"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

What’s in an Opinion

September 2nd, 2012 by

“In my opinion,” people often argue, and then rarely stop to provide evidence.

Opinions are cheap, certainly. As the saying goes, everyone has one. Even so, what is not commonly understood about them deserves attention, especially with the double-trouble of another school year and an election season upon us.

An Opinion about Opinions: A Textbook Case
Consider the following example.

“In my opinion, President Nixon was very shrewd to abolish the military.”

I see the first phrase all the time in student writing. But is it necessary to tell the reader that I am offering an opinion? If I write simply, “Nixon was shrewd to abolish the military draft,” is it suddenly, magically no longer an opinion? Because there can apparently be more than one view on Nixon’s motives when he did away with the draft in the early 1970s, it is pretty clear that I have to support my opinion, probably with an argument.

But I suspect that this is what many writers hope to avoid. Some students believe that they don’t have to give evidence for their opinions. Stating “this is just my opinion” seems to them, on the one hand, the equivalent of a footnote. On the other, it seems to suggest a view of knowledge that is deeply personal, based in experience, and drawn from parents, friends, and from living. Who can challenge that?

Most academics do.

Writing is Different from Speaking

Part of what is going on may have to do with confusion over the differences between speaking and writing. The conflicting advice my students often get about writing is interesting. “Just write naturally, the way you talk” and “Don’t write the way you talk” are conflicting examples. Certainly, the best stylists know how to approximate speech while remaining true to Standard Written English. They create a highly readable and engaging “conversational” style. But this takes a great deal of work and study. No writer “just” writes exactly as she speaks. A transcribed conversation is a messy, incongruous puzzle, even to the people who conducted it. They look back at it and wonder what they meant.

In matters of opinion, speech conventions and writing conventions differ widely. When talking, I can say, “But in my opinion,” and my friend, unless she is a university colleague and we are together serving on a committee, will not expect evidence to follow.

Genre Confusion

My students believe that what works in conversation—“But that’s just my opinion”—will work in writing to get them off the hook. They remind me of some of my Facebook friends who seem to think that posting slogans and cliches over and over again will eventually result in their readers having a sudden revelation of the truth of their views.

This is a very low view they hold of their readers–to think of them as only needing to be shouted at. More likely, they are waiting for evidence.

In casual speech, we may not want a friend to engage in a dissertation or a harangue. “In my humble opinion” seems appropriate. But in writing, “In my opinion” is usually a wordy flag to an unsupported assertion. As a reader, I might be charmed by a writer’s opinion, especially if it is a daring one. But I also expect to be charmed by the writer’s reasons for his or her opinion.

Posted in conversation and writing, evidence, opinion| 8 Comments


Comment by stampstheologicallibrary on September 2, 2012 at 6:12 pm

In my opinion, Tom, this is a great piece
(oh dear, do I now have to support this? :>)

Comment by Thomas Allbaugh on September 2, 2012 at 10:01 pm

Thank you, Liz. (I suppose, from my angle, I’d like to agree with you already! ;>)

Comment by Elena E Smith on September 3, 2012 at 8:38 am

Well said, Tom! When I worked for the L.A. Times, our sales presentations were always supported with demographics. We never had to say, “In my opinion, Beverly Hills is a wealthy area,” because we had statistics that demonstrated this. After I left the Times, I was quite suprised to learn that many people not only can’t back up their opinions, but I actually worked for one manager who didn’t know the difference between an opinion and a fact. I think part of this is based on the time period in which we live, and the fact that so much new information is thrown at us daily — it is good to spank a child; it is bad to spank a child; etc. — and it would be impossible for the average person to fact check everything they see/ read/ hear. After all, didn’t Tom Brokaw think his story about Bush had been fact-checked thoroughly before he went on the air with it (and lost his job)? Add to that the current political polarization fueled by the media. My work as a paralegal taught me how important it is to understand primary and secondary sources of information, so I try to take that into consideration when weighing what I hear. (I learned long ago that listening to or reading newscasts about ballot Propositions should NEVER replace reading the actual language on the ballot because it can be deceiving. I once made a voting decision based solely on an L.A. Times article whose headline insisted that one candidate’s tax cut plan would be better for “the average American.” I ran the numbers, and the headline was absolutely false — the other candidate’s position was actually more beneficial for “the average American”). I still hear people insist that Obama is not an American citizen. Because he became an attorney, this was dealt with many years before he even ran for office. It is difficult to reason with people who can’t distinguish myth from fact. Hope I don’t offend you or anyone else by using a few political examples, but they seem to illustrate my point, though I don’t think any of the examples reveal my opinions. Keep up this good, stimulating work.

Comment by Thomas Allbaugh on September 3, 2012 at 8:48 am

Elena, these are great examples, especially as they demonstrate the hazards of opinion in journalism and politics. I am not offended. Just a small point–it was Dan Rather, not Tom Brokaw, who wound up resigning after not properly vetting that story on W.Bush. It certainly is difficult to discuss issues when we can’t discern an opinion from a fact. Thanks, Elena.

Comment by Elena E Smith on September 4, 2012 at 8:09 pm

OMGoodness, what a gaff! Thanks for the corretion.

Comment by Thomas Allbaugh on September 4, 2012 at 10:38 pm

Elena, actually, no. Sorry I even pointed it out. The talking heads all sound the same to me most of the time. I was trying to remember that story and couldn’t remember what it had to do with–some document that had been forged somehow but made some claim about Bush? Can’t remember anymore what it was…embarrassing.

Comment by Mrs. Bush on September 5, 2012 at 10:49 am

In the legal realm, opinion as it is used in legal writing has a different meaning. If she can’t find a statute (code) on which to build an argument, a lawyer will rely on opinion – Judicial Opinion. In legal writing, an opinion (of the judicial variety) is adequate support for a legal conclusion. No wonder lawyers have a such a hard time with the rest of the world (and they with us).

Comment by Thomas Allbaugh on September 5, 2012 at 4:23 pm

Dear Mrs. Bush, Yes, you do get at why lawyers have a hard time with the rest of the world. This is interesting, of course, that judicial opinion carries such weight.

Reply to Post