How to Identify Persuasive and Manipulative Language in an Article or Essay
Any subjective piece of writing will contain some manipulative phrasing in efforts to persuade readers to see the writer’s point of view. All persuasive language is not necessarily misleading, but recognizing the forms of manipulative language heightens critical reading skills that help readers recognize when writers intend to lead them astray from what is true, logical and reasonable.
Acknowledge euphemisms, which are are used to express undesirable sentiments in terms that are less harsh. For instance, “follically challenged” is a popular euphemism for “bald,” and “departed” is a common euphemism for “deceased.”
Make note of hyperbole. Hyperbolic language deliberately exaggerates the reality of what is being expressed, to draw a more shocked or invested emotional reaction than a straightforward statement would solicit. For instance, “The mayor would die before he would allow the school system to lose any more funding” would be an exaggerated way of expressing the mayor’s commitment to maintaining the educational budget.
Practice recognizing obfuscation, a form of manipulative phrasing used to confuse an audience into drawing faulty -- yet desirable to the speaker -- conclusions. For instance, an individual addressing the question of whether he has ever cheated on his wife might equivocate, “If you look at it one way, I‘ve been more faithful in our relationship than she has. But if you look at it another way, I suppose I can see why you might think that I‘m guilty of some wrongdoing.”
Look out for doublespeak, phrasing that involves some contradiction between the actual meanings of words used and the sentiments they are expressing. Doublespeak usually aims to make something negative seem positive by saying one thing while meaning the opposite. For instance, a slave owner might indicate that his slaves enjoy more “freedom” that he does because they do not have to worry about how to provide food, clothes or shelter for their families.
Be leery of jargon. Jargon refers to technical terms not commonly understood among the general public, but used within a specific group sharing a common professional, academic or other field of interest. A speaker or writer may employ jargon to make information sound especially important, highlight his credibility or superiority, emphasize an audience‘s lack of knowledge on a subject or muddle an audience’s understanding of what issues are being discussed. For instance, a doctor may issue an update regarding a patient‘s “agonal respiration,” which in the medical profession, is usually indicative of imminent death.
Take notice of allusions -- references to well-known works or events, used to trigger the memory of emotions or concerns associated with a past experience. For instance, alluding to Dr. Martin Luther King when making mention of a rising activist leader would intend to invoke feelings of awe and reverence toward the new leader -- whether or not such acknowledgment is earned.
Look out for bias implied in the phrasing of questions or statements. Phrasing like, “Why does our country need to pass such an unconstitutional law?” suggests that a balanced and objective exploration of a bill’s pros and cons is unlikely to follow. Likewise, proponents' glowing, emotionally-charged language about that same bill would indicate that their discussion is equally unlikely to provide full exploration of its contents.
W.D. Johnson is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and educational consultant. She specializes in writing development, test preparation and college admissions. Johnson graduated as a writing major from the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts in 2008.