streets should not be allowed to live on the street. On the other hand, the intended proposition might be that we should not tolerate the fact that there are homeless people living on our streets. That is to say, the view expressed might be critical of a society in which people are forced to live on the streets rather than critical of such people themselves.


Vagueness is a property of words and phrases. It is not the same as ambiguity, but it is often mistaken for it. For instance, when former US President Clinton famously said, 'I did not have sexual relations with that woman . . .' he was not (as alleged) hiding behind the ambiguity of the phrase 'sexual relations', but rather behind its vagueness. As we saw when considering lexical ambiguity, a word is ambiguous when it has two or more possible and different meanings - thus two or more separate extensions. The vagueness of a word, on the other hand, is really a feature of its meaning: The meaning of a word or expression is vague if it is indefinite or uncertain what is conveyed by the word. Thus a word may be ambiguous without being vague - as in 'ball' (round plaything, formal dancing-party) - or vague without being ambiguous, as in 'sexual relations' (what exactly constitutes sexual relations?).

Sometimes, someone aware of the weakness of their own position will deliberately leave their meaning vague in order to camouflage that weakness and to evoke strong feelings of approval or disapproval in their readers or listeners. Many highly-charged words that wield rhetorical power in public discourse are used vaguely. Examples include: 'rights', 'liberal', 'harassment', 'racism', 'sexism'. It is hard to discern one perfectly exact meaning for each of these words and it would be unrealistic to expect them to have such a meaning. Their extensions tend to include a cluster of objects, beliefs or actions that are not necessarily unified in any precise way. Take 'liberal', for instance. This word conveys various characteristics including:

► Belief in a permissive society.

► Belief in freedom of speech, of association, of choice.

► Belief that certain restrictive laws should be relaxed (e.g. against drugs).

► Belief that the state should interfere as little as possible in citizens' lives.

► Belief in laissez-faire economic policies.

► Supports the Liberal Democratic Party.

► Politically left-wing.

One might be a liberal and not hold all of these beliefs, or have all of these characteristics. Indeed, someone might have some or even many of them and not be a liberal.

Here is a whole passage infected with vagueness of the kind we have in mind:

Make no mistake, the researchers involved in the highly controversial project to map the human genome are involved in a radical project of unprecedented gravity and spiritual significance. Do they venture there with appropriate caution and humility? What they are doing is not even comparable to the research that made the atomic bomb possible, for it goes right to the essence of what we are. Like Dr Frankenstein, they are tinkering with life; they are travelling into unknown and sacred regions as no scientist previously has ever dared. The secret wellsprings of life, of our very being as Homo sapiens, have ever remained shut up, concealed by aeons of either blind but cunning and ultimately unfathomable natural processes, or, as some continue to believe despite the showy displays of science and technology, concealed by the very hand of its Author, the Author of Nature Himself.

What is the writer of this rather over-excited dose of hyperbole trying to argue? Clearly they think that there is something dangerous or otherwise ill-advised about the project to map the human genome. But they have not begun to make it clear what the danger is. The research is distinguished from atomic research by its concern specifically with life, but nothing is said as to why this is peculiarly dangerous beyond the use of extremely vague verbiage such as 'sacred', 'radical', 'gravity', 'spiritual significance', and so on. In a context such as this, with so much at stake, we need to have precise reasons why, despite the promise of medical benefits, the project is dangerous.

Words can also be vague in another, more philosophically technical respect. Philosophers of language use the term 'vague' to apply to words that have a clear meaning, but which have an indefinitely demarcated extension. Obvious cases are colour-words like 'orange': there is no precise division between orange things and yellow things, for example. Things can often be precisely compared with respect to such attributes, however. For example X may be more bald, or fatter, sleepier, taller or faster than Y, even if it is not definite whether or not X is bald, fat, sleepy, tall or fast. Borderline cases can also arise in the case of nouns. In fact vagueness occurs in many more cases than we might at first think. Take 'city'. York is normally said to be a city, but is it really? What about Doncaster? Lancaster? Harrogate? Carlisle?

To a great extent, we take these sorts of vagueness in our stride, having become used unreflectively to interpreting these phenomena in ordinary language. But even the simplest cases can cause misunderstandings. Suppose your boss promises that you're going to receive a 'big pay rise' this year. When you receive the pay increase you discover that the rise is only ten pence an hour. When you complain, your boss defends their promise by saying that the rise is bigger than last year's and therefore big in comparison (see the section on implicit relativity for further discussion of such cases).

Primary and secondary connotation

The rich secondary connotation of some words provides a further source of vagueness. Every ordinary noun and every adjective - 'elephant', 'immoral', 'company', 'stupid' - has a range of things to which it applies: the extension of the term. The set of all bananas constitutes the extension of 'banana'; the set of all square things constitutes the extension of 'square'. A given thing falls within a word's extension if and only if it fits a certain rule associated with that word. For example the rule for the noun 'ram' is 'male sheep'. This rule is called the primary connotation of the term. This will be some set of characteristics, in this case being male and being a sheep which, by definition, everything to which the word applies must have. All of a term's primary connotation must apply to an object for that term to apply to it. The notion of a female ram, for example, is a logical impossibility, a contradiction.

However, when we are told that something is a ram, we tend to assume other things about that thing that are not included in the primary connotation: that it is woolly, has horns, lives on a mountainside or in a field, eats grass ... So if you know that something is a ram, it is reasonable to suppose that it has these additional characteristics. These further characteristics that the term 'ram' also conveys make up its secondary connotation. Things which fall under the term will generally exhibit these characteristics, but there is no logical contradiction in supposing there to be a thing that falls under the term but lacks a characteristic included under the secondary connotation. For instance, there is no logical contradiction in supposing that a thing might count as a ram - that is, fulfil the demands of the primary connotation - yet lack some or, indeed, all of these characteristics. It is not logically impossible that there could be a bald, hornless male sheep that lives in a barn and whose diet consists of potatoes.

Why should critical thinkers be interested in the distinction between primary and secondary connotation? The most immediate relevance was demonstrated in our examination of vagueness. It is difficult to pin down the precise meaning of a word such as 'liberal' because, on the one hand, its primary connotation is very difficult to pin down, and on the other, its secondary connotation is so rich. Take a look back at the list given earlier of characteristics conveyed by 'liberal': it is difficult to say which are part of its primary connotation, and which are only part of its secondary connotation.

A further reason for us to concern ourselves with this distinction is because it is the secondary connotation of many words that gives them their rhetorical power. Consider the noun 'feminist'. Its primary connotation is difficult to pin down and it is full of secondary connotations that can be used to the rhetorical advantage of both those who support and those who oppose feminism. Here are just some of the characteristics our critical thinking students have come up with when asked what the word 'feminist' conveys to them:












Rhetorical questions

Rhetorical questions take the form of a question but indirectly assert a proposition (like a declarative sentence does). That is, they are not really used to ask a question, but to make a point in an indirect way. Speakers and writers often use rhetorical questions when they're making a point they assume to be obvious, so the answer to the question 'goes without saying'. However, in many cases the point is neither obvious nor universally agreed. Rhetorical questions obfuscate speakers' and writers' intended meanings because they make it more difficult to interpret whether or not a speaker/ writer really does support a given claim. Rhetorical questions are common

Why should we become critical thinkers?

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