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4.2: Checking If the Meaning Is Clear

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    Sometimes we can identify the point a writer is trying to make, but major questions still remain about what the writer means. A critique can point out the ambiguity--the many possible meanings of some part of the argument. Often arguments are ambiguous because they use words or phrases that have multiple definitions. For example, “We should all support reproductive justice.” There isn’t one widely accepted definition of reproductive justice. Even if readers are aware that the phrase refers to options different groups of women have around pregnancy, they may be wondering if it means access to abortion across racial and economic groups or access to birth control or sex education or some combination of all of those. Are supporters of reproductive justice always pro-choice? What is it exactly that the argument is asking us to support?


    The words "What do you mean?" written in chalk on pavement.
    Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash under the Unsplash License.


    Let’s look at the elements of the border argument we have studied and ask ourselves if any of the statements need to be clarified. Below, question marks indicate statements that are in some way ambiguous.

    The following graphic, a modification of the one seen previously, has the same text but has big yellow question marks behind some of the statements to mark them as vague. The top half of the graphic is a chain of reasons.  The first reason "We would feel it was right to cross the border without permission" is in a box with an arrow next to it pointing to the next reason, "We should recognize illegal crossing as ethical," which in turn has an arrow from it pointing to the reason "Border walls and detention centers are unjust," which points to the final claim, "We need a new policy that offers respect and help to migrants."  This main claim is marked with a yellow question mark to show its meaning is not clearly defined. Below, in red, with an arrow pointing up toward the final claim, is the counterargument "Completely open borders would put our security at risk."  Below the counterargument, the response to the counterargument has been changed to blue, and the response is labeled “Rebuttal/Limit: there are ways to regulate the border without criminalizing people." This response is labeled with a yellow question mark to indicate its vagueness, and still has an arrow from it pointing up toward the main claim to show that it supports the main claim.  In addition, two limits in blue type have been added and both are marked with yellow question marks to show they are vague.  The text “[Limit: If we were in desperate circumstances]” has a blue arrow pointing upward to the first reason to indicate that it modifies the statement “We would feel it was right to cross the border without permission."  Next to it, the text “[Limit: If migrants cross because of desperate circumstances]” has an arrow pointing up to indicate that it limits the second reason, “"We should recognize illegal crossing as ethical."

    In our assessment, we can describe any areas of ambiguity by adding questions to our summary of the argument. Let’s look at some sample writing about the ambiguities marked with question marks in the map above.

    • When the author limits her claim to migrants in “desperate circumstances,” what does she mean? She describes this in different words in different places, calling the migrants people “who are driven by need and good intentions” and giving the example of a parent “raising children in an impoverished third-world community plagued by violence.” But we might find it important to ask where she draws the line between desperation and discontent. Does she want to check first to see how desperate migrants are? Would she consider it appropriate to put an immigrant in a detention center for trying to cross illegally if they were wealthy and safe in their country of origin?
    • What does she mean by “help”? The word makes us think of humanitarian relief: handouts of food, shelter, and medical care. How much material assistance is she talking about and how much money does she think the United States should spend on this? Doesn’t the current system provide some material assistance, in part through the detention centers? More fundamentally, does “help” mean that she wants us to let migrants in? Would she still consider it "help" to assist them to settle in another country or to improve their life in their country of origin? How would either of those versions of "help" work? We might imply that she should specify her meaning. Or we might suggest that she left the concept of "help" ambiguous because there is no good answer to these questions: there is no satisfactory way to offer people a better life where they came from, and we cannot endlessly support them at the border.
    • What does she mean by “regulate”? The word sounds reassuring, but it implies some control and yet she is talking about not keeping people out. If you can’t turn people away, what kind of control or safety guarantee can you have? Does she just mean inspecting them for arms and drugs? Or does she mean some kind of extensive background check? But in that case, wouldn’t we need detention centers while we waited for the result?

    Phrases for pointing out what is not clear

    We do not need any special vocabulary to point out ambiguity, but sometimes seeing typical phrases can help jumpstart our thinking. Here are some approaches:

    Ask a question

    • What exactly does she mean by _____________?  

    Describe the author’s actions and shortcomings

    • He seems to imply that _____________, but leaves ambiguous whether or not that means_____________.

    • They fail to clarify what exactly _____________ refers to.

    • He does not define what he means by _____________.

    • She explores _____________, but fails to articulate a clear message.

    Refer to the argument’s failure to clarify

    • This leaves open the question of _____________.

    • The argument never specifies whether _____________ or _____________.

    Refer to readers’ probable confusion

    • Readers will wonder if they mean_____________ or _____________.

    • Readers may be confused by the shifting meaning of the term “_____________.”

    • Many will interpret _____________ to mean _____________, but some might also take it to mean _____________. 


    How much of a problem is the lack of clarity?

    Since our goal in an assessment is to decide how effective we think the argument will be at getting its point across, any charge of vagueness implies some failure to communicate that point. This becomes a critique. But is it a minor flaw in the argument, or does it mean that the whole argument has no validity? The seriousness of the critique depends on how central the lack of clarity is to what the writer is trying to claim in the argument and whether there is an obvious way to clarify the argument or not.

    Sometimes we can make an educated guess as to what the author meant based on clues we find in the rest of the argument. We can describe what the most likely meaning is but still note why readers might reasonably have another interpretation. Sometimes it isn’t possible to figure out what the author means. In our assessment, we just have to put our finger on what isn’t clear. 

    The lack of clarity may not be a serious flaw if we can make a reasonable guess as to what the author intends based on the rest of the argument.  We can simply point out such a case:

    • The writer does not specify whether _____________ or _____________, but we can infer that _____________ because _____________.

    It also may not be too serious if it is a side point rather than a central point that needs to be clarified. In that case, we might want to think about how one clarification or another might affect our assessment.  We can specify in our assessment that we support the argument if it means what we think it means but not if it means something else.

    However, sometimes the vagueness covers a fatal flaw in the argument, a difficulty, contradiction, or gap that cannot be explained away.  One particular kind of ambiguity that undermines the argument is when the writer uses a word in two different ways while acting as if it only has one meaning. A change in a word’s meaning, whether intentional or not, can lead to an unjustified conclusion. This is called equivocation.

    For example, consider the following paraphrase of an example found on

    "No medical professional should be allowed to intentionally harm a human. What is a fetus if not human? How, then, can anyone dispute that abortion is wrong and should be illegal?"

    There may or may not be legitimate reasons to oppose legal abortion. However, the above argument does not hold up because it depends on a sleight of hand, a shift from the idea of a human, meaning a human being, to the adjective "human," which can apply to anything with human cells and DNA, including hair and toenails. We can tell that the above argument is faulty if we substitute "fetus" for "hair" to construct a similar argument:

    "No medical professional should be allowed to intentionally harm a human. Surely our hair and fingernails are human, not animal. Therefore cutting hair and nails should be illegal."

    The question any argument about abortion needs to resolve, of course, is whether a fetus can be considered a human being, not whether a fetus has human cells. So this ambiguity of meaning means that the reason and the claim are not talking about the same thing.  The reason doesn’t really lead to the claim.  

    In our assessment, we need to indicate how much of a problem the vagueness is for the overall validity of the argument. 

    • This ambiguity undermines the author’s claim that _____________.

    • Without knowing _____________, we cannot conclude that the author is right that _____________.


    Practice Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    In a few sentences, give your opinion on an issue related to current events. Make a short argument with a claim and at least one reason. Then, exchange arguments with a classmate.  Read your classmate’s argument and write down at least one clarifying question. Can you imagine a way in which two readers could get different ideas about what they mean based on what they wrote? Is there a term they are using that could mean more than one thing?  

    Here are some ideas for phrasing such direct requests for clarification:

    • You seem to imply that _____________, but I wasn’t sure whether or not that means_____________.

    • Can you clarify what you’re referring to when you say _____________?

    • Could you define the term  _____________?  Some might think of _________, while others could imagine you mean __________.

    • I’m interested in the way you explore the issue of ___________, but I wasn’t sure I understood what you wanted to argue in the end. Did you mean _____________?

    • I wondered if you meant_____________ or _____________.

    This page titled 4.2: Checking If the Meaning Is Clear is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anna Mills (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .