A Primer to Logic: The Different Uses of Words

My previous post listed at least five ways in which the word “argument” can be used in the English language. Though most people understand what is meant when the word “argument” is used in a conversation, it can become problematic if two people use the same word but in different ways. Thus, if individuals seek to develop arguments regarding an issue with the goal of moving forward in a particular matter, it is important that they are clear in what terms connotes and denotes. In the next two posts, I will discuss matters relating to the use of words.

Use and mention of words. The basic unit of any language is its words. How words are used and ordered impacts the meaning behind what you communicate, and how you understand the words used influences whether you accurately understand the intended message or not. Before we discuss the difference between connotation and denotation, it is important to distinguish between the use of a word and the mention of a word. According to Patrick Hurley, failing to make such a distinction results in potentially mislabeling a word or phrase as the subject of a sentence.[1] Such a basic error can then lead you to misunderstanding the point of the argument and thus mistakenly accept or reject it.  For instance, consider the following two sentences:

  • Augustine believed that the Donatists were out of unity with the Church.
  • Unity is a key theme in Augustine’s anti-Donatist writings.

In sentence 1), the word “unity” is mentioned. The subject of this sentence is not “unity” but Augustine, particularly his view of the Donatist schism. If sentence 1) were part of an argument (whether as the claim or a supporting reason), you would need to understand who Augustine was and the nature of his view of the Donatists in order to appreciate the argument. Unlike sentence 1), the word “unity” in sentence 2) is used; that is, it serves as the subject of the sentence. Therefore, the impetus is on you to know what Augustine meant by “unity.” Did Augustine mean that the Donatists were out of step with some of the key doctrines of the Church? Or, did Augustine infer that the Donatists were no longer a part of the true Church and therefore were schismatics?  How you understand Augustine’s use of “unity” will dictate, in part, how you interpret his anti-Donatist writings and his overall argument regarding the Donatists’ lack of unity with the church.

It is worth pointing out that the subject of a sentence includes any proper name, common name, or descriptive phrases. For instance, the subject of the sentence “The author of the Epistle to Diagnetus sought to persuade Diagnetus of Christianity’s truthfulness” is a descriptive phrase: “the author of the Epistle to Diagnetus.”  “Of the Epistle to Diagnetus” qualifies the word “author,” dictating to the reader the specific author in question. Words that cannot serve as the subject of the sentence are verbs, nonsubstantive adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and all nonsyntactic arrangements of words.[2]  In short, it is key that you are able to identify the subject of a sentence. Failure to do so will result in at least a skewed view of the argument and at worst a misguided analysis or critique.

Emotive and cognitive use of words. When identifying the subject of a sentence, you distinguish those words that give cognitive meaning versus those that give emotive meaning. Emotive words are those that seek to express or conjure up emotions about a particular person, idea, or thing (“nonsubstantive adjectives” mentioned above can be emotive words). For example:

The narrow-minded, backwards conservative Right continues to wage a dying campaign against same-sex marriage.

Such a sentence represents a prevalent attitude toward conservative Christianity’s view on marriage. Such a claim, however, contains unnecessary emotive language with the adjectives “narrow-minded” and “backwards.” Such terms carry no cognitive meaning, conveying information that aids the argument; rather, they seek to evoke feelings of dissatisfaction (at the least) with the political Right. Further, the emotive language can cause the audience to form a negative opinion of the Right that can color their assessment of the claim. Rather than focus on whether the claim is worth accepting or rejecting, any unsuspecting person can accept the claim as is based off of the emotion evoked by the nonsubstantive adjectives “narrow-minded” and “backwards.”

Another emotive word is “dying.” Such a word betrays the arguer’s attitude toward the Right’s campaign against same-sex marriage, but it is not necessarily the case that the campaign is dying. Unless the arguer has earlier made an argument stating that the campaign is dying, then the use of the adjective “dying” only serves the purpose of evoking negative emotions toward the Right as opposed to aiding the overall argument.

The cognitive use of a word refers to its conveying information. That is, its use is not to influence the audience to feel or think a certain way regarding a person, idea, or even. The cognitive use of a word is primarily intended to state something that is (or is believed to be) the case as a means of supporting one’s main idea. Now, the arguer may be wrong—that is, the information they convey with their choice of words may not be correct. However, their intent is not to verbally coerce others into thinking a certain way; instead, the arguer seeks to provide clear and direct support for their claim. Using the previous example, a less-emotive and more cognitive use of words looks like: The Right continues to fight against same-sex marriage.

While the claim of an argument is the opinion of the arguer, it ought to be stated such that emotive language is avoided. The use of emotive language discredits the argument regardless of whether the point made is accepted or not. Whether the arguer intends to or not, the use of emotive words is a sign of lazy thinking and usually indicates the arguer’s inability to support their claim. Though this route taken may result in wider acceptance of the argument, it does little by way of promoting truth.

© John Daniel “Danny” McDonald, PhD and Philosophical Lagniappe, 2017-18


[1] Hurley, A Concise Introduction to Logic, 82.

[2] Hurley, A Concise Introduction to Logic, 82.

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