Friday, April 19, 2013

Grammar and Fallacies

As the semester winds down and we work on the various projects we're juggling, the mind feels a certain tug, doesn't it? 

In one direction, there is the relief and excitement of the fast-approaching summer vacation. No more snow.  And no more lessons describing the difference between APA and MLA--"What do you mean the title is lower case?" "The first initial? You don't spell the name out?" Ah, don't we all love these little moments that prove someone in the world has too much time on his hands.  One (presumably an English major) can imagine the APA board sitting around a table deviously figuring out ways to distinguish its citation system from MLA. One (presumably a social sciences major) can imagine the MLA powers that be engaging in similar acts of deviousness when they gather around their table. 

In the opposite direction, our minds experience something else: a frustration and fatigue that accompanies the increasing demands of our professors. While I sympathize with this psychological tension, I must add my contribution to it. 

Fallacious reasoning is no more acceptable in April or May than it was in January. We have to vigilant with the arguments we construct during these last few weeks. On that note, let's take a look at a fallacy that Gula describes under the heading Grammatical ambiguity.

While some grammatical rules could be enforced a little too scrupulously, it turns out that grammar can affect meaning. And meaning can affect the cogency or soundness of an argument. 

Thus, grammar can affect the cogency or soundness of an argument. Gula identifies [f0ur] kinds of grammatical ambiguity, but in this post I'll only look at three of the more glaring cases.  I'll also quote Gula more than I normally would because I think his examples are clear and concise as are his explanation[s].

1. "Ambiguity can occur over whether a phrase is restrictive or nonrestrictive" (96). Gula then provides the following sentence and subsequent explanation to illustrate his point. 

This proposal is favored only by the workers who are eager to get something for nothing

"If the statement is written, there should be no problem, provided that the writer honors [the principles of punctuation] and the reader understands [them]. But if the statement is spoken, it may be interpreted: 

"This proposal is favored only by the workers, who are eager to get something for nothing" (96).

That comma makes a big difference. Because nonrestrictive clauses require commas and restrictive clauses do not, the meaning of a sentence can change either because of improper comma usage or because when a sentence is spoken instead of written the speaker can convey an ambiguity with a pause or cadence.  

As Gula writes, "The listener might interpret the statement to mean that all the workers are eager to get something for nothing" (96). Such an interpretation, I think, would commit two additional fallacies: Ad hominem and hasty generalization. 

2. "Faulty or incomplete comparisons can contribute to ambiguity" (97). Gula then provides the following examples to illustrate: 
I like Leslie more than Louise.

Gula then provides the following explanation: "This statement can mean 'I like Leslie more than I like Louise' or 'I like Leslie more than Louise like Leslie'" (97).

3.  "There are ambiguous reference of pronouns" (97).

Here is the example Gula offers to clarify what he means:

The police and the fire department are threatening a strike, and the politicians are threatening reprisal. The newspapers claim that their statements are only causing further hostility (97). 

So we notice the pronoun "their" in the second sentence, but it would be nice to know what group of individuals the pronoun refers to. Presumably, police and fire department could both be represented by the pronoun "their," and so could the group of politicians. Thus,  as it stands, "their" could refer to three different nouns. Since the newspapers are claiming that something is true i.e,. "that their statements are only causing further hostility" the charge of fallacious reasoning is warranted. 

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