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Within my students' college writing, I found much writing referring to essentially imaginary, or not well-defined groups of people. Here are some examples:

  • These days, more and more people carpool to work.
  • Some people asked which method is best.

I want to tell my students to avoid this and to always have specific individuals or groups of people in mind and to state them very clearly. For instance:

  • These days, more and more Germans carpool to work.
  • Recently, some students in my school asked which method is best.

I am concerned though, that if I give students such a “rule” it is too general. In other words, there might be some situations where this ambiguity is needed or appropriate.

  • Is there any special term to describe this kind of ambiguity in the subject?
  • Are there any situations when it might be acceptable for them to refer to an undefined group of 'people'?
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Can you give an example of when such ambiguity might be appropriate? –  Lauren Ipsum Oct 8 '13 at 16:17
    
Can you give any reasons why you want to avoid the "less clearly defined" references? It just seems arbitrary and pointless to me. –  FumbleFingers Oct 8 '13 at 18:14
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@Lauren: I don't see how "without any backup" is relevant. OP's first example could just as easily have said more women over the age of 50 carpool to work, with or without supporting evidence. I've no idea what if any trends there are in carpooling, but it's at least possible women over 50 are exactly average in terms of having taken it up. In which case actually specifying them should be considered misleading, and the generic people should be preferred. –  FumbleFingers Oct 8 '13 at 21:08
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@FumbleFingers You are defeating your own point. Sure, it's possible that women over 50 are average in carpooling. But that is why the student must produce statistics showing the age and gender of carpoolers in given populations and then write the sentence accordingly. The student can't simply declare something and insist that the statement should be accepted. If you publish an academic paper, a scientific study, or a news story, you will be expected to show where you are getting your facts from. "Backup" is entirely relevant. It will eliminate the "misleading specificity." –  Lauren Ipsum Oct 9 '13 at 0:01
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@FumbleFingers Exactly. If you took a survey in which you asked people whether they carpool, and if the overall trend was upward, then it would be perfectly fair and honest to say "more people car pool". If further analysis of the data showed that the increase was greater among bald Chinese accountants, that would be an interesting additional fact, but the statement that "people" are doing this is an honest statement even if one could find diverging trends among various sub-groups. –  Jay Oct 28 '13 at 17:22
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4 Answers 4

When is it acceptable to refer to an undefined group of people in academic writing? I'd say only when such group has been defined previously in the text.

Academic writing is about specificity. Think of dictionary definitions. What makes a definition valid? That it can only be applied to that particular thing you are referring to (you wouldn't define a rat as a 4-legged creature, because a cat is also a 4-legged creature). In the same 'spirit', I wouldn't define something I'm describing with generic terms, unless I have defined it before, usually in the introduction. Perhaps that would be a useful reasoning to tell your students.

"In this essay I will analyse the incidence of increasing gas prices on German IT technicians carpooling to work (...) Carpoolers changed their behavior after the second rise in prices..."

I see "These days, more and more people carpool to work" as a valid statement in a magazine / newspaper article. As mentioned in this answer, for academic writing, it's too vague. What people? When? Even if the statement has an attached note (Person, 1984), 'more an more people' or 'some people' are still not good subjects. In my opinion, they need to be defined more specifically, so the statements that contain them can stand by themselves.

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I don't see that "more and more Germans" is much better than "more and more people." Both are vague. How much more? 1% more? 90% more? And compared to when? yesterday? last century?

In the introductions of journal articles, you will often see statements like "recently, there has been interest in blahblahblah" but such vague statements are backed up by references to several previously-published journal articles on blahblahblah. The references quantify "recently" and "interest."

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I'm surprised at the upvotes on this. This response, while with merit on ethical grounds, still doesn't answer the OP's question. I agree with the sentiment, but in terms of an answer, it fails. When is it acceptable? What terms describe the ambiguity? –  GreaseMonkey Oct 9 '13 at 7:33
    
I was assuming the students were writing papers for history, or journalism, or some class where you are expected to back up your statements. In that case, ambiguity is never acceptable. If it's an English course, and the students are writing short stories, then the acceptability of ambiguity will be determined entirely on aesthetic grounds, and I don't see how you could come up with a rule to cover that. "Ambiguity is fine if it makes your story better; otherwise it isn't"? "Specificity is fine if it makes your story better; otherwise it isn't"? –  dmm Oct 10 '13 at 17:01
    
Caveat: Ambiguity in a sentence may be fine, if the ambiguity is cleared up later. For example, a newspaper article about a car sharing business might have as a lede: "These days, more and more people are carpooling, leaving them office-bound during the day. Zipcars sees that as a market." But then, at some point in the article, the vague statement "more and more people" should be given precision and backed up with a citation/source. –  dmm Oct 10 '13 at 17:17
    
In fiction, ambiguity can be good, IF it is purposeful, and not merely a result of sloppy writing. Example 1: "Jeremy was worried. More and more people were disappearing." Here, you might want to leave in the ambiguity to entice the reader with the mystery, or because Jeremy doesn't yet have a precise number. Example 2: "It hardly ever rained in Dryville, but today it was pouring." Here, changing "hardly ever" to "only 2.3% of the days, for the last 23 years" detracts from the story -- unless part of the story is that the narrator is obsessed with details. –  dmm Oct 10 '13 at 17:31
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I think the problem is not the broadness or the ambiguity in the identification of the group, but rather whether there is any evidence to back up the claim.

A statement like, "People have an average body temperature of 98.6 degrees" could be completely accurate even though it's very broad. A statement like, "Hispanics who live in Boston all like pineapples" is surely false despite being pretty specific.

That said, vague identification of a subject group can be a sign of weak thinking or even deliberate deception. I often hear people say things like, "The American people want the president to do X". At best this means "polls show that a majority want". Often I think what it means is "my friends and I want". I think lots of people fall into the trap of observing, "All the people that I hang out with at such-and-such a place agree that ..." and leap from there to "People agree that ..." Sometimes this should be obviously ridiculous, like just because all your friends at the National Coal Miners Association agree that coal is the energy source of the future surely tells us little about what the folks at the Green Energy Coalition think.

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Since your question is specific to academic writing, I would encourage you to continue to push the students to develop clarity and specificity in their writing. We expect academic writing to be rigorous in terms of backing up claims that are made. Allowing your students to get away with the kind of vague and generalized claims you provided in your examples is not doing them a favor for their future career, whether in academia or industry.

Related to that, I would add that merely being specific isn't enough; you need to back up your claim with references (unless, of course, they are writing fiction! In which case the rules can be what you as the instructor make them, although I'd still encourage students to be precise and concise).

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