The artful equivocation must imply the writer knows the right answer, but it must never get definite enough to eliminate any possibilities.

There is a third method of dealing with examination questions--that is by the use of an overpowering assumption, an assumption so cosmic that it is sometimes accepted. For example, we wrote that is was pretty obvious that the vague generality was the key device in any discussion of examination writing. Why is it obvious? As a matter of fact, it wasn't obvious at all, but just an arbitrary point form which to start. His is an example of an unwarranted assumption.


In the long run the expert in the use of unwarranted assumption comes off better than the equivocator. He would deal with our question on Hume not by baffling the grader or by fencing him but like this: "It is absurd to discuss whether Hume is representative of the age in which he lived unless we note the progress of that age on all fronts. After all, Hume did not live in a vacuum."

At this point our assumption expert proceeds to discuss anything which strikes his fancy at the moment. If he can speak the first assumption past the grader, then the rest is clear sailing. If he fails, he still gets a fair amount of credit for his irrelevant but fact-filled discussion of scientific progress in the 18th century. And it is amazing what some graders will swallow in the name of intellectual freedom.

This piece first ran on June 12, 1950.

A Grader's Reply

Recommended Articles