6 Practice: Word Games Questions: 0 of 7 complete (0%) | 0 of 4 correct (0%)

Practice: Word Games

Manipulation in Politics

One of the clearest demonstrations of the power of language can be found in the political arena, where thoughtful and deliberate word choice can affect voting behavior and policy change. Consequently, politicians pay particularly close attention to the impact of their words. The first video below presents a segment from a panel discussion on linguistic manipulation, in which psychology professor Drew Westen shows how activating our networks—whether accidentally or deliberately—has a strong influence on what we say and believe. The second video is taken from a presentation by pollster and political consultant Frank Luntz, who describes the importance of word choice and how it is liable to affect voters.

The following link will take you to a video lecture that is broken into 24 segments. You will be asked questions of both segment 14 (Activating Unconscious Networks) and segment 15 (Reagan), which start at the 52-minute mark and end at 58:41. You can select particular segments by using the chapter list located beneath the video player.

The segment begins with an unfortunate verbal error made by a news anchor. What is this used to demonstrate?

· that infotainment is more popular than hard news

· that there is too much smut on television

· that the news media cannot be trusted

· that sometimes our thinking can be manipulated


Which of the following points about emotive language does Westen’s “liberal” example demonstrate?

· Sometimes a word or phrase that functioned as negative emotive language in the past becomes more neutral over time.

· People have always had a negative emotional reaction to the word “liberal.”

· Not only can persuaders deliberately choose to employ emotive language, they can also sometimes even shape emotive language.

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Westen explains how the word “liberal” started out as a positive word but evolved over time to be more negative. Give an example of another word or phrase that used to have positive or neutral connotations but now has negative ones.

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Explain how the language that Westen analyzes in the Reagan ad functions as innuendo.

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Watch the video below, and then answer the following questions.

YouTube video. . Uploaded June 14, 2011, by EaglesTalent. To activate captions, first click the play button and then click the CC button in the embedded player. For a text transcript, follow the link below.

How did the survey respondents react when the question was rephrased to replace the word “welfare” with the euphemism “assistance to the poor”?

· They responded about the same.

· They responded much more negatively.

· They responded much more positively.

· They were confused.


Explain how the word “imagine” is such an effective tool for persuasion.

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According to Luntz, the phrases “lifestyle” and “the good life” affect people differently based on what?

· socioeconomic class

· age

· gender

· race







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