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Categorical Statements

by Deborah Healey

Categorical statements express ideas in absolute terms, usually referring to or implying "all," "none," "never," or "always." For example, the following are categorical statements:

It's a good idea to avoid categorical statements in academic writing at US universities unless you have proof that what you are saying applies to a whole class or category. Of course, some categorical statements are universally true of the category, therefore acceptable, such as "All living people must eat and drink to stay alive."

Some categorical statements are less obvious than the ones above. English grammar includes some hidden categorical elements, just in the implications of certain forms and verb tenses. Think about these:

Remember that simple present tense implies 'always,' and that 'must' often an implication of absolute necessity. Also notice in those sentences that the countable nouns are plural-- this is an element of grammar that implies "all." If you say, "The horse is fast," then you're talking about a specific horse -- it's not a categorical statement. When you say "A horse is fast," it can be categorical, but it's not as clearly general (therefore categorical) as "Horses are fast."

If you use a categorical statement, you need to have sources to back it up. On the other hand, it's not hard to modify a statement so that it's no longer unacceptably absolute. The easy way is to add words like "some," "most," "may," and "could" -- these weaken the statement the absolute.

Look at the following statements and decide which are categorical and why. Remember -- a categorical statement can be true, but it's still categorical. If it's a categorical statement, add modifiers to make it acceptable.

All men are created equal.

Animals will stop eating when they get full.

Computers are a wonderful aid for teaching.

Comics in the newspapers are just to make you laugh.

Americans prefer action movies.

Sustainable development of the rainforest is necessary.

Everyone deserves access to health care.

Students learn more when they study in groups.

Countries with more guns have more gun crime.

Poverty is related to violence.

Sample Answers

Last updated 7/19/98 by D. Healey, Deborah.Healey@orst.edu