Orienting Words

The semantic concept of an argumentative morpheme, or orienting word, is developed by Anscombre and Ducrot as an essential part of the theory of Argumentation within Language. A morpheme (an expression) is said to be argumentative if its introduction into an utterance:

— does not modify the factual referential value of this statement (it has no quantifying function)

— modifies its argumentative orientation, that is to say, the set of conclusions compatible with this statement; the set of statements that may follow it, S. Orientation.

The concept has been applied to the linguistic description of “empty” words or “argumentative operators” such as little / a little, as well as to “full” words such as the helpful / servile pair.

1. Opposition of anti-oriented words

Consider the statements (1) “Peter is helpful” and (2) “Peter is servile”. Do these two statements describe two different kinds of behaviors, or one and the same attitude? Both positions can be argued.

(i) Statements (1) and (2) describe two behaviors. Helping one’s grandmother cut up the chicken would be helpful; accepting to carry your boss’ small suitcase would be servile. As a result, a different value is attached to each behavior; a positive value is attributed to helpfulness, whilst a negative value is placed on servility. In order to determine the nature of Peter’s behavior, one must scrutinize reality.

(ii) It can also be said that these two words describe a single behavior cast it in two different lights, i.e. two subjectivities, involving emotions and value judgments. I judge this behavior positively, and I say, “Peter is helpful”; I judge it negatively, and claim, “Peter is servile”. Reality says nothing about helpfulness or servility. The origin of the distinction is not grounded in reality, but in the active structuring operated by the speaker’s perception.

Statements (1) and (2) create opposed discursive expectations within the listener: Helpful is a recommendation, “A nice guy!”, while servile is a rejection, “I can’t bear him”.

If the job implies contacts with a person concerned specifically about deferential behavior, then Peter is servile might also serve as an ironic recommendation, encompassing the disapproval of the two people: “they will make a nice pair”.

These opposed orientations correspond to the rhetorical phenomenon known as paradiastole, “the world moves backwards, words have lost their meaning: the miser is economical, the unconscious courageous”; they are interpreted as the expression of linguistic bias by normative theories of logical inspiration. S. Orientation Reversal.

Antithetical designations — The opposition discourse vs. counter-discourse is sometimes reflected in the morphology of words, as in the previous case, S. Antithesis; Derivatives; Ambiguity:

disputation vs. disputatiousness
politician vs. politico
philosopher vs. philosophizer
scientific vs. scientistic

In general, parties will use different terms to refer to beings at the center of the debate: you are the persecutor, I am the victim; he is the bad rich man, I am the poor but honest person; your approach is scientistic while mine is scientific, S. Discursive Object.

According to what criteria can I categorize this individual as a terrorist or as a resistance fighter? Is the resistance fighter a successful terrorist, and the terrorist the resistance fighter of a lost cause? Should his acts be considered (categorized) as a coward act of terrorism or as a heroic act of resistance? Shall we say that everyone has dirty hands and that everything depends on the speaker’s partisan options? Humanity can and does establish universal criteria for deciding who is who, such as “targeting civilians; using and targeting children”, “torturing people”, S. Categorization.

2. Adverbial orientation operators

2.1 Even

The adverb even is argumentative in:

Leo has a bachelor’s degree and even a Master’s degree.

Statements “ p, and even p’ ” are characterized by their relative position on an argument scale:

There is a certain [conclusion] r determining an argument scale where p’ is [a stronger argument] than p [for the conclusion r]. (Ducrot 1973, p. 229)

In other words, even statements are inherently argumentative; they are oriented towards a conclusion r, that can be recovered from the context; they coordinate two arguments p and p’ supporting this conclusion; and they hierarchize those two statements, presenting p’ as stronger than p.

Statement (1) is argumentative; it coordinates two arguments “Leo has a bachelor’s degree” and “Leo has a Master’s degree”; both are oriented towards a conclusion, for example “Leo can teach some mathematics”; and it considers that the latter “Leo has a Master’s degree” is a stronger argument than the former for this same conclusion. This gradation can be represented as follows on an argument scale:

The relative positions of p and p’ on that scale depend on the speaker:

We had a great meal, we even had cheese pasta.

Some gastronomes may not consider cheese pasta to be an essential component of a great meal.

2.2 Too

The theory of scales is governed by a “plus” principle: the higher one is on the scale, the closer one is to the conclusion. But this principle leads to a paradox:

You reluctantly bathe in water with a temperature of twenty-two degrees, you’d be happier to bathe in water at twenty-five, at thirty, or even warmer. The hotter the water, the better for you; so you really should try bathing directly in the kettle.

Too often inverts the argumentative orientation:

S1       — that’s cheap, buy it.
S2       — (Precisely) that’s too cheap.

And sometimes reinforces this orientation:

S1       — It’s expensive, too expensive, don’t buy it

2.3 Almost / hardly

Almost is a paradoxical word: “almost P” presupposes not-P and argues as P. If Leo is almost on time, he’s not on time. Nonetheless, one can say:

Excuse him, he was almost on time, he should not be sanctioned.

In other words, “almost on time” is co-oriented with “on time”. The argumentative orientation of an almost utterance might be rejected by an inflexible superior, who rejects the positive framing being imposed upon him. The superior applies the topos of the letter of the law, S. Strict meaning:

So you do confirm that he was not on time. The sanction will be applied.

This co-orientation of P and almost P does not apply to predicates referring to the crossing of a threshold. When transporting a seriously ill patient, the nurse might urge the ambulance driver: “hurry, he is almost dead” but the nurse would not say, “hurry, he is dead”. Yet, in an alternative scenario, say that of a rather laborious assassination, the murderer can tell his accomplice, “hurry up, he is almost dead, and you still haven’t found anything to wrap his body in”, and a fortiorihurry up, he is dead, etc.”

The permutation almost / hardly reverses the argumentative orientation of the statements in which they enter:

You’re almost healed, you can join our party!
I’m hardly healed, I cannot join your party.

The appeal to the strict meaning is opposed to the raising of the thresholds produced by almost and scarcely, S. Strict Meaning.

2.4 Little / A Little

These two adverbs give opposing argumentative orientations to the predicates that they modify:

(1) now, there is little trust in market mechanisms.
(2) now, there is a little trust in market mechanisms.

(1) is oriented towards “there is no trust at all”, while (2) is oriented towards “trust”. Little and a little are not quantifiers referring to different quantities of food (a little trust being more than little trust), but give opposed orientations to a quantity that is fundamentally the same.

3. Adjectives as orientation operators

Adjectives can modify the argumentative strength or the orientation of a sentence.

De-realizing operators are defined as follows:

A lexical word Y is de-realizing in relation to a predicate X if and only if the combination XY on the one hand is not felt as contradictory, and, on the other hand, reverses or lowers the argumentative strength of X. (Ducrot 1995, p. 147)

Consider the statements (Ducrot 1995, p. 148-150)

He is a relative, and even a close relative
He’s a relative, but a distant relative

Close is a realizing operator (id., p. 147) “they are close relatives” is co-oriented with “they are relatives”, towards conclusions such as “they know each other well”. They are situated as follows on the corresponding argument scale:

Distant is a de-realizing operator. The sentence “he is a distant relative of mine”:

— can be oriented towards “we don’t know each other well”, i.e., it has an opposite orientation to “he is a relative of mine”.

— can be oriented towards “we know each other well”, like “he is a relative of mine”, but with a lesser force: