Defining Your Terms to Win the War of Words

Is there any kind of communication or conversation that we have to negotiate and deal with more than argumentation? I don’t think so. While performing dissertation editing, I always concentrate on the strength and soundness of the writer’s thesis or argument.

All communication is an argument of some kind

In a practical sense, who isn’t always arguing—excuse me, talking—with your spouse, partner, friend, boss, underling, or complete stranger in the tube or a bar or while standing in line for a table, tickets, or tram? Arguments—I mean, discussions, of course—break out routinely, nauseatingly, incessantly, as we homo sapiens tend to want our way, viewpoint, gripe or gut reaction heard, known, and heeded. Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re the passive, silent, non-confrontational type and you keep it to yourself. But it’s highly likely that your silence is just disguising a raging interior dialogue with the offending person who can’t hear what’s going on inside your head.

All those arguments and disagreements, conflicts and debates can be broken down into four types of claims, inferences, appeals, or approaches to whatever topic is being bandied about. It helps to understand yourself, if not the other person. We’re all coming from our own paradigm, our own set of assumptions, perceptions, biases, and experiences. To successfully argue, it helps to know where we’re all at, so to speak.

It all starts with definitions

So many contentious conversations and positions are stuck in park, frozen in stone, two fists striking at each other, knuckles cracking over sheer misconceptions about definitions. We’re arguing about two different things. We don’t define our terms the same way. You think a word, a concept, a subject means one thing, while your opponent or adversary thinks it means another. I even have such debates with the staff at my dissertation editing service. Even fellow PhDs regularly disagree about the exact meaning of certain terms or words.

The dictionary has multiple definitions of a word

As with the other three types of claims, we have to be honest with ourselves, go to the source, perhaps even a dictionary, to be sure we’re on the same page. Usually, it takes more than a dictionary. It takes articles, studies, books (plural) to straighten out the fundamental meaning of what we’re arguing about.

Take conservatism vs. liberalism. There’s as many conceptions of those terms as there are people on the planet. I was perusing Quora today (a great Q&A social media site) and that was one of the hottest questions du jour. What do the terms mean? You can’t even begin to intelligently and soberly debate the issues affected by the dichotomous terms until you know the person you’re discussing the issues with agrees with you on the meaning of the terms themselves.

And then there’s the denotation and connotation of the definitions

They lift (or lower) us into 3-dimensional chess match of meaning. How about pro-life and pro-choice? The entire flaming intense debate starts with the definition of life. Or how about this: Does pornography exploit women? Depends on your definition of “exploit.” And did you know that major land developers lobbied for years to have Congress rewrite the definition of “wetlands,” so that once the new definition took effect, what was a wetland and off-limits on Tuesday, became a non-wetland and was open for development on Wednesday?

The author is the authority

Definitions are written by authorities. There’s power in the pen. So when conducting your own thesis editing,pay strict attention to definitions.