Vague Language, Generalizations

Vague Language

  • refers to language that is underdeveloped, lacks substance, and is needlessly abstract
  • has an excessive number of non-specific adjectives like good, bad, okay, pretty, happy, and sad, which give an audience only a superficial and general sense of emotion or description.
  • lacks concrete and sensory language
  • uses qualifiers like sort of, kind of, and generally without further explanation.

Vague Generalizations refers to

  • a sweeping statement about a group of people, things, topic.

There are many reasons why a writer’s pose style may be described as weak or underdeveloped. Here are just a few possibilities:

Vagueness

Teachers in school settings as well as readers in workplace settings abhor vagueness. If you say, “Research suggests that drinking grape juice lowers cholesterol,” they’ll ask, “What research? How was the research conducted? Who conducted the research? Did the results appear in a credible source?”

When writing, you may use words or phrases that convey rich meaning to you. A word like “stuff” or “thing” can encapsulate other words, stories, and events in your mind, but in your readers’ mind the words can mean something altogether different.

Are vague descriptions always wrong?

Not always. Sometimes vague descriptions may help you build suspense. Some rhetorical situations may warrant intention vagueness  

Typically, however, vagueness undermines communication. For example, instructions for assembling furniture should be very specific. New furniture owners need to know to “Attach Board A to Board B using two hex screws.” Vague instructions that read “Hook the two longish boards together with some screws” won’t be very helpful to someone trying to assemble a desk.

Vague descriptions can also affect persuasive writing. If you are not specific about exactly what you are trying to convince the reader to believe, you will not be as successful. Readers typically respond more enthusiastically to concrete details and specific examples rather than vague suggestions of ideas.

How can I tell if I have a vague description?

It can be hard to tell if your writing includes vague descriptions. After all, you already know what you mean to say. To identify vague descriptions, read your writing with your audience in mind, and share your writing with a reader to ask where the descriptions are vague or unclear.

As you read through your document, question whether language is as specific and exact as necessary by considering ways to make the language more descriptive:

  1. Have I used any words that need to be “unpacked,” words that mean a lot to me that readers may not understand without additional clarifications?
  2. Have I appealed to the five senses when possible?
  3. Have I used the first-person voice as opposed to the passive voice, when appropriate?
  4. Have I defined terms and concepts the reader may not understand?
  5. Have I provided specific examples to support my claims?
  6. Have I provided evidence and cited the evidence as required by my readers?

Generalizations

A generalization is a sweeping statement about a group of people, things, a topic, etcetera. These statements often make assumptions about a characteristic that applies to all of the people or things in the group. It is best not to make these kinds of statements because they usually do not make an accurate representation of the group or topic. These generalizations may be partly based in truth; however, they are not necessarily true in all cases and therefore should be avoided. Basing an argument upon a generalization makes the argument unsound.

Here are some examples of generalizations:

  • Pit bulls are aggressive.
  • Rich people are greedy.
  • Beautiful people are conceited.
  • Politicians are corrupt.
  • People who commit crimes come from troubled backgrounds.
  • College students love partying.
  • The death penalty kills innocent people.
  • Marijuana users are lazy.

These are generalizations because they make sweeping claims about entire groups of people. While the characteristic may be true in one or some cases, they simply cannot be true in all cases and, therefore, such statements are to be avoided.

How to Avoid Generalizations

Here is a list of guiding questions to assist in avoiding generalizations.

  • Does the statement make an assumption about a group of people, things, or a topic?
  • Can the statement be backed up in my evidence?
  • Is the statement true in all cases? If not, have I sufficiently explained exceptions to the statement?
  • Have I considered situations in which this statement may not apply?

The Toulmin Model of Argumentation

One way to ensure that an argument is strong is to use a format known as the Toulmin Method. This provides an outline of the sections of the argument and ensures that the writer has properly addressed the demands of strong argumentation. Use this outline as a skeleton for the paper. Each of the parts of the outline would be expanded into the different sections of the paper.   Below is a brief outline of the Toulmin Method, along with some examples.

Claim: The thesis or overall argument.

Example: Mashed potatoes are superior to baked potatoes.

Data: Evidence gathered to support the claim.

Example: Mashed potatoes lower the rates of heart disease.

Warrant: Explanation of how the data or evidence supports the claim.

Example: Mashed potatoes are clearly a healthier option than baked potatoes, making them a better food choice.

Backing (if necessary): additional reasoning/explanation to support the warrant and the data provided.

*Keep in mind: You should repeat the process of providing data and warrants (along with additional backing) several times throughout the course of your paper. These examples make up your body paragraphs.

Counterclaim: Another opinion that refutes your main claim (also known as the opposing side).

Example: Many claim, however, that baked potatoes are superior to mashed due to the amount of toppings and sides available for baked potatoes.

Rebuttal: In this section of the paper, you answer the counter argument and demonstrate why it is erroneous.

Example: It is true that there are many more toppings available for baked potatoes than mashed potatoes. However, there is no reason why someone could not use those same toppings for mashed potatoes. This fact gives baked potatoes no advantage over baked. Therefore, mashed potatoes maintain their superiority over baked potatoes.

Think about the Toulmin method when organizing an argument. These points are meant to serve as an outline of the paper. Remember that the claim (or thesis) must be supported by data. Each data point or piece of evidence must be accompanied by an appropriate explanation or warrant (and additional backing, if necessary) to explain how that data supports your claim. Also, be sure to address and refute the counter argument to show consideration of the opposing side but also know how to show that an argument is superior.