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1.11: Evaluating Language

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    Yet another rhetorical technique that is commonly encountered in argumentation is the use of evaluative language to influence one’s audience to accept the conclusion one is arguing for. Evaluative language can be contrasted with descriptive language. Whereas descriptive language simply describes a state of affairs, without passing judgment (positive or negative) on that state of affairs, evaluative language is used to pass some sort of judgment, positive or negative, on something. Contrast the following two statements:

    Bob is tall.

    Bob is good.

    “Tall” is a descriptive term since being tall is, in itself, neither a good nor bad thing. Rather, it is a purely descriptive term that does not pass any sort of judgment, positive or negative, on the fact that Bob is tall. In contrast, “good” is a purely evaluative term, which means that the only thing the word does is make an evaluation (in this case, a positive evaluation) and doesn’t carry any descriptive content. “Good,” “bad,” “right,” and “wrong” are examples of purely evaluative terms. A more interesting kind of term is one that is partly descriptive and partly evaluative. For example:

    Bob is nosy.

    “Nosy” is a negatively evaluative term since to call someone nosy is to make a negative evaluation of them—or at least of that aspect of them. But it also implies a descriptive content, such as that Bob is curious about other people’s affairs. We could re-describe Bob’s nosiness using purely descriptive language:

    Bob is very curious about other people’s affairs.

    Notice that while the phrase “very curious about other people’s affairs” does capture the descriptive sense of “nosy,” it doesn’t capture the evaluative sense of nosy, since it doesn’t carry with it the negative connotation that “nosy” does.

    Evaluative language is rife in our society, perhaps especially so in political discourse. This isn’t surprising since by using evaluative language to describe certain persons, actions, or events we can influence how people understand and interpret the world. If you can get a person to think of someone or some state of affairs in terms of a positively or negatively evaluative term, chances are you will be able to influence their evaluation of that person or state of affairs. That is one of the rhetorical uses of evaluative language. Compare, for example,

    Bob is a rebel.

    Bob is a freedom fighter.

    Whereas “rebel” tends to be a negatively evaluative term, “freedom fighter,” at least for many Americans, tends to be a positively evaluative term. Both words, however, have the same descriptive content, namely, that Bob is someone who has risen in armed resistance to an existing government. The difference is that whereas “rebel” makes a negative evaluation, “freedom fighter” makes a positive evaluation. Table 3 below gives a small sampling of some evaluative terms.

    beautiful dangerous wasteful sneaky cute
    murder prudent courageous timid nosy
    sloppy smart capable insane curt

    English contains an interesting mechanism for turning positively evaluative terms into negative evaluative ones. All you have to do is put the word “too” before a positively evaluative terms and it will all of a sudden take on a negative connotation. Compare the following:

    John is honest.

    John is too honest.

    Whereas “honest” is a positively evaluative term, “too honest” is a negatively evaluative term. When someone describes John as “too honest,” we can easily imagine that person going on to describe how John’s honesty is actually a liability or negative trait. Not so when he is simply described as honest. Since the word “too” indicates an excess, and to say that something is an excess is to make a criticism, we can see why the word “too” changes the valence of an evaluation from positive to negative.

    Like assuring and discounting (section 1.10), using evaluative language to try to influence one’s audience is a rhetorical technique. As such, it is more concerned with non-rational persuasion than it is with giving reasons. Non-rational persuasion is ubiquitous in our society today, not the least of which because advertising is ubiquitous and advertising today almost always uses non-rational persuasion. Think of the last time you saw some commercial present evidence for why you should buy their product (i.e., never) and you will realize how pervasive this kind of rhetoric is. Philosophy has a complicated relationship with rhetoric—a relationship that stretches back to Ancient Greece. Socrates disliked those, such as the Sophists, who promised to teach people how to effectively persuade someone of something, regardless of whether that thing was true. Although some people might claim that there is no essential difference between giving reasons for accepting a conclusion and trying to persuade by any means, most philosophers, including the author of this text, think otherwise. If we define rhetoric as the art of persuasion, then although argumentation is a kind of rhetoric (since it is a way of persuading), not all rhetoric is argumentation. The essential difference, as already hinted at, is that argumentation attempts to persuade by giving reasons whereas rhetoric attempts to persuade by any means, including non-rational means. If I tell you over and over again (in creative and subliminal ways) to drink Beer x because Beer x is the best beer, then I may very well make you think that Beer x is the best beer, but I have not thereby given you an argument that Beer x is the best beer. Thinking of it rationally, the mere fact that I’ve told you lots of times that Beer x is the best beer gives you no good reason for believing that Beer x is in fact the best beer.

    The rhetorical devices surveyed in the last two sections—especially assuring, discounting and the use of evaluative language—may be effective ways of persuading people, but they are not the same thing as offering an argument. And if we attempt to see them as arguments, they turn out to be typically pretty poor arguments. One of the many things that psychologists study is how we are persuaded to believe or do things. As an empirical science, psychology attempts to describe and explain the way things are, in this case, the processes that lead us to believe or act as we do. Logic, in contrast, is not an empirical science. Logic is not trying to tell us how we do think, but what good thinking is and, thus, how we ought think. The study of logic is the study of the nature of arguments and, importantly, of what distinguishes a good argument from a bad one. “Good” and “bad” are what philosophers call normative concepts because they involve standards of evaluation.4 Since logic concerns what makes something a good argument, logic is sometimes referred to as a normative science. They key standard of evaluation of arguments that we have seen so far is that of validity. In chapter 2 we will consider some more precise, formal methods of understanding validity. Other “normative sciences” include ethics (the study of what a good life is and how we ought to live) and epistemology (the study of what we have good reason to believe).

    4 We encountered normative concepts when discussing normative statements in section 1.9.

    This page titled 1.11: Evaluating Language is shared under a CC BY 3.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Matthew Van Cleave.