Absolute Statements Corrupt Absolutely
Avoid absolute statements whenever possible.
Absolute statements are those that make use of words such as“never” or “always” are always bad and you should never use them and always listen to me.
You’re already arguing with me, aren’t you.
Here’s the thing. I don’t make absolute rules like the one in my first sentence for exactly the same reason that I recommend avoiding them in your writing. Absolute words and the statements they create lead to too many unresolvable conflicts in your reader’s mind. For instance, if you write the words “never use absolute statements,” as I did above, you’ve invited your reader to argue with you.
“I’ll use the word never if I want! It’s a perfectly acceptable word!”
Of course it is. And, admittedly, we talk this way all the time: “I would never eat tomatoes on my tuna.” Or, “I always make tuna salad with just a little bit of mustard and a spoonful of relish.” Nevermind that you had tomatoes on your tuna sandwich just last week, or that you ran out of relish once and made your tuna salad with pickles instead. In conversation we tend to be a little more relaxed, in part because the we can clarify with our audience immediately if we need to. “Except I did run out of relish once, and pickles served as an adequate replacement.” We usually do not have that luxury when it comes to the conversation between writer and reader. The text is there in front of the reader, and if you’ve raised an argument with that you don’t resolve, that argument is still going to be nagging at the reader when she gets to your final flourish.
I hear you saying: “But I can think of six or seven very good reasons to use the word ‘never’ or ‘always’ in an essay.” Indeed. I can think of even more reasons than that. As I said, I’m not trying to make an absolute rule to never use an absolute word or statement, just note that it is often the case that the absolute causes more problems than it solves.
Here are a few more examples of absolute statements and the arguments introduced by them, along with possible solutions.
Everybody wants a good education.
Do they? What is a good education? Don’t some people just want to start working and earn money and play Xbox and listen to trip hop? Are there not some people who consider an education a waste of time, and they would be better served by going directly to work and learning what they need on the job?
Possible solution: “Most people likely want the best education they can afford.”
Nobody likes getting up before 4 a.m.
Just flatly untrue. There is somebody who likes to wake up at almost every time of the day or night. There are too many people in the world to say that nobody likes to get up at any given time. There are too many people in the world to say that nobody likes anything. The moment you say “nobody,” there is somebody lining up to reply, “I’m not nobody… and I like that thing.” Not everybody is like us. That’s sort of the reason we have to communicate as clearly as possible. If we don’t, somebody who thinks differently will misunderstand what we said, and we’ll end up getting up at the wrong time and missing our bus to the observatory.
Possible solution: “Not a single one of my friends likes getting up before 4 a.m.” or “My highly-unscientific survey of the people in my class tells me that most college students don’t like to get up before 4 a.m.”
This book is impossible to understand.
I promise you there is someone who believes they understand the book in question — even Ulysses — and will fight you to the death if you tell them they can’t possibly get it.
Possible solution: “I am unused to the syntax and modes of thinking in this book, making it very difficult to figure out exactly what is going on at any given moment.”
Water is always wet.
Well… not in its solid or gaseous state it isn’t.
Possible solution: “In most situations if you jump into a pool, you are going to get wet.”
If you don’t think someone will argue with the most innocuous absolute statements such as “water is always wet,” then you likely haven’t ever read the comments under a YouTube video.
Look, I’m really emphatically in no way saying words with absolute implications don’t have their usefulness. For instance, I had never had an open-faced tuna melt before December 3, 2018. As far as you know, that is an inarguable fact about me, and therefore the absolute word “never” has its use in that statement. It’s informational. You didn’t know that fact about me, and I’m telling you it’s true. (Do not argue with me. There is no proof that I’d ever eaten an open-faced tuna melt before this time. This is no time for debate and pedantry.) However, the statement “everybody makes their tuna melts open-faced, with a slice of tomato between the tuna and the cheese” is simply untrue, and will get you into an argument with your reader (or your significant other).
Of course maybe starting an argument was your goal, but most of the time you — the writer — are in the business of settling arguments, calming your reader’s natural tendency to question even the most basic tenets of reality. You want to pique their interest, not their ire. You want your reader nodding in agreement as much as possible. Most of the time — though not always! — you want them on your side.
Readers are humans (usually); they are naturally going to argue with you. Don’t leave yourself open to nonsense disagreements about absolute statements and you will forever and always be grateful to me.