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June 2004
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Implications of a choice of phrasing

In the rec.arts.books newsgroup one of the contributors produced the following paragraph:

You wouldn't have trouble guessing that the vast majority of supporters of the current resolution regarding Presidential powers to use force in Iraq mispronounced "nuclear" and solons who oppose the resolution typically got it right.
I took the paragraph as the starting point of a the following bit of analysis of rhetoric.


The beginning of the above sentence has some intriguing wording. There is the matter of the ambiguous pronoun, i.e., who is the "you"? Is the "you" the reader? That, perhaps, is an unwonted familiarity on the part of the author - then again he may have judged his readership to a nicety.

It might be the device of faux intimacy, a tactic widely used by insurance salesmen, purveyors of religious tracts, and others of that ilk. Then again, it could be the indefinite "some person", for which "one" is a more accurate albeit stuffier term. Then again, the comment might be directly addressed, and we are merely eavesdroppers on a private conversation.

It is the four words after "You" that establish a verbal formula that delights those into misleading ambiguity. The formula

"You wouldn't have trouble guessing that X"
does not, despite appearances, assert X, assert the likelihood of X, or even the plausibility of X. It merely asserts that X is an easy hypothesis to think of. More precisely, it asserts that X is a natural hypothesis for the person being addressed. This, perhaps, is the most interesting feature of the formula. Suppose I said to you [sic] "You wouldn't have trouble guessing that pigs fly south for the winter." The implication of that sentence is that "you" have no difficulty with accepting the plausibility of silly things. Conversely, "You wouldn't have trouble guessing that the sun rises in the east" might imply that the person addressed is able to entertain the obvious.

The formula, then, is a covert comment about the person being addressed. It is one of a class of formulas that can be used to create statements that are not quite what they seem.

In the present case, though, the formula seemingly is being used for another purpose, to wit, the non-committal affirmation of a prejudice. Thus, the statement "You would have no trouble guessing that most people who smell bad are dark skinned" has the same formula as the cited text; in each case there is an implicit presumption about "those people".


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