Improve Your Persuasive Writing: Call Things by Their Name

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Persuasive writing skills are essential to any author. However, some might struggle with arranging information in a compelling order. To understand what makes a persuasive writer, refers to an old Chinese proverb. It says, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.” The quote refers to one’s understanding of the world, but we also can use it to improve our writing skills. In this article, you’ll learn how and when you should call things by their name in your written pieces to justify your arguments.

What does “proper name” mean?

Before explaining the correlation between naming and writing, let’s examine the meaning of the Chinese proverb. Best Edit has already talked about the problems of representing history in an article about confirmation biases. Similarly, the proper meaning of words changes throughout time and place. Thus, words like “freedom” can be interpreted differently depending on the society you live in. One example of the interpretation of freedom applies to slave-owners in the U.S. who argued that abolition of slavery limited their freedom to own slaves.

Having in mind that a “proper name” is a vague concept, you can argue that any name might be considered proper. Still, to be accepted by your audience, the name shouldn’t contradict the most basic set of people’s beliefs. You can’t call an “apple” a “peach”, but you can call an opposition leader a criminal. Then, depending on the context, you might either undermine the opposition leader’s reputation or your own.

The English language has a similar proverb to the Chinese one: “Let’s call a spade a spade.” This adaptation demonstrates the importance of context in which you call things by their name. The phrase about the spade is barely used today because of its racist meaning acquired during the last century in the U.S. Dutch philosopher Erasmus translated this phrase from Latin in 1542 meaning that names should be called by their name. However, “spade” became another offensive word used against African Americans in the U.S. from the 1920s. This change in definition subverted the original meaning of the phrase into a racial slur.

From this example, you can reassure yourself that there’s no such thing as a “proper name” but rather a proper context. You can use this idea in your writing by adapting the terms for different audiences and purposes. You still can call a spade a spade but not everywhere.

The effect of calling things by their name.

To understand the importance of calling things by their name, we should learn more about the influence that naming has. According to American writer Dale Carnegie in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), calling people by their name can make them pay attention to you. Similarly, when angry, parents call their kids by name to emphasize the significance of the conversation. In contrast, when you try to offend a person, you neglect their real name and instead use an offensive word, or simply “call names”.

Giving names to things might even have a global effect. As an example, several political scientists argue that the Rwandan Civil War between Hutu and Tutsi (1990-1994) is supposed to be referred to as genocide. Researchers state that if it would have been called so in the 1990s, the world leaders, who focused their foreign policy on Europe at the time, would have been forced to interfere. From this example, you can see how political scientists avoid particular wording in their written pieces to prevent a global conflict. The events themselves remain the same, but it’s the framing you use that increases or decreases its importance.

The infectious disease COVID-19 also demonstrates how much can be changed from the name. First, some politicians tried to refer to it as the “Chinese virus”. It’s argued that such a name would have caused unconscious blame towards China making it the world enemy for many years. Second, most world countries didn’t announce a state of emergency until March 14, 2020, the day after the World Health Organization changed the status of COVID-19 from epidemic to pandemic. The difference between pandemic and epidemic is in the size of the territory affected by a disease. However, it’s problematic to say when an epidemic should change its status to a pandemic. Does the change occur after a disease highly affects two countries or only after every country experiences it?

What gives a name its power?

If we go back to the example of the word “spade”, we see how its influence on society has changed with time. Similarly, most other words have transformed over time. The association with the genocide of European Jews during World War II limits the use of the word genocide to describe conflicts like the Rwandan Civil War. Words gain their power from history and our associations with them. The same principle applies to symbols. Thus, the Confederate Flag acquired its controversial status during the 1950s and 1960s, the period of the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. You can use these examples in your writing to subvert the effect that particular words have.

How to call things by their name in your writing.

After clarifying what calling things by their name means, you can use your writing to emphasize a particular point, avoid undesirable topics, or justify your opinion. You can undermine the value of opposing views by minimizing the usage of names and emphasizing repulsive terms. In contrast, you can strengthen your point of view with delightful words. Repeating terms frequently gives your audience a chance to remember your points while forgetting opposing views. Moreover, if you repeat the words you’re advocating with other positive words, your readers will view your words in a positive way.

The importance of naming also depends on word placement in your sentence. Write a favorable word at the end of a sentence to emphasize a positive feature of what you are describing. Vice versa, use an undesirable word in the middle of your sentence when you want to shift attention from it. Look at this example: “She is smart, edgy, disciplined, and kind.” Now compare it to this one: “She is smart, kind, disciplined, and edgy.” The perception of a person changes drastically although the facts remain the same.

Don’t forget that words are just words until we give them their meaning. That’s why word choice and order matter. With the exact same information, you can create opposite arguments and succeed in advocating both. After all, how you refer to your facts determines the effect they’ll have.

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