Archive for the ‘sentences’ Category

Testing your understanding of an author’s words

February 22, 2008

There is one other test of whether you understand the proposition in a sentence you have read.  Can you point to some experience you have had that the proposition describes or to which the proposition is in any way relevant?  Can you exemplify the general truth that has been enunciated by referring to a particular instance of it?  To imagine a possible case is often as good as citing an actual one.  If you cannot do anything at all to exemplify or illustrate the proposition, either imaginatively or by reference to actual experiences, you should suspect that you do not know what is being said.

Propositions do not exist in a vacuum.  They refer to the world in which we live.  Unless you can show some acquaintance with actual or possible facts to which the proposition refers or is relevant somehow, you are playing with words, not dealing with thought or knowledge.

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren

Writing for quick assimilation by the reader

February 6, 2008

Recently I read an article that went on and on.  I had to wade through tons of anecdotes before the point was finally made.  Alas, the point wasn’t very interesting. 

It occured to me that we should write in a fashion where the essential points can be picked up by the reader quickly.  But how?

Here’s how: put the key points first.  This applies to the entire document, as well as each individual sentence.

Example: compare these two sentences, where I am articulating the advantages of a certain design style:

  1. The image gallery web page can be downloaded quickly.
  2. Quick download of the image gallery web page.

The key point is: quick download.  With the first sentence the reader has to wade through a bunch of words before getting to the key point.  With the second sentence the key point is situated up front; composing sentences like this enables the reader to scan your article and quickly obtain the essential points.

How to phrase a complex sentence in a clear, unambiguous fashion

January 6, 2008

Complex sentences oftentimes contain and, or, and not. There are various ways to express anded sentences, ored sentences, and noted sentences. Depending on which way you use, a sentence can be easily understood or ambiguous.

Suppose we denote the sentence “I will go shopping today” by the letter A, i.e.

Let A = I will go shopping today.

And likewise for these sentences:

Let B = I will do cleaning today.

Let C = I will call my Mother today.

We can translate the negation of A in any of these ways:

  • It is not the case that I will go shopping today.
  • It isn’t true that I will go shopping today.
  • I will not go shopping today.
  • I won’t go shopping today.

We can translate A and B in any of these ways:

  • I will go shopping today and I will do cleaning today.
  • I will both go shopping today and do cleaning today.

We can translate A or B in any of these ways:

  • I will go shopping today or I will do cleaning today.
  • I will either go shopping today or do cleaning today.

Now suppose that we need to combine the sentences in more complex ways.  For example:

(not(A) and B) or (not(C))

For not(A) there are four ways to translate it.  Which way should we use?  Our choice can have a big impact on the understandability of the final sentence.  Likewise for anding and oring.  Here’s one way to express it:

I will not go shopping today and I will do cleaning today or I will not call my Mother today.

Although the sentence is technically correct, it’s somewhat confusing because the parentheses are gone and everything runs together.  A good way to clean it up is to express it as:

Either I will not go shopping today and I will do cleaning today or I will not call my Mother today.

The word either clarifies just how much the word or is meant to encompass.   Thus the words either and or act in combination like parentheses.

— Extracted from Logic for Dummies by Mark Zegarelli