How to Argue — Tone

Given the supposed anonymity on the Internet, TONE, the attitude the writer shows towards both subject matter and readers, becomes a significant factor. As I’m sure everyone knows, insulting yelling matches, Flame Wars, are everywhere. They are also antithetical to solid argument–and possibly even dangerous since many techies can track down even “anonymous” posters quite easily.

Passion in argument, on the other hand, is good as long as it’s backed up with logic and fact, but unrestrained anger–INVECTIVE–often diminishes both accuracy and word choice. I’ve seen good writers start fumbling when thoroughly infuriated. They often end up tossing out accusations and denunciations that are on a par with the ones that started their rage.

Anger happens. When thoroughly ticked off, I usually type a response, save it on my desktop and then walk away from my computer. When I come back, I find I can usually laugh and delete it. In some cases, I save it and rework it into something more productive.

I will admit though that when something gets me, I often resort to SARCASM and/or IRONY. These differ in degree. Usually sarcasm is more bitter and derisive. Irony, often an inversion of what is actually meant, as in “Nice tie!” to the person wearing some blinking purple and green monstrosity, is not usually mistaken for an actual compliment.

The tone problem that most likely provokes me to sarcasm and irony is POMPOSITY. Some are intimidated or impressed by people who continually use multi-syllabic words when other words would serve. I am neither impressed nor intimidated. I have to watch myself when I encounter inflated language and a condescending attitude. They set me off because pomposity suggests that writer floats above us monosyllabic dolts.

While tone problems stemming from anger and arrogance are most common, tone problems based in the NICE and the CUTE also arise from faulty use of emotion. The CUTE tends to arise from flippancy or a desire to attract attention. Usually the CUTE is merely boring or extraneous. Worse than the CUTE is the SENTIMENTAL. This sort of emotional appeal attempts to draw out cheap emotions. Warning signs are the use of cliches and standard scenarios. For example, consider the use of polar bears in discussions of climate change. Whether or not these bears are endangered is no longer the point. The bears have become objects of sentiment, not reason.

One of the best works on use of language is in George Orwell’s 1946 essay“Politics and the English Language.”

In it, he gives the best short set of rules I’ve found:

i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Plain, direct language makes points clearly and concisely. On the other hand, following Orwell’s sixth rule, I’m never afraid to use a little known word if it saves time and space. I assume my readers can quickly call up dictionary.com or any of many other sites to find meaning.

Right now I have something cooling on my desktop. When it reaches a reasonable temperature, I’ll use it to illustrate some more common problems in online argument.

Cassandra

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