107. The Language of Opinions

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Opinions can be expressed without opinion-showing language – but they often have it

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CHARACTERISTICS OF OPINIONS

Opinions are beliefs that are not proven and hence can be disagreed with. In this sense they are the opposite of facts. Consider the following two statements:

(a) Rice is eaten more in Asia than in Europe.

(b) Rice is tastier than potatoes.

The second of these is an opinion: taste cannot be measured scientifically (see 163. Ways of Naming Properties), and many people will believe the opposite – that potatoes taste better than rice. Sentence (a) could be an opinion too. However, unlike (b) it can be proven with statistics. If this has been done, disagreement is ill-advised and a fact is being stated.

One important kind of opinion is statements about the future. These cannot usually express facts because the future is hardly ever certain (see 96. Hedging 2: Lists & Predictions and 147. Types of Future Meaning).

There is nothing in the language of either (a) or (b) to show whether or not they are opinions. It is our general knowledge – knowing, for example, that tastes are personal and unmeasurable – that enables us to identify opinions. Yet English does possess some words that can, when necessary, assist readers to recognise a statement as an opinion – just as it possesses “connectors” to help readers recognise less-obvious cross-sentence meanings (see 18. Relations Between Sentences).

This post is about the variety of language that writers can choose from in order to be sure the reader knows an opinion is being given. Some of the language is more associated with reported opinions – expressed by other people than the writer – while some mostly accompanies the writer’s own opinions. For information about the way opinions help to form arguments, see 167. Ways of Arguing 1.

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MARKING OTHER PEOPLE’S STATEMENTS AS OPINIONS

It is quite common for the writer of a text to include statements originally made by other people (see 22. Multiple Speakers in a Text). These normally need to be linked with information about who the other people are. Typical linking devices include reporting verbs, preposition phrases and brackets (see 79. Grammar Problems in Quotation-Writing).

The first two of these linking possibilities are in some cases additionally able to mark a reported statement as an opinion. Writers wishing to use a reporting verb to show an opinion have quite a wide choice (see 150. Verbs with Indirect Speech). In the following examples, three reporting verbs are underlined. Which one is opinion-showing?

(c) Fawzi (2011, p.2) states that race is not a major factor in sporting success.

(d) Smith (2014, p. 42) argues that success in professional football depends on financial backing.

(e) As Fernandez (2013, p. 167) confirms, sporting success depends on numerous factors.

The opinion-showing verb here is argues in (d). Of the others, confirms suggests that the reported statement is a fact, while states is neutral.

Besides ARGUE, opinion-showing reporting verbs include AGREE, ALLEGE, ASSERT, ASSESS, BE CONVINCED, BELIEVE, CLAIM, CONSIDER, CONTEND, CRITICISE, DISMISS, FEEL, HOLD, JUDGE, MAINTAIN, OPINE, PROPOSE, SUGGEST, SUSPECT and THINK. The underlined ones additionally suggest the writer’s disagreement with the opinion (see 152. Agreeing & Disagreeing in Formal Contexts). All of the verbs except CRITICISE and DISMISS can be used with either that after or as before (see 79. Grammar Problems in Quotation-Writing). Adverbs like widely or occasionally can be added to them to indicate the frequency of the opinion.

Reporting verbs that suggest the accompanying statement is a fact rather than an opinion include CONFIRM, DEMONSTRATE, ESTABLISH, IDENTIFY, INDICATE, KNOW, MAKE CLEAR, NOTE, OBSERVE, POINT OUT, PROVE and SHOW (for more on NOTE, see 132. Tricky Word Contrasts 4). Verbs that are neutral about whether the statement is a fact or opinion include CONCLUDE, EMPHASISE, MENTION, SAY, STATE, STRESS and WRITE.

Some reporting verbs have a matching noun with a similar function. Opinion-showing nouns include assertion, assessment, belief, claim, contention, conviction, criticism, judgement, opinion, position, suggestion and view. You can put the name of the opinion-holder into the “source-showing” possessive form (e.g. Smith’s opinion is that … – see 58. Optional Apostrophe Endings), or make it the subject of a verb like HAVE, HOLD or MAKE (see 141. Ways of Using MAKE), like this:

(f) Smith (2014, p.42) holds the opinion (makes the case) that success in professional football depends on financial backing.

Note also the idiomatic expression is of the opinion/view that … .

Finally, instead of a reporting verb or noun equivalent, particular preposition phrases can mark a reported statement as an opinion. The main ones seem to be according to and in the opinion of, and also worth mentioning is as far as (NAME) is concerned (an expression with a conjunction [as] rather than a preposition).

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MARKING ONE’S OWN STATEMENTS AS OPINIONS

There is a much wider range of language available for marking one’s own statements as opinions. Much of it is paraphrases of I think/feel that, or in my opinion, which are often felt to be too informal for professional writing (see 46. How to Avoid “I”, “We” and “You”). The main types of paraphrase are detailed below; readers are also referred to the post 96. Hedging 2: Lists & Predictions.

One notable absentee from the following list is the prepositional phrase according to. Its use is not advised partly because it would need to be followed by either informal me or clumsy this writer, and partly because I feel it implies disagreement with the reported opinion – illogical when that opinion is one’s own.

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1. Sentences Starting with “it”

The detailed grammar of this kind of sentence is analysed in the post 103. Using “It” for a Subsequent Verb. To indicate an opinion, one would mostly continue after it with is or seems plus an adjective (not an -ed verb) like possible, arguable, likely, feasible, tenable or reasonable, followed by that, like this:

(g) It is arguable that India’s growth will accelerate.

The adjective likely is particularly flexible, since it can also be used in a sentence without it (India’s growth is likely to accelerate). The verb SEEM has some flexibility too, since it does not always need a following adjective: one can begin It seems that … .

One other possibility after it is can be with certain reporting verbs, including said, stated, argued and maintained. An important point here is that the verb can be is essential: using is marks the opinion as someone else’s rather than one’s own (see 22. Multiple Speakers in a Text). Can be is also usable without it in combination with some as-requiring verbs, such as DEFINE, DESCRIBE and CLASSIFY (e.g. Acids can be defined as …). For more examples, see 162. The Language of Classification.

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2. “may” Combined with “but”

This combination (and various synonyms) is analysed in the post 51. Making Concessions with “May”. An example is:

(h) Cars MAY be faster than bicycles BUT they pollute the environment.

The underlined statements are opposing facts implying opposing opinions (that cars are good/bad). The use of may…but indicates that the writer holds the second implied opinion (against cars). To express no opinion, one would have to use on the one hand … on the other … .

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3. Opinion-Showing Adverbs

Various adverbs are commonly found added to statements to mark them as opinions. One major group indicates different degrees of probability. In decreasing order they include in all likelihood, most likely, probably, possibly, perhaps and conceivably. A famous beer advertisement, for example, speaks of probably the best lager in the world”.

Another adverb group rather surprisingly suggests certainty. Examples are certainly, definitely, no doubt, surely, undoubtedly and undeniably.  One might say that they indicate uncertainty by the very act of denying it! For more on no doubt, see 157. Tricky Word Contrasts 5 (#1).

Three other useful adverbs are apparently, seemingly and arguably. The first two recognise the untrustworthiness of human senses, while the third simply means “I believe”. Two adverbs that are not like this are superficially and debatably. These are more negative, and are used for disagreeing with other people’s opinions (see 13. Hidden Negatives and 152. Agreeing and Disagreeing in Formal Contexts).

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4. Modal Verbs

Apart from the uses of can and may mentioned above, modal verbs signal opinions by indicating probability like adverbs. The most useful is probably may, which indicates a 50% probability of a statement being true. Alternatives suggest a greater or smaller probability: should (around 90%), may well (70%), might (30%) and could (10%). Sentence (g), for example, could have should accelerate instead of it is arguable that…will accelerate.

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5. Ordinary Verbs

Two ordinary verbs that seem particularly able to function like may are SEEM and APPEAR. In the following example, does not seem to corresponds to may not:

(i) Race does not seem (to be) a major factor in sporting success.

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6. “One can” + Reporting Verb

This combination is similar to the above-mentioned use of it with can be and a passive reporting verb. Thus, instead of it can be argued, there is the possibility of saying one can argue. Note again the importance of including can. Some might say the active after one sounds better than the passive after it; but a problem is that one can sound excessively formal.

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