152. Agreeing & Disagreeing in Formal Contexts

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Agreement and disagreement can be shown in numerous ways in formal writing

THE NEED FOR FORMAL (DIS)AGREEMENT LANGUAGE

Agreement and disagreement are common in those kinds of professional writing where opinions are common, such as discussions of hypotheses and theories. This is not surprising, given that the possibility of agreement and disagreement is a defining feature of opinions (see 107. The Language of Opinions). Agreement and disagreement by definition imply the opinions of at least two people, which means that texts containing them will have multiple “speakers” (see 22. Multiple Speakers in a Text).

The language of agreeing and disagreeing tends to be very different in academic and professional writing from that used in everyday spoken English, where these types of statement are of course also common. Special care must be taken with disagreeing in writing in order not to sound impolite. This post presents a variety of common ways in which agreement and disagreement can be expressed in formal writing.

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WAYS OF SHOWING AGREEMENT

The main indicators of a writer’s agreement with an opinion seem to be verbs, adjectives and adverbs.

1. Use of Verbs

It is verbs of a certain reporting kind that can show agreement. The agreement will be with the opinion reported with the verb. Here is an example:

(a) Smith (2010) shows that film censorship is justified.

Using SHOW implies agreement because it suggests confirmed truth in a way that SAY or ARGUE does not. Other report verbs with a similar effect include DEMONSTRATE, ESTABLISH, INDICATE, MAKE IT CLEAR, NOTE, OBSERVE, POINT OUT and PROVE. Some can also be made into “action” nouns with a similar use, e.g. demonstration, indication, observation and proof (see 131. Uses of Action Nouns).

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2. Use of Adjectives

Sometimes agreement adjectives describe the holder of the opinion:

(b) Murphy (2016) is convincing in arguing that social benefits can end poverty.

Other possible adjectives here include accurate, compelling, correct, credible, effective, persuasive, right and reasonable. All can be made stronger with completely or wholly and weaker with up to a point. Two longer expressions are (very) difficult to contradict and (very) easy to agree with/believe.

Agreement adjectives may also describe report nouns rather than people, like this:

(c) Arguments supporting social benefits are convincing.

(d) A persuasive case for social benefits is made by Davis (2013).

In (c), the adjective is placed after its noun and separated from it by a linking verb (are), whereas in (d) it is placed directly before. These two positions are the two normal ones in English (see 109. Placing an Adjective after its Noun).

Most of the adjectives that can be used with an opinion holder can also be used with a report noun. Of those listed above, correct is perhaps an exception, while right and the two longer phrases are unlikely in the pre-noun position illustrated by (d). On the other hand, some adjectives are more likely to describe report nouns than opinion holders, e.g. conclusive, encouraging, impressive, incontrovertible, irrefutable, powerful, strong and undeniable.

One other use of agreement adjectives is after a starting it is, like this:

(e) It is true (to say) that social benefits can end poverty.

True here is describing the pronoun it. However, since it corresponds to the words after true (see 103. Using “it” for a Subsequent Verb), these words – which state the opinion being agreed with – are what true really describes. The adjective true seems to fit much better into sentences like (e) than into the other kinds. Alternatives include accurate to say, convincing to say, correct to say, credible (to say), easy to believe/agree, hard to disagree, obvious and undeniable.

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3. Use of Adverbs

Practically all of the adjectives listed above can be made into adverbs with -ly and combined with a report verb to show agreement, like this:

(f) Jones (2010) writes convincingly of the benefits of globalisation.

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WAYS OF SHOWING DISAGREEMENT

Most of the ways of showing disagreement are equivalents of the agreement-showing ones above.

1. Use of Verbs

As with agreement verbs, it is certain reporting verbs that can show disagreement. A common one is CLAIM: in sentence (a) claims instead of shows would suggest that the writer did not support film censorship. Other verbs like this include ALLEGE and ASSERT (there is also an informal expression GO AROUND SAYING). The derived nouns allegation, assertion and claim carry the same suggestion.

Verbs that are simply opinion-indicating, such as ARGUE, MAINTAIN and THINK (see 107. The Language of Opinions) can also hint at disagreement. This is because their very highlighting that the reported point is not a fact suggests disagreement is possible.

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2. Use of Adjectives

Disagreement-showing adjectives seem not to be used very often to describe an opinion-holder, perhaps because they might sound impolite. Two of the more polite-sounding possibilities are difficult to agree with and unconvincing.

On the other hand, adjectives describing a report noun are quite numerous. Examples are bogus, contentious, debatable, erroneous, extreme, fallacious, feeble, flimsy, hard to accept/believe, limited, ludicrous, misconceived, misguided, misleading, misplaced, mistaken, mythical, naive, overstated, poor, questionable, scanty, shaky, simplistic, speculative, unconvincing, unsupportable and weak. Many of these can also be used after It is (some with to say, some without it). Exceptions are poor, scanty and weak.

One adjective to avoid is unbelievable (see 114. Tricky Word Contrasts 3, #7). For more on negative words generally, see 13. Hidden Negatives and 146. Some Important Prefix Types.

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3. Use of Adverbs

Many of the adjectives listed above can be made into adverbs with -ly and combined with a report verb to show disagreement. Those in the list that cannot do this are underlined.

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4. Use of “may … but …”

This is a more complicated way of showing disagreement that is analysed in depth in the Guinlist post 51. Making Concessions with “May”. Consider this example:

(g) Coal MAY be a cheap fuel, BUT it harms the environment.

Superficially there are two opposing facts here about coal. However, the use of may with the first suggests that the fact it is helping to express is important for other people than the writer, while but suggests that the writer attaches importance to the second fact, and hence is a reason for disagreeing with coal supporters and opposing the use of coal.

The same contrast can be made with numerous synonyms of may and but. Special care is needed with adverb equivalents of may such as certainly and indeed. More can be read about them in the relevant post. Also of interest is all very well (see 159. Exotic Grammar Structures 2, #2). A much less formal equivalent than all of these, common in spoken interactions and frequently mentioned in English courses, is You have a point, but … .

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PRACTICE EXERCISE (Agreement and Disagreement)

Interested readers are invited to classify each statement below as either agreeing, disagreeing or neutral.

1. Mathieu (2010) points out that vegetarian diets deprive the human body of essential nutrients.

2. All roads are said to lead to Rome.

3. The popular image of a terrorist used to be that of a scruffy bomb-thrower.

4. Some artificial intelligence specialists allege that every function of the human brain will eventually be replicated by machines.

5. The important point has often been made that large automobiles do not always cause more harm to the environment than smaller ones.

6. It is encouraging to hear that drug laws should be relaxed.

7. According to Sim (2015), political situations may provide a greater incentive to save money than interest rates.

8. A train is sometimes defined simplistically as a collection of wagons pulled along rails by a locomotive.

9. Nuclear accidents are certainly possible. Nevertheless, nuclear power stations are the most efficient means of generating electricity.

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ANSWERS: 1 = Agreeing (positive report verb points out);  2 = Neutral;  3 = Neutral;  4 = Disagreeing (negative report verb allege);  5 = agreeing (positive adjective important);  6 = Agreeing (positive adjective encouraging);  7 = Neutral;  8 = Disagreeing (negative adverb simplistically);  9 = Disagreeing (paraphrase of may … but … ).

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