Suggestive and argumentative language
There are subtle but important differences between suggestive and argumentative language. When someone uses suggestive language, also known as tentative language, they are suggesting that what they are saying is probably or likely true. They are not claiming that what they are saying is definitely true or correct, but rather that what they are saying could in fact be false, wrong, or untrue in some nuanced way. In contrast, when someone uses argumentative or definitive language, they are claiming that what they are saying is in fact true. In both cases, the speaker or author can be clear about their intentions or beliefs but have different affects on their listeners and readers.
Sentences and paragraphs written in suggestive language often begin with the phrase, "I think" to indicate personal opinion rather than absolute truth. They may include words and phrases such as "maybe", "perhaps", "probably", or "likely" to indicate imperfect possibility rather than perfect predictability. Paragraphs may also end with questions such as, "What do you think?", "How does that sound?", "Do you know what I mean?", "Does that sound reasonable?", or "Does what I'm saying make any sense?"1 to indicate that the truth or validity of preceding sentences are open for debate and discussion.
Here are some examples. Example 1:
- Suggestive: I think A is better than B because of X, Y, and Z. What do you think?
- Argumentative: A is better than B because of X, Y, and Z.
- Difference: The suggestive language includes the phrase "I think" to indicate personal opinion rather than absolute truth. The language also includes question, "What do you think?", which asks the readers and listeners for their thoughts and opinions, thereby keeping the dialogue open and constructive.
- Suggestive: We should probably choose A instead of B because of reasons X, Y, and Z.
- Argumentative: We should choose A instead of B because of reasons X, Y, and Z.
- Difference: The suggestive language includes the word, "probably", which suggests that reasons X, Y, and Z are reasons to choose A over B without saying that X, Y, and Z, are definitive reasons to choose A over B. The result is that the author is saying that there may be other reasons for choosing B over A that the author has not considered, and that the reader may point them out.
- Suggestive: Perhaps Person A did X because of Y and Z.
- Argumentative: Person A did X because of Y and Z.
- Difference: The suggestive language includes the word "perhaps", which suggests that the author may not know the full reasons why Person A did X (the reasons why people act the way they do is usually elusive, mysterious, or subject to change).
In my experience, suggestive language typically works better than argumentative language in almost all communications. Suggestive language portrays a lack of confidence and a feeling of tentativeness, hesitancy, or uncertainty whereas argumentative language portrays confidence and certainty. Confidence is usually a desirable quality of a person; conventional wisdom suggests that confident people tend have better employment opportunities and are seen as more attractive (although whether this wisdom is always true is questionable because there is widespread 'unconscious' bias against confident women in the workplace). However, when someone is communicating with other people in school or in the workplace, they tend to not know the other people very well, so excess confidence in language can feel alienating or hostile while less confidence feels friendlier and more inclusive. Even if someone is certain that what they are saying is true, they can use suggestive language to portray a lack of confidence and thereby be more welcoming towards more opinions and discussion.
In my experience, argumentative language is really only useful in environments where argumentative language is the norm, such as in academic disciplines where everyone is trained to use argumentative or formal language. For example, I would probably use argumentative language if I'm arguing about mathematics with mathematicians, philosophy with philosophers, or physics with physicists. But if I'm discussing mathematics, philosophy, or physics with people who have not been trained in those disciplines and are unfamiliar with the argumentative culture, then it is better to use suggestive language to sound and appear less arrogant and presumptuous.
These guidelines are, of course, merely suggestions and not definitive; there are specific circumstances in which someone would probably want to always use suggestive or argumentative language. For example, it is probably always better to use suggestive language when assigning or providing criticism or constructive feedback to someone else, regardless if they are a peer, colleague, or superior. When reviewing a someone's work, the phrase "I do not understand what you did here. Can you walk me through it?" sounds better than "This does not make sense at all. What did you do?" Furthermore, it is probably always better to use argumentative or definitive language when assigning or providing praise. The phrase "You did a great job" sounds better than "You probably did a great job" or even "I think you did a great job".
Small nuances in language can change the tone of a conversation, dialogue, or even a relationship. We should try to be aware of how our language affects other people and how we are affected by other people's language. In almost all circumstances, we are speaking with or writing to strangers or people whom we do not know very well. In these circumstances, it is better to use suggestive, tentative, and otherwise welcoming language than to use argumentative, definitive, or otherwise overly confident language.
- A reader pointed out to me that the question, "Does that make sense?" could be interpreted as patronizing or condescending when used with short explanations or descriptions because the author could be questioning the reader's intelligence or ability to understand something apparently very simple. It may be better to use longer questions such as, "Do you think what I'm saying makes any sense?" or "Does what I'm saying make any sense?". ↩