Sidebar: Make Sure Your Claim is Appropriately Qualified

Inexperienced writers often make all-or-nothing claims about a situation, presenting their claim as though it (and only it) will absolutely resolve the problem being considered.

Consider, for example, the following claim about Iran’s nuclear weapons program:

Now that we know that Iran is developing nuclear weapons capabilities, the US must impose sanctions on them. If the sanctions are not successful, the US should declare war in order to stop Iran from achieving its goal of weaponizing its nuclear material.<

This claim presents sanctions and war as the only two options. A reader is likely to pause when they see this claim, and may raise objections like:

  • Will sanctions really work?
  • Why is war the only option if the sanctions aren’t successful?
  • Why should the US be responsible?
  • What would the possible consequences of such actions be?
  • What if we fail even after going to war?

The biggest problem with this claim is how it states its solution: by presenting a sweeping, general claim, the writer oversimplifies a complicated issue. As a result, he appears not to have considered the consequences of what he is proposing.

Contrast that certainty with this more modest, nuanced claim:

Because we know that Iran is developing nuclear weapons capabilities, the US should consider how we might deter Iran from successfully weaponizing nuclear material. Since diplomatic negotiations in this instance have had little, if any, effect, we should examine other possible options, including sanctions and stricter enforcement of the UN’s Nuclear Non-Proliferations Treaty guidelines. Should those options fail, the US should partner with the UN and other member nations to determine what next steps they can take together.<

Most readers find this claim much more reasonable than the first claim, because it is appropriately qualified<. Unlike the first claim, this revised version recognizes that Iran’s nuclear program is not a simple problem and calls for careful solutions. The phrases in bold suggest that this writer is aware of the complexities of the situation and qualifies the offered solution.

The Language of Qualified Claims

Claims that are not sufficiently qualified often overestimate the probability that a claim is correct, the frequency of their results, or the number of cases in which their claim applies. When you revise a claim to make sure it is appropriately qualified, focus on these three areas, and watch for language that puts your claim at risk of oversimplifying an issue.

  • Probability: Some claims overstate the likelihood that their conclusions are accurate.
    • Words to consider changing: certainly, absolutely, in every case, impossible, unbelievable, etc.
    • Good substitutions: most likely, potentially, in many cases, etc.
  • Frequency: Some claims overstate how often a specific cause creates the same effect.
    • Words to consider changing: always, in every case, without fail, never, etc.
    • Good substitutions: usually, often, predictably, generally, rarely, etc.
  • Quantity: Some claims overstate the percentage of people, research, incidences, or cases that support their conclusions.
    • Words to consider changing: all, every, each, none, unanimously, etc.
    • Good substitutions: many, most, some, a substantial majority, etc.

Over-Qualified Claims

It is also possible to over-qualify< a claim, which makes readers doubt your confidence or your competence to solve the problem. Consider these three claims (click on the claim to see our comments):

A) All homeless people should be allowed to vote.<

B) While it is possible that there might be cases in which homeless people should not be allowed to vote, it is also possible that preventing homeless people from voting might cause problems or even invalidate the legality of elections in some circumstances.<

C) Homeless people have the same voting rights as other people, and so the state should provide a form of voter registration that allows them to participate. One possible option would be an ID based on a social security number, which could allow people to use their previous address for a given period of time even after they have vacated that address (so long as they do not register to vote at a new address).<

As you can see, while claim (A) is not sufficiently qualified, claim (B) is so qualified that the claim isn’t clear. Claim (C) is appropriately qualified.

Strong claims find this balance by providing details and considering the nuances and subtleties of the problem. Good claims don’t over- or understate either the problem or the effects of the solution they offer.