The Art of Creating a Vague Message without Being Literally False

On July 10, 2020, The Wall Street Journal published a short article entitled “The Supreme Loser: Pelosi’s House” by Kimberly A. Strassel.”[1] This is an interesting heading worth considering. The word “Supreme” does not necessarily mean the Supreme Court. Yet “Supreme” is followed by the word “Loser.” Usually, Supreme party does not lose, because the word “supreme” is the highest of something, and is used by the title of the Supreme Court. Readers, without in-depth analysis, nor time, might connect the meaning this way, especially in the political context of the name Pelosi, which is followed by the word “House.” Standing alone, the word House, as well, is vague. It could mean a building. But with the name Pelosi, the word connects her name with Congress. Therefore, the meaning of the heading is The Loser of a case in the Supreme Court was the representative or head of the Democrats in Congress: She, not personally, but as the leader of the House of Commons (not the Senate) was the loser in the Supreme Court case.

Why would a writer to readers, who presumably read English, as well as the reality of American politics and American courts, omit the words Supreme Court, and Congress? After all, the short article would not be much longer by adding these words to avoid a “mushy” meaning, even if most readers would fill-in these words? Readers will understand when they see “Supreme” and “Pelosi” and “house” what the article is about.

Among the possible answers are the following:

(i) Readers will fill-in the blanks according to their preference. Therefore, neither Democrats nor Republicans will be offended.

(ii) There may be readers, who do not care about the precise results of the case, or the implications of the decision.

Yet why would any writer choose vagueness? One possible answer is that the writer wishes to please everyone. In such a case the writer might offer

  • a very general description of the case and its crucial facts, accompanied by
  • a vague description of the court’s results. Such a description is more likely to please readers, who tend to support one party rather than the other, and prefer one possible solution than the opposing one, but sympathize with both opposing parties. Each reader will then insert the missing specific according to his or hers desires and beliefs.

This vague article opens the door to the readers’ interpretation and filling the blanks. The writer’s approach is especially effective if neither party in the Supreme Court case was as successful as the particular readers wished. Some success could be interpreted as both winning and losing, depending on the readers desires. However, those who seek

  • a more accurate and informative description of the facts, as well as
  • reading about the main issues, and
  • possible interpretations and effect on future similar cases, and
  • a discussion by an expert who is more knowledgeable than most readers, should look for the description of this issue elsewhere.

[1] Wall Street Journal, Opinion, at A 13 July 10, 2020

Tamar Frankel
Professor of Law Emerita
Boston University School of Law

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