Saturday, August 06, 2005

Adjectives are Bad, Adjectives are Blue

Adjectives are bad / Adjectives are blue...
Adjectives are mad / And so are you

If you are trying to reason about facts, it can be hard to wade through a highly charged "modifier forest" of debate. I have a simple discipline I am cultivating in myself (mentioned in a comment on that I'd like to share with you.

Edward de Bono points out that it's easy to use adjectives to poison- or sugar-coat just about anything (my terms, not his). This generalizes to all modifiers, of course.

If you want to describe the chair pictured here in a complimentary fashion, you can call it "iconic" or gush about how it is "tensegrity-embodying" (though it actually isn't); if you want to make it sound like it's going to be torture to sit in or get out of, you can call it "angular" or "unforgiving".

For most sighted speakers of English, adjectives such as "blue" (referring to color) are pretty safe... we take them as objective or falsifiable. "Blue" in the sense of "sad" is more variable from person to person, and in the slightly archaic sense of "naughty", it's all in the eye of the beholder -- or so said the US Supreme Court.

Adjectives can go from bad to worse, so to speak. If, instead of "blue", someone said, "That chair is bad", I'd be stuck with at least a partial puzzle (unless I agreed with that evaluation) -- What makes it bad? Is it broken? Is it possessed by a demon? Or what? And so it goes.

The flip side of this is the bald, ostensibly unmodified declaration, of the forms
  • (entity) is (quality-loaded-nominalization)
  • (entities) are (quality-loaded-nominalization)
  • (entities) (verb)
There are no adjectives, right? What these are really is masked generalizations with implicit modifiers (as is this sentence itself--please try to find a counterexample!)

Just in case you were wondering, two sample utterances of that kind might be

"Republicans are thugs", "Democrats are idiotarians".

What is being indicated implicitly is hard to decipher. Usually, in passionate rhetoric, what I suspect is being intended when someone says one of those things is something like:
  • (entity) is FOREVER|ALWAYS (quality-loaded-nominalization)
  • ALL|EVERY (entities) are ALWAYS (quality-loaded-nominalization)
  • ALL (entities) (verb)
I have to continually remind myself to plug those in before proceeding with the editing steps.
  1. I remap the sentences by removing as many highly-charged adjectives as I can, and then substituting as follows:
And then I try to see if the utterance is consistent with what I think I know about the world, and base my communications on that as much as I can (assuming communication is what I wish to achieve).

If this sounds like part of the "Metamodel" of Grinder and Bandler, it's with good reason. It's also akin to something called the "Yes, And..." principle, from improvisational theater. As someone wrote,
By saying yes, and you are forced to accept what the other person said and move on
The downside of doing this too much is that you can sound insincere, or unsympathetic, or like a hyperlogical twit ("Damn you and your Vulcan logic, Spock!"). Those are bad things -- if they're not the intention of your communication :). If you want to alienate, or infuriate, go for it. But do it consciously, please.

The upside of doing this with some sincerity and grace is that you can sometimes defuse a situation and keep a conversation going.

It all depends on the Quality both parties bring to the conversation.




Anonymous Anonymous said...

What if we just treat adjectives as suggestions? In fact, all words in natural language are suggestions. With our word choices, we convey impressions and generalities, any of which are demonstrably wrong, but possibly informative, even so.

The ambiguity of language actually is one of its strengths, partly because we can easily express unfinished thoughts, such as the thought I have in mind right now.

-- James Bach

07 August, 2005 17:32  
Blogger Nortius Maximus said...

I know exactly what you mean, maaaaan.

Treating adjectives as suggestions is a good idea. It's something we ordinarily introduce later in the course, Mr Bach... :)

What I was aiming for here was one simple drill-like way to approach polarized, intense discussions without getting sucked into a emotional snap reaction -- either pro or con.

The ambiguity of speech is also one of the important reasons that de Bono's "Critical Thinking is Cheap Thinking" has such scope.

Of this, more later.

07 August, 2005 17:41  

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