Generally Speaking

Contributed by Janette Siu on 19 February 2009 at 14:24

In high school, your English teacher might have taught you the "inverted triangle" approach to writing introduction paragraphs, in which you start with a broad statement and narrow it down to your thesis statement over the course of four or five sentences. While this is not the worst approach for starting a paper, it can lead to a serious condition known as Generalization Syndrome (GS). Students quickly discover that the easiest way to achieve the inverted triangle is to start with the broadest possible statement, so as to maximize the number of topics that they can mention between the first sentence and the thesis. This can lead to openings such as:

Since the dawn of time, all of mankind has needed food.

While this sentence is certainly true, and doubtless succeeds as the "broad" part of the inverted triangle, it is such a painfully obvious statement that there should be no need to write it down. This is an example of GS Type 1: the sentence is so blatantly indisputable that it is entirely unnecessary to the paper. The effects of GS Type 1 include bland writing, superfluous prose, and loss of readers' interest.

Fortunately, if you identify the symptoms, GS is entirely curable. One of the most common symptoms of Type 1 is a sweeping statement that encompasses all of humanity or all of history. Watch out for phrases such as "Throughout all time," "Since the beginning of the universe," or "All the people of the world." (Notice that the example sentence above has two all-inclusive phrases.) Another symptom is saying, "Well, duh!" after reading a sentence. If you identify an offending statement (and it might not be at the beginning of your paper), remove it and consider replacing it with something more specific and less obvious. For example, instead of the sentence above, you could write:

Ever since prehistoric man domesticated the cow, beef has been a common source of protein for many cultures.

Note that this statement does not include all cultures. If it did, it would be an example of GS Type 2:

Ever since prehistoric man domesticated the cow, beef has been a common source of protein for the entire world.

GS Type 2 is characterized by a sweeping statement that is not true. Some religions, especially Hinduism, consider the cow sacred and therefore do not eat beef products; vegetarians would not eat beef either. The effects of GS Type 2 are found in the reader and may include doubting the point of the argument, taking offense, or being distracted by thinking of exceptions to the statement. GS Type 2 is usually caused by excessive zeal in framing an argument; a writer thinks that if he can make an absolute statement (saying that something is always true for everybody, or never true for anybody), the stronger language will strengthen his argument. However, a false statement will detract from a writer's credibility rather than adding to it.

Common symptoms of GS Type 2 are words like "everyone," "nobody," "all people," "anything," "always," "never," and "without exception." Before using these phrases, always be sure that what you're saying is actually true; since very few things are "always" or "never" true, try to avoid using language like this. If you are absolutely sure that a statement is true, check to make sure that it has not been infected with GS Type 1 instead.

If you find a sentence afflicted with GS Type 2, modify it so that it is a true statement. Words like "most," "often," "some," "usually," "many," "frequently," "few," "commonly," and "probably" are your allies in defeating this disease.

Carefully cure your composition of generalizations, and you will have a happier and healthier paper!

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