Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Enthymemes Connect Reasons to Conclusions, and Build Bigger, Better Papers

Enthymemes? What the what?

The American English Dictionary defines an enthymeme as

"an argument in which one premise is not explicitly stated."

In other words: Because A = B, and B = C, then it follows that A also = C.

Even Wikipedia knows all about enthymemes and offers an example:
“Socrates is mortal because he's human.”
The complete formal syllogism (or enthymeme) in the classic is as follows:
    A. All humans are mortal. (major premise = assumed);
    B. Socrates is human. (minor premise = stated);
    C. Therefore, Socrates is mortal. (conclusion = stated)
The word enthymeme was used by the Greek philosopher Aristotle when, in his treatise on rhetoric, he needed to describe how reasoning works informally in our everyday arguments where we do not necessarily use the mathematically rigid forms of logic.

In Greek, the term combines en = into, and thymos = soul, to suggest the way that reasoned language is able to produce belief. Aristotle called the enthymeme the “body (or substance) of proof.”

The relationship created between a reason and a conclusion is not self-contained. It makes implicit reference to other ideas that help to bind the reason to the conclusion, making it seem to follow.

Here is an example of enthymemes used in an actual argument, in a brief passage from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail:
“A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama, which set up the state’s segregation laws, was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?”

Conclusion: Alabama’s segregation laws are unjust.
Reason: Those laws were inflicted on a minority that had no role in enacting them.
Assumption: Any law that is inflicted on a minority that had no role in enacting it is an unjust law.
The reason here is itself the conclusion of another enthymeme:
Conclusion: African Americans had no role in enacting Alabama’s segregation laws.
Reason: African Americans were prevented from voting for the state legislature.
Assumption: Anyone prevented from voting for the legislature has no role in enacting laws passed by that legislature.

In other words: because A = B, and B = C, therefore A = C.
Your thesis statement (disguised as an enthymeme) begins to operate like so:

Because 'A' is true, therefore 'B' and 'C' are also true.

Question: “How do enthymemes help me build bigger, better papers?”

Answer: Enthymemes help to build a bigger, beefier thesis statement that also helps you structure your paper. (For you vegans out there, this is only a metaphor.)
The paper can now be written with the enthymeme in the place of a thesis statement. The next few paragraphs will flow more easily with that bigger, better, more forceful powerhouse (i.e., the enthymeme) on your side.

Remember: Because A = B, and B = C, therefore A = C.

*To pronounce the word, "enthymeme," go here: http://youtu.be/C0tMcoMleZg

Friday, August 23, 2013

On Misplaced Modifiers

On our second day of orientation, the new batch of English graduate assistants working in the writing center[1] this year took the grammar section of the College Level Academic Skills Test (CLAST). The test was brief, 40 questions in all, and self-graded. Taking the test served several functions, not least of which was to quickly check any budding egos. The main reasons were to provide the graduate assistants with a heads up on their own grammatical miscues and to prepare them for forthcoming questions from students.

While many of the questions on the test were discussed, one in particular frustrated me to no end, causing me to think about nothing else for the rest of the orientation, and to continue speaking about the subject over the weekend until my girlfriend threatened to brain me with the nearest blunt object if I didn’t shut up.

The test directions were to “Choose the sentence that expresses the thought most clearly and effectively and that has no errors in structure.” The question focused on misplaced modifiers, and went as follows:

A.      John left the classroom immediately after the last speech.
B.      John immediately left the classroom after the last speech.
C.      Immediately, John left the classroom after the last speech.

The author chose answer “B.” To his great consternation, the correct answer is “A.” While both answers are grammatically sound, the people of CLAST apparently believe that A expresses the thought most clearly and effectively.  In an attempt to decipher the logic behind the answer, the author and other assistants came to the conclusion that A comes closest to how people actually speak. This in itself is a satisfactory answer, except that it touches on a long-standing grammar debate between “prescriptivists” and “descriptivists,” the two camps fighting over the very nature of the English language in a winner-take-all battle.[2].

As a rule of thumb, you want to have the modifier as close as possible to whatever is being modified in order to avoid confusion. The prescriptivist Brian Garner provides some great examples of misplaced modifiers, including ‘“Both died in an apartment Dr. Kevorkian was leasing after inhaling carbon dioxide.”’[3] In this example, the writer means that the people died after inhaling carbon dioxide. However, due to misplaced modifiers, the sentence gives the impression that Dr. Kevorkian leased the apartment after inhaling carbon dioxide. A rewrite that erases the confusion would be “Both died after inhaling carbon dioxide in an apartment Dr. Kevorkian was leasing.” Note that the modifier (inhaling carbon dioxide) is much closer to the verb being modified (died) in the rewrite.

Originally, I thought A was not the best choice because it placed the modifier (immediately) further away from what was being modified (left). It turns out, dear reader, that I was hopelessly incorrect! In A, "immediately" is not modifying "left" at all. Instead, "immediately" is acting as a qualifier for the adverbial preposition "after the last speech." 

There are some interesting differences between qualifiers and modifiers, but that will have to be taken up in another post. However, here is another example of a qualifier (with some hip lingo thrown in): "That kid is wicked smart!" In this example, "wicked" is acting as a qualifier for the adjective "smart." How smart is the kid? The kid is wicked smart. 

Alright, I have one last thing to say about modifiers. Another common mistake is what is referred to as a "squinting" modifier. Take for example the sentence, "The tugboat chugged along noisily blowing its whistle." It is unclear whether the adverb "noisily" refers to the tugboat chugging along or to the tugboat blowing its whistle.

All of that is to say, choosing where to place the sentence’s modifiers carefully avoids confusion.[4]

Author's Note: I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to Dr. Shonk, who provided much needed guidance with this post. He also came up with the tugboat example. 

[1] Please come visit us. If you don’t, we’ll spend all of our time talking about inane subjects like whether Mark Twain was a briefs or boxers sort of guy. (The author posits boxer-briefs).
[2] I’m stealing this from a great essay by David Foster Wallace titled “Authority and American Usage,” but suffice it to say that a “prescriptivist” would be someone like your middle school grammar teacher who circled every sentence ending with a preposition with a red felt pen in a paper you handed in before drawing frowny-faces in the margins. A “descriptivist,” on the other hand, would be someone like your middle school art teacher who told you that the most important thing in the world was to express your own, special and totally unique soul in whatever way your heart desired.Or, as Dr. Shonk explained, a prescriptivist is someone who explains "how" something should be said, while a descriptivist is someone who explains "what" is actually said.
[3] Garner, Brian. Modern American Usage. 3rd Edition. 540. Oxford UP, 2009.
[4] See my point?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

EIU President Bill Perry: The Power of Words

This part of our video interview with President Bill Perry was first posted here on April 11, 2011.  We offer it to you again as we inaugurate the Fall 2013 semester.