Grammar Guerilla: Conversations, Discussions, And Arguments

Guerilla-GorillaFor the better part of the last decade I have been hearing and reading the expression, “I do not like that conversation” or “I do not like that discussion.” If, in this context, the nouns discussion and conversation mean “the exchange of ideas” then it is very odd for someone to say “I do not like that exchange of ideas.” Really? Why not? Is this some form of political correctness or some new speech code? Perhaps but it seems as if what is intended is actually “I do not like that argument.” In this usage argument does not signify some unpleasantness between two people: “I cannot believe that you spent the entire cocktail party talking to that boor! Well, what choice did I have? You spent the evening sulking in the corner.” That is a spat, a quarrel, a tiff, or a squabble. It can be an unpleasant dispute (e.g., Luke 9:46). Paul warns against being argumentative (ἀντιλέγοντας) in Titus 2:9 but it need not be so.

The noun argument has other senses: reason, ground, rationale, explanation, or defense. Paul uses the word argument in Colossians 2:4 when he warns against being taken captive by enticing arguments (πιθανολογίᾳ). When a talk-show host says “I do not like that argument” what she means is, “I do not like that reasoning” or “that claim” or “that case” or “that rationale.” What is being disputed here are either premises or a conclusion (and the relation between them). The host is having a discussion or a conversation with her guest(s). They are discussing different points of view and they may disagree about the merits of this argument or that but there is nothing wrong with having the discussion. Indeed, arguably (!), we need to have more intelligent, thoughtful discussions, conversations, in which sound and valid arguments are made.

There are good reasons to dislike an argument without jettisoning arguments altogether. The first is that a conclusion is being drawn from a false premise. Some Nebraskans talk as if the Cornhuskers were  always a running team and that coach Riley’s move to a passing attack is a sort of lapse. This argument ignores history. In the early 1970s Jerry Tagge and Van Brownson threw the ball a fair bit and won two national championships.  Tom Osborne’s early teams threw the ball quite a bit. Indeed, the Huskers did not become an option team until 1978, when the redoubtable and unjustly ignored Tom Sorely ran the option offense. Those who think that Nebraska can only win titles by running an option offense are not merely “having a discussion.” They are making an argument.

Second, we make arguments regularly in daily life. If one wants a raise from one’s employer, ordinarily one must  make a case or an argument for that raise. That argument must be clear, concise, and cogent. Further, it must be pleasant or else one may find himself looking for another line of work. A lawyer makes factual, logical, and legal arguments on behalf of his client or against a defendant. My students are required in their term papers and MA theses to state a thesis and to make historical and logical arguments for it. Children make arguments to their parents about why they ought to be allowed to stay overnight at a friend’s house and parents reply with counter-arguments as to why that is a bad idea. Arguments are unavoidable but bad arguments ought to be shunned.

Why then is there an apparent move in the culture to avoid the word argument, even to the point of substituting less clear words for the nouns argument and argue? Political correctness may actually be part of the answer. Could it be that the PC culture has so influenced the rest of us so that we are afraid to be perceived as combative? Might this fear cause Americans to avoid any language that might connote pugnacity? If so, this is a trend to be resisted. Perhaps being at war for 16 years (at the writing of this essay) has had unrecognized effects. Perhaps, in reaction to the long war with Islamic imperialism there has developed a subtle, unspoken pressure to remove martial language from daily speech? I wonder too if the banishment of argument from our vocabulary reflects the subjective turn of the late-modern West toward feelings and away from logic?

Let me make an argument in favor of arguments: A logical, factual, coherent argument is a kind of civilized disagreement over facts (what is or what was) and logic (e.g., what inferences may be properly drawn). If we cannot have such arguments our society will eventually be imperiled. If, having become a loosely affiliated collection of factions, one group of Americans succeeds in gathering enough civil and social influence to silence the others, the pressure will find a valve and historically that valve has been violence.

Perhaps the more fundamental question is whether there are things worth fighting for.1 Do not Americans testify that there are? The American Declaration of Independence from Great Britain was an argument, a case for the “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  We did not merely argue for those unalienable rights, we actually took up arms to secure them. We instituted a federal government and several state governments to protect and preserve those rights and liberties. Have you ever wondered why doing the same thing today is made to seem impossible, even unthinkable? Why so? Who says so? Here I am thinking of the masked thugs rampaging across publicly-funded university campuses and silencing every voice with which they disagree? Are our liberties less fundamental than they were in the late 18th century?

As a spiritual matter, Christians (metaphorically) fight against the enemies of the soul: sin, the flesh, and the Devil. We rightly argue for Biblical and Christian truth. We argue against theological and spiritual error. Such arguments are not only unavoidable, they are entirely necessary for the well being of the church.

Is it not interesting that it is uncontroversial in our culture now to speak of “fighting against injustice” but people look askance if we have more than discussions about truth? The way we speak and write unintentionally reveals something about where our politically-correct culture is and the way it influences us, causing us even to avoid perfectly good words like argument and influencing us to turn to inadequate substitutes such as discussion and conversation.


1. Here is a case where it is better than not to end a sentence with a preposition. The clause “for which it is worth fighting” is too stuffy. I tried to use it but it would have called attention to itself rather than to the point I am trying to make. Most of the time it is not necessary to end a sentence with a preposition but “worth fighting for” is such an established phrase and “for which it is worth fighting” is so stiff and dry that it is better to break the rule than to ruin the sentence by obeying it.

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  1. Remind me of Churchill,s reply when rebuked for ending a sentence with a preposition, when he said that it was, “just the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put!”

  2. Dr Clark, with regard to your Note 1, I think the compound verb is an entity that many grammarians have not recognized. “Fight for” is one such, as is “put up with”, which is why Churchill’s “This is something up with which I will not put” sounds as ridiculous as it is.

    • Absolutely agree. The ‘for’ in ‘fight for’ is a verbal modifier, yielding a prepositional phrasal verb. The sentence would make sense as ‘…whether there are things worth fighting.’ But the sense implied would be ‘worth fighting against’, so the verbal modifier ‘for’ supplies a different intended sense. To fight me or to fight for me are completely different things, as are ‘passing a motorist’ and ‘passing for a motorist’, ‘taking my father’ and ‘taking after my father’, ‘picking my clothes’ and ‘picking up my clothes’ etc.

      It is seldom wrong or even infelicitous to end a sentence with a prepositional or particle phrasal verb e.g ‘Here are two of the children I’m looking after.’ One cannot (seriously) re-arrange this as ‘Here are two of the children after whom I’m looking’. Or even worse ‘Here is the passenger you asked me to pick up’ could never be ‘Here is the passenger up whom you asked me to pick’. Churchill’s example is famous because it shows the absurdity of trying to rearrange the particle-prepositional phrasal verb ‘put up with’ (others would be ‘standing in for’, ‘looking forward to’ etc).

      Moreover ‘the cause for which it is worth fighting’ is not the equivalent of ‘the cause worth fighting for’. In ‘the cause for which it is worth fighting’ the worth qualifies the fighting (it’s a worthy fight, it is worth fighting for such a cause), whereas in ‘the cause worth fighting for’ the worth qualifies the cause (it is a worthy cause, a cause worth a fight). In conversation these may not seem much different, but there is a difference when we consider the import of theological statements. Am I worth dying for? Or am I one for whom it was worth dying? Is the worth in me or in Christ’s obedience? Am I that worthy ‘good man’ for whom some might even dare to die, or the sinner to whom the worthiness of my Saviour’s righteous obedience is imputed? Between these two lies the difference between false and true religion.

  3. Cannot find the quote… perhaps Stella Morabito… that free speech and rational argument favored the weak against a tyrant.

  4. The ability to argue, i.e. reason or think used to be predicated in the West on being made in the image of God with a reasonable soul. Something a liberal education in the original sense was to equip one for. But if we are descended from monkeys and Marx and Freud are members of the new trinity along with Darwin, not so much.

    Rather if the will is primary, race, gender etc. are just social constructs.
    The emotions? Then, “You’ve hurt my feelings by destroying the reasons for my position.” Trigger warning/micro aggression alert. And so it goes. There are consequences to shunning arguments, even if one uses reason to do so.

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