You want your writing to reach your readers. You always need to consider the needs of your audience when writing. Never forget to add a call to action so the reader will know what to do next!
These statements are probably true. Generally, writers do want to reach their readers and do understand that a call to action can be very effective. But as a writer, we can’t assume that these statements are true for all of our readers.
Hope Mirlis, a premarital counselor and wedding officiant, taught, “Absolutes should never be said to your partner.…The words ‘always’ and ‘never’ are rarely true.” Mirlis may have been giving relationship advice, but the underlying principle can still apply to your writing. Learn the rules of using absolute statements in your writing (but you don’t have to consider them absolute truth).
What Are Absolute Statements?
Absolutes are statements that assume a fact, emotion, desire, state of being, etc. about a person, animal, group of people, inanimate object, or another subject.
For example, think about the last infomercial you watched. The creators probably assumed a lot of information about you. We’ve all had a good laugh at the overexaggerated trouble an infomercial assumes we have — and the total relief its product brings us.
Did you catch it? “We’ve all had a good laugh” makes an assumption. In this case, I, the writer, made an assumption about you, the reader — as well as everyone else. But I can’t actually know that everyone has had a good laugh at an infomercial. I can’t even assume that every single reader has seen an infomercial.
Many absolute statements use words like always and never, as Mirlis pointed out. However, your writing can include other forms as well. Reread the first sentence of this article again.
The phrase “you want” is a commonly used beginning to an absolute statement. Similar phrases can include “you need,” “you are,” “you have,” and “you’ve been.”
Persuasive writers can instead use generalized statements to navigate around absolute statements and hopefully avoid accidentally poking holes in their own argument or alienating the reader.
What Are Some Subtle Absolute Statements?
Not all absolute statements are as easy to pick out as “All girls love pink.” A writer can create an absolute statement through these other methods:
- Gender bias, like, “Take your dog to the doctor when she is sick.”
- Causal statements, like, “Depression is caused by a lack of exercise.”
- Assumptions, like, “There’s nothing worse than a mouse in your pantry.”
Many subtle absolute statements are made when the writer accidentally assumes something about the topic or the reader.
Be particularly careful when you write about psychological topics that cover mental, emotional, psychological, and behavioral subjects. The information on many of these topics — even popular, well-researched topics like anxiety — are based on hypotheses, not facts proved through the scientific method.
In addition, watch out for statements in your essays that assume one event will lead to another event, like “If you stay outside when it’s cold, you’ll get sick.”
Why Should You Be Cautious of Absolute Statements?
Absolute statements can offend your reader. Consider, “Everyone knows that girls can’t run as fast as boys.” The late Florence Griffith Joyner, who reached 21.3 miles per hour during the 1988 Olympics in the 100-meter dash, might disagree.
Absolute statements can cause damage in other ways, too. For example, if you write a persuasive essay in an effort to convince your reader of something, it would be pretty unfortunate if you negatively impacted your credibility through your writing. Many people (notice what I did there?) don’t like to be told what to do and how to feel.
In fiction writing, a common piece of advice is to show and not tell the reader what has happened. We can use this same wisdom in a nonfiction piece as well. Show your reader why they should believe you — don’t tell them. If you try to tell your reader facts about themselves and you’re wrong, your reader probably won’t trust you very much when it comes to other subjects.
In this same vein, you could also cause someone a lot of trouble. Imagine the chaos that could erupt in a reader’s life if a persuasive essay convinced them not to study for their exams based on inaccurate absolute statements, such as:
- “You will pass your tests as long as you go to class and do your homework.”
- “Most straight-A students never cram-study.”
- “A full night’s sleep is more important than a last-minute study session.”
These statements may be true for some people — they may even be true for many people — but we can’t say with 100 percent accuracy that they will always be true for every situation.
Absolute statements can create complex, legally troublesome situations, too. If you get a career in journalism, advising, counseling, or just about anything related to the law, you can’t afford to let harmful absolutes slip by.
What Are Generalized Statements?
Generalized statements are at the opposite end of the spectrum from absolute statements. These statements are inherently subjective, meaning the writer is aware that the statement isn’t true for everyone.
Consider the difference between “You feel angry about being an only child” and “You may feel angry about being an only child.”
The first statement assumes two things: one, that the reader is an only child and, two, that they aren’t happy about it. The generalized version, or the second statement, does still assume the reader is an only child, but it doesn’t assign emotions to the reader.
How about another example? Compare “Most people would never become a vegan” and “Many people would not want to become a vegan.”
The absolute statement in this example not only assumes that the reader would not want to be vegan, but it also has the potential to insult a reader who is vegan. The second statement is more objective, and because “many” is difficult to define in this context, the statement is more inclusive and more accurate.
Not only are generalized statements more inclusive, but they can also come across as less offensive, biased, and judgmental.
How Can You Change an Absolute Statement into a Generalized Statement?
Changing an absolute statement into a generalized statement can be as simple as adding one word. For example, “Dogs bite strangers” can turn into “Dogs may bite strangers.” The word “may” turns the absolute statement, which isn’t always true, into a more generalized statement that we can reasonably claim.
Another easy way to quickly change an absolute statement is to switch a word out with another. For example, “Most women wear makeup” can change to “Many women wear makeup.” Words and phrases like many, typically, and oftentimes can give you the freedom to make claims without making a quantifiable claim that can be proved or disproved.
If all else fails and you can’t find a way to alter an absolute statement, consider removing it entirely.
When Should You Use Absolute Statements?
Absolute statements can cause trouble for both writers and readers, but they do have value when used in the right circumstances.
A writer can use an absolute statement to add emphasis to an idea. This use is particularly helpful if you want to warn your reader about something, like, “Bleach and ammonia should never be mixed.”
If you want to write about proven, objective facts, go ahead and use an absolute statement. As long as the situation described is true in the past, present, and future, an absolute statement can create a strong argument and a confident voice.
Don’t let your writing discredit itself with a poorly chosen absolute statement. Use these tips to make sure your essays are accurate, unbiased, and persuasive.