Intro |  Universal |  Qualified |  Specific |  Non-Specific |  Comparative | 
Fact and Opinion |  Verifiable |  Evaluative

Introduction to Statements (or Claims)

For the purposes of critical thinking, all sentences can be divided into those that can be true or false, and those that cannot. Only a few sentences cannot be true or false: commands ("Just do it."), exclamations ("Far out!"), and questions ("Why not?"). Exclamations and commands are rare in the persuasive appeals that we call arguments in critical thinking, though they are much more frequent in the kind of arguments you get into at home or in a bar or after an accident, where there is a good deal less analysis than anger. Questions can be found more frequently in critical thinking, but these are often rhetorical questions: questions asked in such a way that they make a point without requiring an answer, or questions with answers so obvious they don't really need to be asked.

Sentences that can be true or false--the vast majority of all sentences in critical thinking--are called statements or claims. Note that you don't need to know whether a statement is true or false, just that it has the form of sentence that can be true or false. We may never know the truth of such sentences as "Before he died, Elvis was thinking of becoming a vegetarian" or "The universe is younger than its oldest galaxies"; we may not even completely understand them. But as long as they have the possibility of being true or false, such sentences are statements.

We can further categorize statements by three qualities:

  1. whether they are verifiable, evaluative, or advocatory claims;
  2. whether they are specific or, if non-specific, whether the qualification strengthens or weakens the claim;
  3. whether they serve as conclusions, premises, or support in an argument.

In this section, we will be focusing on the first two qualities only. You can find more information about conclusions, premises, and support in the section on the structure of an argument, and you can find help in distinguishing premises and conclusions in the section on identifiers.

Qualified and Specific Statements

Specific claims contain or imply language or figures of an exact nature:

  • 45% of the people surveyed supported the reforms.

  • One-third of the investment has been lost.

  • This marked the first time that India successfully orbited a satellite.

In those three sentence, "45%," "one-third," and "first" represent specific information. Such statistical statements are powerful and persuasive expressions in an argument, but they are also easy to attack, because a single example to the contrary is sufficient to refute them. The most common specific statements are universal ones, in which the figure involved is either "100%" or "0%," usually expressed by words such as always, never, all, none, everyone, no one, and so on. For more on this, see the section on Universal Statements.

Non-specific claims are ones in which no specific number is cited; as a result, they are often more difficult to attack. Consider the following examples:

  • 49% of those casting ballots voted for Kennedy.
  • Approximately 49% of those casting ballots voted for Kennedy.
  • More than 49% of those casting ballots voted for Kennedy.
  • Less than half of those casting ballots voted for Kennedy.
  • Kennedy received more votes than did Nixon.

Only the first example above is a specific claim. The second qualifies that specific claim with the word "approximately," making the statement weaker but harder to disprove. The last three examples are all comparative statements, a type of qualification that operates by comparing the subject of the statement with something else (49% of the votes vs. "more than 49%," half the votes vs. "less than half," the votes for Kennedy vs. the votes for Nixon). Comparative and other non-specific claims are usually harder to disprove than specific claims, but not always; often, they are also more effective in an argument.

A claim with a modifier is considered qualified whether it is specific or non-specific. Non-qualified claims have no modifiers at all: "The investment has been lost" or "Kennedy received votes." These sound universal, but may not be.

Note that many claims appear to be specific, but are usually intended to be non-specific. Consider these examples:

  • Jacques is a good boy.

  • Americans are rich and well-educated.

  • Mercedes are reliable cars.

All of these examples convey an implied "all" or "always." But even if we said, "Jacques is always a good boy," we wouldn't be surprised to find out about the time Jacques wasn't good. And though Americans may be rich and well-educated as a group, compared to many other peoples in the world, we surely recognize that there are many Americans individually who are either not rich or not well-educated. Generally speaking, apparently specific claims should be understood as non-specific when they deal with personal behavior or group attributes because humans (and other organisms) are individually inconsistent and collectively diverse. To some extent, this is true of other populations, including manufactured items like automobiles. We understand that "Mercedes are reliable cars" doesn't mean "100% of Mercedes are reliable cars." Yet "Mercedes have aluminum-head engines" may well mean "100% of Mercedes have aluminum-head engines"; and (most interestingly) we may be willing to put "all" in front of the statement, "Mercedes are expensive cars," even though we know that a heavily damaged Mercedes can be bought for only a few dollars. The point here is that, sometimes, context and convention may affect our understanding of even simple statements. The job of a critical thinker is to understand the statements as they were meant, rather than insisting on a purely literal construction.

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Exercises: Specific, Universal,

Non-Specific, and Comparative Statements

1. Which of the following claims is specific (that is, not qualified)?
a. China has about one-quarter of the world's population.
b. China has more than a quarter of the world's population.
c. China has one-quarter of the world's population.
d. China has about 25% of the world's population.

2. Which of the following claims would be easiest to prove or disprove?
a. Babe Ruth hit a lot of home runs.
b. Babe Ruth hit 714 home runs.
c. Babe Ruth hit less home runs than Hank Aaron.
d. Babe Ruth hit more than 700 home runs.

Statements of Verification and Evaluation

Fact and Opinion. In critical thinking, the difference between what are commonly called "facts" and "opinions" is not great--if, indeed, it exists at all. Both "facts" and "opinions" can be used to support arguments, and sometimes strong expert "opinions" can outweigh weak or inconsistent "facts." Indeed, considering that much of what we know about the physical sciences is based on hypotheses--that is, opinions that cannot be confirmed--you might wonder why we bother distinguishing between "fact" and "opinion" at all.

Verification and Evaluation. A more important distinction for critical thinking is between claims that are thought to be verifiable, and those that are presented as evaluative. In this sense, verifiable claims are those that can be confirmed either by observation or by reference to established sources, such as books. Evaluations are statements of taste and interpretation. Notice that opinions can be expressed sometimes as statements of verification and sometimes as statements of evaluation. Consider the following claims:

  • "Willa thinks that's a shade of blue."
  • "Willa thinks that's a lovely shade of blue."
  • "That's a shade of blue."
  • "That's a lovely shade of blue."

The first two are clearly opinions, but they are expressed as statements of verification, because the issue is whether that is what Willa thinks, not what the color is. The third one is also a statement of verification, because (for most people) "blue" is something ascertainable by observation. But the fourth claim is a statement of evaluation, because what is "lovely" is a matter of taste. And it doesn't matter whether the claim is true or false--that is, a false statement of verification is not a statement of evaluation. All four of our examples can be false--Willa might think otherwise, for the first two, and the color might be red, for the second two--but they are nevertheless three statements of verification, followed by a statement of evaluation.

Advocatory claims are a special category of evaluative claims which deal with morality, ethics, duty, and other sorts of statements involving compunction, in that advocatory claims express what ought or ought not to be or to have been. Thus, "You are free" is a claim of evaluation, but "You should be free" is an advocatory statement. Advocatory claims usually include the word "should" or "ought" (though not all claims with "should" or "ought" in them are advocatory). Notice, however, that "You should be free" may be expressed in two claims as "Free is good" and "You should be whatever is good." Since all advocatory claims take this form--an evaluative claim like "Free is good" and some element of the generally accepted maxim that "You should be or do whatever is good or right or proper, and you should not be or do whatever is not good or right or proper"--we will simply treat advocatory claims as evaluative ones, with the maxim understood.

The point of categorizing statements into specific and qualified, on one hand, and verifiable and evaluative, on the other, is to understand better the arguments in which they appear. We have already seen that specific claims are the most persuasive but also the most easily refuted. Correctly identifying such statements helps to indicate what needs to be done to attack and defend an argument. Knowing if a statement is one of verification or evaluation helps ensure a consistency of argument, because if the conclusion is a statement of verification, it must be supported by at least one premise that is a verifiable claim; and so too with conclusions of evaluation.

Exercises: Statements of
Verification and Evaluation

3. Which of the following is an evaluative claim?
a. Pete Wilson is governor of California..
b. Pete Wilson is not governor of California.
c. Pete Wilson is a secret Democrat.
d. Pete Wilson is a loyal Republican.

4. Which of the following is NOT a verifiable claim?
a. The sun is 93 million miles from the earth.
b. The sun is less than one light year from earth.
c. The sun is very far from earth.
d. The sun is more than twice as far from earth as Venus.

5. What kind of statement is "Yeltsin argued that the rebels should surrender their hostages"?
a. a claim of verification
b. a claim of evaluation
c. a claim of advocacy