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How the Language Really Works:
The Fundamentals of Critical Reading and Effective Writing
Reading / Writing
Critical Reading
Inference
Choices
Ways to Read
Grammar

.

The Problem

The Solution

Classifying Patterns Of Content

The Range Of Classification

Example: Chevron Ad

Controlling Inferences: Patterns Of Content

The Problem

Discussion ofthe choice of contentincluded examples describing American culture.
  • the space shuttle
  • rap music
  • "Jeopardy"
  • teen pregnancy, or
  • Little League baseball.

Say someone selected "Little League baseball" from the list. What would they be trying to show?

  • an interest in sports
  • a preoccupation with sports from an early age
  • a community group activity
  • the formal organization of leisure activity
  • a training program for professional sports, or
  • the "American game"

Taken alone, the example is unclear, or ambiguous, at best. The example could be an example of any, or all, of the above.

Consider another example. How are we to interpret the following information?

James Jones, candidate for mayor, was arrested for speeding.

Is this evidence of         

  • personal inadequacies
  • an adventurous spirit
  • social irresponsibility, or
  • poor judgment

The same behavior, in different contexts, might be viewed as an example of different qualities. In different contexts, the candidate's bad driving record might be offered as

  • reason for voting for another candidate
  • an irrelevant factor in assessing the candidate's qualifications
  • negative evidence overridden by other more relevant evidence

For communication to work, authors must have some means of controlling how readers interpret their examples. They must find some means to assure that readers will classify concepts as they intended.

The Solution

The solution to the problem above lies inpatterns.

Consider the earlier example of Little League baseball once again, this time within a pattern of examples:

  • Little League baseball
  • Fourth of July picnics
  • Election day voting

Within this pattern, Little League baseball is but one example of traditional American cultural activities, all involving a sense of community and fair play.

In the grouping

  • Little League baseball
  • teen beauty pageants
  • school talent shows
the example of Little League baseball might suggest a child version of an adult activity, or an activity that allows children to show off specific abilities—additional examples might be needed to lock in a specific interpretation.

We check our interpretation of any single example against other examples offered to support the same idea.

Finally, consider the following list of assertions.

Copper bracelets can alleviate arthritis.
Alcohol is modest amounts is good for digestion.
A little pot never hurt anyone.
On the face of it, these are all examples of liberal, but otherwise reasonable, thinking about health. But add one more:
Copper bracelets can alleviate arthritis.
Alcohol is modest amounts is good for digestion.
A little pot never hurt anyone.
The moon is made of green cheese.
The statementCopper bracelets can alleviate arthritis.is now but one more example of an absurd claim.

The more examples an author adds, the more a reader's options for interpreting any single example are constrained. Skillful authors supply sufficient examples to force a certain understanding of the overall pattern. Careful readers look for patterns of evidence so as not to respond with an inappropriate reading of any single example.

Classifying Patterns Of Content

Interpretation begins with recognizing patterns of content throughout a text—patterns of references, examples, illustrations, or ideas.

As you read a text, group examples together to isolate between two and five major patterns. (Any fewer than two would not provide patterns to work with; any more than five would probably fail to clearly distinguish major patterns). You might look at

  • how different groups are portrayed,
  • how different actions are presented,
  • how different sources are characterized,
  • how different historical periods are described,
Whatever a text does, you want to seehowthat text does it.

The patterns you detect should include all of the assertions within a text (or the analysis would only be partial) and each pattern should be clearly distinguishable from others (or they would not be individual patterns).

Having decided that a group of items go together, you must supply a name to indicate what the examples are examples of. Such a name should be general enough to encompass all of the items in the group, and specific enough to exclude items that do not belong.

The processes of grouping and classifying actually go hand in hand, each directing the other as you expand the classification to include additional elements or contract the classification to exclude other elements.

The Range Of Classification

Recall the earlier example:
The government once classified ketchup as a vegetable in the school lunch program.
Elsewhere we suggested the speaker/writer probably is not simply providing a lesson about the school lunch program, but offering an example of bureaucratic stupidity. In light of the present discussion this example might be read as an example of:

  • an error by an unnamed employee of the Department of Agriculture
  • typical bureaucratic mismanagement of a federal program
  • evidence that government actions can be absurdly idiotic and counter to people's best interests
  • the incompetence of humankind
How broadly can we safely abstract from the specifics of the original example? Here again we must rely on patterns. We must look at other examples and generalizations within the text to judge how far the text wants, or will allow, us to go.

Example: Chevron Ad

As a final example of the power of recognizing what the example are examples of, consider how, in the following advertisement, Chevron Oil conveys an image of compassion and caring.

To protect marine life, it helps to speak the language.

When we dismantled four offshore oil platforms near Santa Barbara, we projected killer whale calls underwater to coax creatures away while we worked. A sonogram of the sound is pictured at left. It was just one part of an effort that went beyond regulatory requirements to ensure not a single marine mammal was hurt. We began by hiring an independent marine mammal consultant who prepared a wildlife protection plan, especially crucial since the Santa Barbara Channel hosts one of the most diverse mixes of sea life in the world. To avoid the gray whale's migration season, we scheduled dismantlement during summer and completed it in the fall by working 24 hours a day. A legally required 1000-yard safety zone was voluntarily extended to four miles around each platform. A large research vessel, smaller boats, aircraft and an underwater remote-operated camera were all used for observation. Divers, acoustic specialists and scientists watched and listened for any wildlife entering the safety zone. Many of these measures were not required by government agencies but were dictated by our own policies. To us, environmental protection is not only right, it's smart business. So that we're not just known for how we work in an area, but how we leave it.

Almost every assertion is an example of a broader idea. Implied meanings are in boldface.

To protect marine life, it helps to speak the language.
When we dismantled four offshore oil platforms near Santa Barbara, we projected killer whale calls underwater to coax creatures away while we worked.
we cared about the well-being of those creatures, not only about our oil platform
A sonogram of the sound is pictured at left. It was just one part of an effort that went beyond regulatory requirements
we didn't have to do it--we cared enough to
to ensure not a single marine mammal was hurt. We began by hiring an independent marine mammal consultant
we wanted to be objective to make sure we did the right thing from the animals' standpoint
who prepared a wildlife protection plan,
we were comprehensive in our efforts
especially crucial since the Santa Barbara Channel hosts one of the most diverse mixes of sea life in the world.
the task was difficult and complex with a great amount at stake
To avoid the gray whale's migration season,
again, we were knowledgeable and sensitive to the animals' needs
we scheduled dismantlement during summer and completed it in the fall by working 24 hours a day.
we worked extraordinarily hard and were extraordinarily careful.
A legally required 1000-yard safety zone was voluntarily extended to four miles around each platform.
again, we took extra precautions and did more than we had to
A large research vessel, smaller boats, aircraft and an underwater remote-operated camera were all used for observation.
again, more care and expenditure to assure safety
Divers, acoustic specialists and scientists watched and listened
We were all eyes and ears for any problems
for any wildlife entering the safety zone. Many of these measures were not required by government agencies but were dictated by our own policies.
makes explicit what has been implicit in the examples
To us, environmental protection is not only right, it's smart business. So that we're not just known for how we work in an area, but how we leave it.
The boldfaced comments are not cases of reading in whatever we like, or even of reading in additional information. They express the very ideas the examples were designed to communicate. We see, then, a number of patterns of content running throughout the text:

  • actions taken for the benefit of the animals
  • actions taken beyond regulatory requirements
  • actions that go beyond the simple, the easy, or the obvious
All of these actions depict Chevron in a caring light.

This same process of classifying evidence and inferring meaning can be applied equally to the choice of language.


Related Topics
Choices: The Ingredients of Texts
Recognizing What Examples Are Examples Of
Patterns of Content: An Example
Choices: The Choice of Language
Choices: The Choice of Structure


Reading / Writing
Critical Reading
Inference
Choices
Ways to Read
Grammar

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