When the smallest words have the biggest impact

Nouns, verbs and adjectives may be the powerhouses of language, but never underestimate the power of a sleight of tongue when choosing your conjunctions.

Consider:

Your spouse comes home late from work to see a pile of dirty clothes in front of the washing machine (the same pile as this morning, the same pile as last night), and you sitting in front of the computer reading the blog of some balding freelance writer/editor/tutor from upstate New York. They ask: “Why didn’t you do the laundry?”

You have two options here.

  1. “I didn’t know that you wanted me to yet.”

This sentence summons an image of ignorance, of a dunce cap. Maybe a little drool oozing out of your always-slightly-open mouth. It invites the response: “How could you not know?”

Or:

  1. “I didn’t know if you wanted me to yet.”

Suddenly, it’s a different story. Suddenly, you’ve thought about it, you’ve weighed the pros and cons. Maybe you’ve consulted an accountant or an attorney, and your findings were inconclusive. Prudence being the greater part of valor, patience being the greater part of prudence, you decided to wait and confirm whether this was the appropriate time to wash the clothes, or if there were more clothes to be added to the pile before the load shall commence. A marriage is, after all, about making choices together.

Don’t be mistaken; you’ll still end up doing the laundry. Accept that; there are some things even mindful conjunction use can’t fix. But a subtle conjunction choice in your response, an if for a that, can preserve your dignity in a way that even the best nouns, verbs and adjectives will not.


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Don’t treat your opinion as an option

If you want your argument to be taken seriously, don’t invite your reader to disagree.

This may be obvious. If you argue with a colleague or loved one, and you’re truly committed to your conviction, you wouldn’t finish by saying, “Now disagree with me! Bring up valid points to weaken my arguments! Do it!”

Yet this is what so many people do when they insert a seemingly innocuous phrase into their writing: “I think.”

When you preface your statement by saying “I think” or “In my opinion,” what you’re really saying is, “My way is only one way to look at it, but there are others.”

You’re saying, “Do you think so, too?”

You’re saying, “My resolve is weak; please exploit that weakness. Please don’t hurt me. I’m fragile.”

Ask yourself which statement has more authority to it:

  1. “I think we should have pizza for dinner tonight.”
  2. “In my opinion, we should have pizza for dinner tonight.”
  3. “I believe we should have pizza for dinner tonight.”
  4. “We should have pizza for dinner tonight.”

The last sentence is clearly most likely to get a Gino’s delivery guy at your door in a half hour. Apart from it being the briefer and thus stronger statement, it removes the weakness that subtly taints your strong, declarative sentence with an interrogative connotation.

Of course, this all depends on your goal. If you want to encourage debate and hear other people’s viewpoints, then keep the opinion words, and explicitly ask the other person for their take. This is how societies evolves, how mankind matures, how wisdom and civility flourish.

But if you’re more concerned with your pizza than with a more enlightened populace, lose the “I think” and stop asking people to disagree.


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