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Types of Support: Analogies and Hypotheticals

Types of Support: Analogies and Hypotheticals

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson discusses how to use analogies and hypotheticals in an effective way.

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Source: Huxley, T. (1909) A Liberal Education. “Autobiography and Selected Essays.” Gutenberg eBook #1315, p. 49-56. Updated Jan. 20, 2013.

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Welcome back to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me. What are we going to learn today? Today, we'll be learning about the non-factual types of support that writers can use in their essays-- hypotheticals and analogies.

It may sound counterintuitive to use non-fact-based information as support for an academic essay, but the truth is that writers do it all the time. That being said, we should be careful not to overuse hypotheticals and analogies, because relying too heavily on them can undermine our essay's credibility. It can make our essay seem under researched or under-supported, which in turn makes us as writers seem lazy or unengaged. It's also important when using a hypothetical or an analogy to make it clear that that's what you're doing, and not presenting what readers might think is a factual event.

Using hypothetical involves proposing a scenario in order to make or illustrate a point. Most of the time when we think of hypotheticals, we think of hypothetical questions where a writer or speaker asks a question for which the answer is implied or obvious. It's best for writers of academic essays to avoid hypothetical questions, because they can often come across as sarcastic, or at least as questions that would have been better off just being answered in the essay.

The word hypothetical has the same root as hypothesis, and can mean a reasoned possibility. Considering this meaning of the word, writers can propose hypothetical situations either as problems that need to be solved or results that might occur. These kinds of hypothetical situations can be very effective for setting up an argument and its stakes. The writers need to be careful to avoid committing logical fallacies with hypotheticals, especially the slippery slope fallacy in which a writer falsely claims or implies that one event or sequence of events will necessarily lead to another unavoidable and usually negative event.

Take this hypothetical situation for example, which might have been taken from a beginning writer's attempt at an academic argument. One day not far from now, kids will be able to walk or ride their bikes down to the corner store, and scraping their change together, get themselves a little bit of meth, coke, or acid-- and not from someone lurking outside or in the alley behind the shop, but from the counter itself. Because that's not a corner store, but one of the new, completely legal dispensaries, just like the ones that are popping up all over town. Sure, today they're only allowed to sell marijuana, but thanks to liberals in the state legislature, we've already started down this path.

This writer's use of a slippery slope fallacy should have been pretty clear, but that doesn't make the image of kids happily biking down to pick up an eight ball any less scary, does it? And that's the power, both good and bad, of hypotheticals. They're stories. And because they let the reader see-- with imagination's eyes of course-- the scene being described, hypotheticals can make an argument's claims and importance more easily understood.

Now, here's a slightly less problematic-- if no less troubling-- example of a hypothetical situation in use. If you were walking alone at night because you got off work or your friend parked in different places, you'd have to on your guard. And even if it was daytime, you wouldn't be able to relax anyway. Because even though there would be people around, none of them would intervene. And once you're home with the doors locked and the curtains drawn, if you opened a magazine or turned on the TV, you'd see and hear arguments of a world that's telling you it's your fault. Because you're a woman, so avoiding sexual assault and putting up with sexual harassment are part of the territory.

Now, this example is also fairly inflammatory, but I'd make the argument that here, at least, a hypothetical situation is being used in good faith to try to express the day-to-day lives of many women for readers that we assume don't have to think about it much. As you can probably imagine, an essay about how we're all to blame for sexual harassment in our society could do well to have a hypothetical situation like this, probably somewhere up in this introduction to help establish the situation and set out the stakes involved.

An analogy. The other kind of non-factual support we'll discuss today is a comparison of two things. Writers use them to draw similarities as a way to help readers understand a complicated idea or piece of information. Analogies are considered a key component of cognition, or how humans think about and understand the world, because our minds make connections between things in order to understand and categorize the world. They can be very helpful for readers to understand the evidence and draw from it the connections a writer wants them to make. And just like other forms of support, analogy should not be overused, and should be only used ethically-- that is, in a way that avoids manipulation.

The cool thing about analogies is that they offer the writers a chance to craft interesting, focused, and dynamic connections between ideas. Here's an example of one of the most common analogies in English. Today, I felt like a fish out of water. Used to express just how ineffective the speaker felt without actually going into specific detail, this analogy conveys the metaphorical truth to the reader.

Here's another common analogy. Getting out of bed this morning felt like pulling myself from quicksand. Or how about this one? The relationship between Fred and his new boss was beginning to thaw. Both of these are using the natural world to express the feeling of human social interactions. And here's another one that I once heard used that stuck with me. The universe is like a safe. It can be easily opened if you know the combination, but the combination is locked up in the safe. I'm not sure exactly the connection being made beyond that things that we can't understand are certainly understandable, just hard to get at from where we are now, or something like that.

And finally, here's an example of a more extended analogy being used in a paragraph taken from Thomas Henry Huxley's essay A Liberal Education. Suppose that we're perfectly certain that the life and fortune of every one of us would, one day or another, depend upon his winning or losing a game of chess. Don't you think that we should all consider it to be a primary duty to learn at least the names and the moves of the pieces, to have a notion of a gambit, and a keen eye for all the means of giving and getting out of check? Do you not think that we should look with a disapprobation amounting to scorn upon the father who allowed his son or the state which allowed its members to grow up without knowing a pawn from a knight?

Here, as in other analogies, the argument is about the two things being connected. The specifics of the relationship are left for the reader to understand through imagery, but that's part of the power of analogies and of hypotheticals. They require the reader to do some of the work. And in doing so, they require the reader to engage with the argument, which is almost always a good thing.

So what did we learn today? We learned about the two kinds of non-factual support writers can use in their essays-- hypotheticals and analogies.

I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.