4

Whenever I write, I run into the problem where I have to assign human actions to subjects that, when I contemplate about it, cannot realistically perform those actions. A teacher told me years ago that I should not be doing this, and it has stuck with me ever since, but I've never been able to figure out how to do it properly, and I wonder if the teacher was simply wrong. Consider the following examples:

  1. Science helps us understand nature. (can science perform an action like helping?)
  2. Western culture pursues worldwide equality. (can Western culture perform an action like pursuing?)
  3. That company seeks to promote a product. (can that company perform actions such as seeking and promoting?)

I know about other ways of writing the above sentences, but if I always resort to writing sentences like those below, I feel like every sentence will be long and tedious:

  1. People who do science help us understand nature.
  2. The people of Western culture pursue worldwide equality.
  3. The people of that company seek to promote a product.

My question is whether the first three examples are valid, and I would appreciate it if I were to be provided with resources that help me overcome this hurdle in my writing if this style is bad practice (I don't know if there is a term for this problem, so I don't know what to enter into a search engine in order to find resources on this problem).

  • This seems less a question for Writing SE and more for English SE. Personally I don't see a problem in all of the first 3 sentences. – Totumus Maximus Jun 13 '18 at 8:39
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    I too was wondering if this question would be a better fit for English SE, but I concluded that this problem applies not just to the English language. – user3776022 Jun 13 '18 at 9:02
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    At least, companies can performs actions: they are legal entities and responsible for what they do. – Stéphane Mourey Jun 13 '18 at 9:03
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    Those examples seem very standard and natural to me, in every language I know. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jun 13 '18 at 9:03
  • How would your teacher rewrite those sentences? I (and others here) don't see what the problem is. – Ken Mohnkern Jun 13 '18 at 19:47
8

Our speech and writing is full of anthropomorphic language. We ascribe actions to inanimate objects and abstractions all the time. It is almost impossible to communicate effectively without doing this.

Unfortunately, there are people who think of language as a machine (rather like the way a programming language is a machine). To them, anthropomorphic language is simply wrong since the object or abstraction to which the action is ascribed cannot actually act. In most cases, they pick on surface examples of this with no idea of how deeply it actually runs in the language. Rivers don't run (they have no legs). Gravity does not pull (it has no hands). Winds don't blow (they have no lungs). We anthropomorphize everything. It is just how language works. (Language doesn't work and it doesn't receive a paycheck.)

Language is made up of stories and stories are an association of an action with a consequence. There is always an actor in a story. So "science helps" because to describe science we make it an actor and ascribe actions to it, because that is the kind of minds we have and the way we form concepts and communicate them.

The process by which the scientific inquiry of many individual people, and the communication of the results of that inquiry informs the expectations of individual people about how individual situations in the natural world may unfold is incredibly complex and "People who do science help us understand nature," does not begin to unpack that complexity.

If I wonder why my pen ends up on the floor when it rolls off the table, Newton does not appear at my side and give me a lecture on gravity. In fact, I probably learned about gravity from my parents or from a school teacher, none of whom conducted an scientific experiment in their lives. Try to explain in fully literal terms how the knowledge of gravity got into my head, and even what it means to say that I "understand" gravity, and you will be here all week.

So we compact all of that into a simple anthropomorphic story, "Science helps us understand nature." And that simple story is enough, most of the time, for us to reach a conclusion about how to act. (Do I make my kid sign up for science class?)

Sometimes, of course, we do need to unpack these statements. Sometimes they are not by themselves a sufficiently subtle guide to action and we need to break them down further in order to reach a more sophisticated conclusion about what action to take. (For instance, much of what is presented a "science" in newspapers turns out to be wrong or misunderstood. Most scientific experiments are never replicated, meaning that their conclusions are very shaky. And not all statements made by people who claim to be scientists are either supported by actual scientific experimentation or reasoning, or even amenable to experimentation and reasoning.)

But the fact that a statement like "Science helps us understand nature," is not fully correct in each and every instance does not mean it is bad writing. It may or may not be the appropriate message to give or to rely on in any particular case, but it may also be the story that is an appropriate guide to action in many cases.

And this is the nature of all stories, and therefore, finally, of all statements. They can always be unpacked. But the process of unpacking them is exhausting and we would get nothing done or said if we unpacked every statement all of the time. (Nor would we ever finish the process of unpacking, since we would express the unpacked elements of one figurative statement in other figurative statements because that is how language works.)

We communicate in stories, and when we analyse stories, we do so by telling stories, which are also subject to the same analysis. There is no bottom to this well. That is simply what language is.

5

The first approach is accurate, the second approach is wrong:

1a. Science helps us understand nature, vs.
1b. People who do science help us understand nature.

Science, in general (I am a scientist) does help us understand nature. But not all people that do science help us understand nature, some people that do science are frauds, some are seeking wealth and do not intend to share their knowledge. 1a is more accurate.

Can science perform an action like helping? Yes, of course. A step ladder can help me reach a high book shelf. Science IS understandings of how things work, from protozoans to galaxies, of course those understandings help us understand nature.

2a. Western culture pursues worldwide equality.
2b. The people of Western culture pursue worldwide equality.

Again, not all people of Western culture do this, a large percentage are only out for themselves, some would literally return to the days of legalized slavery. (2b) is an over generalization that just isn't true.

Can Western culture perform an action like pursuing? Presumably, a culture can be pursuing something; it is composed of people that can come to some consensus. More than other cultures, the people of Western cultures have a consensus that equality is a good thing; but I wouldn't go so far as to say they actively pursue it, most seem to just hope it happens. But that is a quibble; cultures can take actions and pursuit is one of them. Wall Street culture pursues profit.

3a. That company seeks to promote a product. 3b. The people of that company seek to promote a product.

Again, 3b is not accurate, most people in that company have other jobs, only a few in the marketing department actively seek to promote their products. Others are focused on accounting, payroll, hiring, engineering, programming, janitorial work, purchasing, receiving, manufacturing, shipping, etc.

Can that company perform actions such as seeking and promoting? Sure, the company is an entity in itself, composed of people, and in this case an explicitly thinking entity, organized to pursue objectives.

The key to all these examples is understanding how people use and understand words. "Help" does not have to be a physical action; the amorphous "Science" helps us understand nature because we read and understand the work and explanations of other people. Those scientists helped us, but not actively in person, their recorded understandings helped us, and we call those recorded understandings "science."

A culture is much the same; a collection of principles, beliefs and rules subscribed to by a body of people. Those could translate into a belief that positive action should be taken and rules made to eliminate inequalities whenever they are discovered or creep into their society, a culture like that could be characterized as pursuing equality. I just wouldn't say Western culture holds those beliefs.

3

Your teacher is quite wrong, I believe. "People who do science" don't help you with anything. Maybe one of them sits down and explains things to you, but another is this unfriendly power-hungry schmuck who abuses students and sticks his name on top of their findings, while yet another falsifies experiment results in order to publish. It is Science, as a methodology (the scientific method), as a way of thinking, as a corpus of knowledge, that helps you understand nature.

Similarly, not all people in Western culture might pursue worldwide equality, and not all people in a company necessarily seek to promote their product. Those are generalisations, and as such, almost necessarily wrong.

It is a concept, a culture, a company, a state that do the things you mention. Companies and states are legal entities, they are thus responsible for their actions. In all cases, and that is, I think, the key to your questions, the whole is larger than the sum of its parts. The unifying concept is bigger than the sum of people united under it, and a particular person might in fact not be a good representative of the unifying concept. In fact, sometimes the concept is an ideal, to which the people can only aspire, and other times each person can only contribute a small part to the whole. (For example, a scientist in all his career might add no more than a small drop of knowledge to the vast ocean of science.)

2

Inanimate objects and ideas certainly CAN act in some ways.

Take your first sentence, "Science helps us understand nature." Of course it does. Just because science is not a person doesn't mean that it can't serve a purpose. Inanimate objects still do things. It is completely accurate to say, "The airplane flew across the sky" or "The door swung open". Ideas can have effects. Like "science" in your example.

Now if you said, "Science likes mathematical formulas", that is anthropomorphizing. "Science" doesn't have feelings, it doesn't like one thing and hate another. Still, people say things like this all the time. Often, like here, it's just a shorthand way to say something that would require a long or awkward sentence to describe literally. Sometimes we mean it in a poetic, metaphorical way. "My computer is plotting against me." Of course the speaker doesn't think that his computer literally hates him and is malfunctioning because it wants to hurt his feelings. (He probably doesn't really think that, anyway.) But it's a cute way to say that he's having problems with his computer.

There's nothing wrong with anthropomorphizing. Of course like any literary technique, it can be done poorly, be overused, etc. I suppose that if you do it in a way that sounds like you're being literal, it could come across as silly.

But if all writing was limited to the strictly literal, it would be a lot more boring. Which is more interesting to read:

One: "My new girlfriend is like a cuddly little kitten. I love to watch her run as she chases a dream across the sun-kissed field and the wind whips her hair about her face."

Two: "My new girlfriend is lovable. I have a positive psychological response to watching her run. The sun is bright today and the wind velocity is higher than average."

2

Absolutely you can.

If anything, your examples are assuming too narrow a definition of the verb, not too broad a definition of the subject.

"can science perform an action like helping?"

What does it mean to "perform" the "action" that is helping? If I help you think of a word, or I help you answer this question, am I doing the same thing as if I help you change a tyre, or help you get out of a chair? All "helping [obj] to [verb]" means is "making it easier for [obj] to [verb]". If science makes it easier for you to understand nature, abracadabra, it helped.

1

Two things:

  1. There is a term in Philosophy called Fallacy
  2. Philosophers and Creative Writers don't always see eye to eye.

To address the first matter: I'm not a professional philosopher, but I'm pretty sure that your teacher has introduced you to one of the fallacies. There's a list of 224 of the most common ones on this page of the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

I'm not entirely sure which of the fallacies this is, but here's the bumph from Wikipedia about the scientific interpretation of the (entertainingly named) Pathetic Fallacy:

In science, the term "pathetic fallacy" is used in a pejorative way in order to discourage the kind of figurative speech in descriptions that might not be strictly accurate and clear, and that might communicate a false impression of a natural phenomenon. An example is the metaphorical phrase "Nature abhors a vacuum", which contains the suggestion that nature is capable of abhorring something. There are more accurate and scientific ways to describe nature and vacuums.

Another example of a pathetic fallacy is the expression, "Air hates to be crowded, and, when compressed, it will try to escape to an area of lower pressure." It is not accurate to suggest that air "hates" anything or "tries" to do anything. One way to express the ideas that underlie that phrase in a more scientific manner can be found and described in the kinetic theory of gases: effusion or movement towards lower pressure occurs because unobstructed gas molecules will become more evenly distributed between high- and low-pressure zones, by a flow from the former to the latter.

Now, I'm not saying that your examples fall within the Pathetic Fallacy, but there are certainly some points of convergence. Maybe one of the others fits more closely, but I'll leave you to explore for yourself.

To address my second point: you've inserted this question into a Writing Community, and so you'll find answers here that focus on aspects of writing. For a writer, anthropomorphic language, metaphors and similes are bread and butter. (And no, not literally - but that goes towards my point.)

In this space, you will find a whole host of arguments to support the use of the kind of language used in your first set of examples. Again, I'll let you explore those at your leisure, but you'll find that, on the whole creative-writers are not professional philosophers and so might well disagree with them as to whether it's 'proper' to use such language.

Perhaps your teacher was approaching the matter from a philosophical/fallacy point of view and so was maybe correct in terms of that arena. But now that you are, yourself, grown up, you can put away those limitations and live freely as a writer.

In other words: go forth and use language fully, wildly and with exuberant excess. And if anyone tells you that you can't - feel free to laugh and carry on regardless.

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