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The Fundamentals of Critical Reading and Effective Writing
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Conclusion v. Example: The Example Wins

Numbers As Examples: Doing The Math

Examples From The Writer's Point Of View

Examples From The Reader's Point Of View

Recognizing What Examples Are ExamplesOf

To talk is to talk about the world. We might talk about our feelings when it rains, an event a century ago, the price of popcorn in Slovenia, how to tie a shoe lace, or the issues involved in creating a missile defense system. Whatever we talk about, we provide illustrations, examples, or evidence from the world. Even when discussing deeply philosophical issues, we use examples of specific behaviors or actions. Examples justify and illustrate generalizations. Examples make abstract ideas concrete.

Probably the single greatest key to critical reading is the realization that critical reading is not concerned with what the examplesare, as with what the examples are examplesof.

For quick insight into this notion, consider the remark:
        Mervin runs like a duck.
The statement uses a duck as an example to suggest how Mervin runs. To understand how Mervin runs, we must recognize what running like a duck is an example of. After all, if ducks ran with grace and ease, the original statement would be a compliment!

An alternative statement such as
        Mervin swims like a duck.
has an entirely different meaning. The comparison takes similar form: Mervin's actions are compared to those of a duck. But we quickly see that the example of swimming like a duck is an example of something very different (grace) from running like a duck (awkwardness).

In fact, wanting to suggest awkwardness, the author of the original statement,
        Mervin runs like a duck.
need not have referred to a duck. Any example conveying the same image would do.
        Mervin runs like a goose.
        Mervin runs like an alligator.
        Mervin runs like an obese emu.
All of these statements convey the same message: Mervin runs in an awkward manner. The specific example does not matter; meaning lies in what the example is an exampleof.

The example above is an example of figurative language; we expect one idea to stand in for another. And yet examples work much the same way, whether we are talking figuratively or not.

Conclusion v. Example: The Example Wins!

The impact of the choice of examples on our understanding cannot be overemphasized. Consider what happens if a text labels someone as moral, but offers an example of that person behaving in an immoral manner:
        The candidate is a just and honorable man. He beats his wife and lies to children.
The example
        He beats his wife and lies to children.
contradicts the claim
        The candidate is a just and honorable man.
Which do you believe? The example wins. We disregard the claim and draw our own conclusion from the evidence: the candidate is not just and honorable, he's wicked! If we do not simply reject the passage for being contradictory, we must interpret the claim that he is just and honorable as sarcasm. But in no case will we disregard the evidence and accept the conclusion as offered.

The importance of recognizing what examples are examples of cannot be overstated. This is the hallmark of an active, reflective, and critical approach to reading. Careful readers verify for themselves that the evidence offered does indeed justify the generalizations.

Numbers As Examples: Doing The Math

"Some statistics, " the syndicated columnist William Raspberry has noted, "contain their own dissertations, providing enough ammunition to support virtually any theory that comes to mind." Measurements and numbers function in much the same way as other content. Just as we can ask what examples are examples of, we can ask what numbers are examples of. Authors, after all, do not cite a specific number just to convey information, but to suggest that the price is small or large, warranted or ridiculous.

In many cases, it is necessary to do some calculations to discover the significance of numbers. How might you respond to the following?
        Save $750 on your next new car!
Seven hundred and fifty dollars might sound like a large sum of money. (It is!) But does it really represent a big savings? Is this an example of a bargain, a good deal compared to the usual discounts, or simply an appeal to financial savings? For a $15,000 car, $750 amounts to 5 percent (750/15,000 = .05 = 5%), or 5 cents on each dollar. Such a discount may or may not be portrayed as significant by the text. The decision of whether it is actually a meaningful savings is up to each reader.

Examples From The Writer's Point Of View

Examples are specific instances of more general concepts or remarks. They are more concrete or actual representations of abstract or theoretical concerns. Writers use examples to describe, explain, or justify other remarks. When writers wish to show someone's behavior as unstable, they use an example. They select an example that portrays the evidence as they wish it to be seen. Not any example will do—the example chosen must be one that will be seen as an example of instability. But examples are just that: examples of something. They are not important in themselves, but for the ideas they represent.
Finally, no author truly expects readers to remember the examples. Examples are there to play a role, to suggest or support broader ideas. And authors assume readers will infer that broader idea.

Examples From The Reader's Point Of View

When an author asserts a generalization, we, as readers, want proof. We want evidence (an example). We want evidence that is
    • reliable(that is, accurate and truthful
    • representative(that is, not anecdotal or an exception
    • relevant(that is, that applies to the situation at hand
Finally, as we saw above, we want evidence that is evidenceofthe generalization it claims to support. Without these qualities, examples fail to offer valid support. They are merely additional unproven assertions.
When I come across a generalization or a general statement in history unsupported by illustration,
historian Barbara Tuchman has observed,
I am instantly on guard; my reaction is, 'Show me.' If a historian writes that it was raining heavily on the day war was declared, that is a detail corroborating a statement, let us say, that the day was gloomy. But if he writes merely that it was a gloomy day without mentioning the rain, I want to know what is his evidence; what made it gloomy. Or if he writes, 'The population was in a belligerent mood,' or 'It was a period of great anxiety,' he is indulging in general statements which carry no conviction to me if they are not illustrated by some evidence.
For a text to portray a person as just, miserly, intelligent, demented, or charming, it must do more than simply claim it. Some evidence to justify that generalization must be presented.

When reading a text, we must first recognize that examples are indeed present. We must see that certain statements offer specific support for more general remarks. We can then take the next step and recognize what those examples are examples of. In the first instance, we describe the use of examples by the text, what the text does. In the second instance, we infer additional meaning from those examples, and, in the process, test whether the text really offers support for its conclusions.

Related Topics
Choices: The Ingredients of Texts
Controlling Inferences: Patterns of Content
Patterns of Content: An Example
Choices: The Choice of Language
Choices: The Choice of Structure

Reading / Writing
Critical Reading
Ways to Read

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