For the Good of All Humanity, Imperatives Must Be Abolished
Monday, August 10, 2015 Word Choice
As a Walden student, you likely have an interest in using your research to make a positive change in people’s lives—most Walden students do, and the university strongly supports efforts to apply scholarship that might otherwise remain abstract and theoretical to concrete, real-world situations. This is, on balance, a good thing. Sometimes, though, students’ enthusiasm for social change can overwhelm their writing, introducing biases that could lead a reader to question their objectivity as researchers and doubt the validity of their results.
Let’s look at two examples of what I’m talking about:
• Teachers must use differentiated instruction because students deserve to benefit from the best instructional methods available (Erickson, 2014).
• This prenatal education program should be implemented to help mothers in developing countries avoid disease.
Both of these statements are grammatically sound, and readers can easily comprehend their meanings. However, they are both imperatives, or statements that implore the reader to do something because it is essential or fundamental in some way. Imperatives can powerfully underscore a writer’s overall point and convince the reader to take action. Imperatives, though, do not really belong in your scholarly writing as a Walden student because in the social sciences, your arguments must be based (as much as possible) on logic and evidence.
You may have heard, in an English or writing course, of the three classical modes of persuasion: pathos, ethos, and logos, which basically mean persuading via emotion, authority, and logic, respectively. These are all effective ways of persuading a reader, and you can see them in your everyday life: Look at any television commercial, political ad, or opinion column, and you’ll likely find some or all of these persuasive appeals at work, making you desire a product, trust a respected official, or believe in the significance of a piece of data.
Imperatives, by appealing to our sense of right and wrong, are a potent application of pathos, and they can profoundly affect our judgments. Sometimes imperatives serve us well: When world leaders argue to take action to prevent atrocities like genocide or slavery, they often use imperatives because they’re appealing to our sense of compassion and decency. They’re not arguing that preventing these crimes is true; they’re arguing that it is right. In other cases, though, imperatives are misused to bolster arguments that lack evidence or logical coherence (a quality aptly captured by the term ) and lead readers to draw false conclusions. In those situations, imperatives distract us into believing something is right without concern for whether it’s true.
Our susceptibility to pathos is one reason why scientific research is based on the principle that we should not trust a judgment unless we can verify it with objective observations of the world around us. Consequently, social scientists avoid—and are skeptical of—appeals to our emotions or morals; social scientists use logos (and ethos, to some degree, by doing things like citing sources and maintaining a scholarly tone to establish their credibility) to articulate their research. Put another way, using imperatives in social-sciences writing is akin to sculpting marble with a bulldozer: It's the wrong tool for the task at hand, and it can destroy the very thing you’re trying to create.
With this in mind, let’s look at revisions of my two examples:
• In several recent studies, differentiated instruction has been identified as a more effective method than more traditional instructional techniques (Erickson, 2014).
• If implemented, this prenatal education program could help new mothers in some developing countries minimize the risk of their children being born with nutrition-related health problems.
Even though I might personally feel strongly that all students deserve to benefit from the best teaching methods available or that we should fund health education programs in developing countries, those sentiments don’t belong in my social-sciences writing. Limiting your claims to only what your evidence and analysis will support will make your arguments more precise and more compelling.
Matt Sharkey-Smith is a writing instructor and the coordinator of graduate writing initiatives at the Writing Center says, "It's at once paradoxical and commonsensical, but it's true: You get better at writing by writing."
Never miss a new post; Opt-out at any time