Reification! “Statistics are bouncing off the walls and increasing every year.”

Tonight, in practicum, we read a sampling of each other’s Paper #2s (the argumentative research paper). I read one of Kushlani’s student’s — about programs to keep juveniles out of trouble (this student actually didn’t have an arguable thesis anywhere, unfortunately). Anyway, the student introduces his topic by describing the problem of youth crime. And in the middle of that introduction, he says

“Statistics are bouncing off the walls and increasing every year.”

Now THIS time this kind of thing also made me laugh. It was fun to picture (or try to picture) statistics bouncing off of walls. But usually this abstractness, this personifying what oughtn’t be personified — it just bugs me. And I’ve never known the name the error or whatever it is. I’ve just been calling it “personifying what shouldn’t be personified.” But I think I found it!

It’s reification! Here’s the wikipedia on it: Reification (fallacy)

Reification (also known as hypostatisation or concretism) is a fallacy of ambiguity, when an abstraction (abstract belief or hypothetical construct) is treated as if it represented a concrete, real event or physical entity. In other words, it is the error of treating as a “real thing” something which is not a real thing, but merely an idea. For example: when one person “holds another’s affection”, affection is being reified.

[…]

Phrases
“The universe will not allow the human race to die out by accident.” (attributes intention to the universe)
“Religion attempts to destroy our liberty and is therefore immoral.” (attributes intention to religion)
“Good and evil are forces ruling the universe.” (attributes motive to the abstract ideas of good and evil)

Yes! That’s it! Yay, I found it.

This has been almost a pet peeve for me. Maybe it’s just because it’s just hard for the brain to get around an abstract thing doing something concrete. Otherwise, the sentences are completely comprehensible.  Or maybe it’s that these sentences usually sound sloppy or imprecise? Or maybe it’s some students’ conscious or unconscious attempt to avoid a passive construction (but they still end up with a too un-clear or abstract sentence)?

Either way, my mind just wants sentences that are more concrete, more grammatically chewy! Yeah, that’s it — grammatically chewy!

Anyway, whatever the reason, at least I have a name for my pain.

Addendum 11-26-08: Here’s a couple more examples I culled from my students’ research papers. (There were several other examples, but I didn’t keep note of them all.)

“Laboratories can’t conclude whether…”

“Most honest answers would agree with the first statement.”

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4 thoughts on “Reification! “Statistics are bouncing off the walls and increasing every year.”

  1. I worked with an Animal Sciences student today in the writing center, and she used reification this way a bunch of times. Wish I would remember all of them. One was “The economy consumes X amount of beef per year” or something like that. I had gone over passive and active voice with her already, explaining why active voice often strengthens the force and clarity of sentences. So when I started noticing the reifications, I started explaining those similarly — as constructions that are just hard for the reader’s brain to get around, and that if she made the subjects concrete, her sentences would be stronger. Then she ended up the “Consumers consume…” But, even if she didn’t find another verb, at least, that phrase would still better the trying to picture the economy consuming beef.

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