Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 19, Issue 51;   December 18, 2019: The Trap of Beautiful Language

The Trap of Beautiful Language


As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus.
Winston Churchill in the Canadian Parliament, December 30, 1941

Winston Churchill in the Canadian Parliament, December 30, 1941. Churchill was widely known for his witty and powerful use of the English language. Lady Astor once said to him, "Winston, if you were my husband, I'd put poison in your coffee." To which he replied, "Nancy, if you were my wife, I'd drink it." His brilliant retort derives its power from its brevity and its tight reference to Astor's insult. But its brilliance causes many to overlook a logical flaw in the scenario Churchill evokes: poisoning someone's coffee is usually executed in secret. The victim, who would rarely be aware of the presence of the poison, would therefore be unable to elect to intentionally end his own life. Photo "The Roaring Lion" by Yousuf Karsh, courtesy Library and Archives Canada, via Wikipedia.

Last time we explored the rhyme-as-reason effect, which is a cognitive bias that causes us to overvalue the validity or utility of a concept if its name contains a rhyme. We supplied thee examples: lean and mean, lift and shift, and slice and dice. The problem is actually more common than mere rhyming terms. Any rhetorical device that produces a perception of beauty can also cause us to overvalue the validity or utility of the content of the speaker's words. Four other devices in widespread use are alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus.

These devices interfere with critical thinking by exploiting our human fascination with beautiful language. By enfolding with symmetry and beauty the meaning carried by the language, these devices make the message memorable and pleasurable to hear or repeat. In effect, these devices give the meaning of the language power that it might otherwise lack. This phenomenon is a result of a heuristic humans use to recall or understand language — the Keats Heuristic. [McGlone 1999] The Keats Heuristic causes us to conflate the beauty of a phrase with its validity.

Here are brief summaries of these four devices.

Examples of alliteration include drill down and deep dive. Alliteration is like rhyme in the sense that it is a repeated similarity of word parts. Instead of repeated similarity at the ends of the words, as in rhyme, alliteration is repeated similarity at the beginnings of the words. The repeated similarities, whether at the ends or the beginnings, are what we find aesthetically pleasing. They make the phrase memorable and repeatable. In an ironic twist, the term rhyme-as-reason itself is an example of alliteration. Some more familiar examples: PayPal, Best Buy, Dunkin' Donuts, Coca-Cola, and Krispy Kreme.
Like the rhyme slice and dice, which associates data analysis with a menial kitchen chore, drill down and deep dive also have negative connotations. They suggest that focused investigation into the subtleties of a situation is detailed thinking best left to specialists — whom we outrank, at least in our own minds. Us big-brained folk needn't be concerned with the details — we're concerned only with results. We accept those results, often without appreciating the full truth that hides behind them. Without seeking to fully understand the details (because they're beneath us) we accept the results uncritically, or, if we prefer, we reject them out of hand, unencumbered by any appreciation for the validity of the work that produced them.
Like rhyme, the aesthetics of alliteration can cause us to perceive more validity in the alliterative phrase than we would perceive if the phrase weren't alliterative. It is this perception that enables us to accept (or reject) uncritically the results of someone else drilling down or diving deep.
To use an anaphora is to structure sequential phrases, clauses, or sentences so that each one has the same or similar words at its beginning. A famous example from Winston Churchill: "…we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender." Anaphoras delivered with properly escalating cadence can so inspire the passions that they can interfere with the listeners' reasoning, critical assessment of the speaker's meaning.
Anaphoras are alliterations not at the level of syllables or phonemes, but at the level of phrasing. The symmetry of anaphoras is the basis of their ability to overwhelm the reasoning faculties.
The power of anaphora can lead the participants in a meeting to make a mistaken group decision. A business-oriented example: "This opportunity is so far unrecognized by the industry. This opportunity is ours to exploit. This opportunity is uniquely compatible with our product array. This opportunity is not to be missed."
Anaphora As we assess the validity of others'
statements, we tend to confuse the
beauty of their phrasing with
the reliability of their content
can be overused, but when used sparingly it can inspire groups to believe they can succeed despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Anaphora has a similarly powerful mate known as epistrophe. Where anaphora is a repetition of words at the heads of phrases, clauses, or sentences, epistrophe is repetition of words at their tails. An example from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: "…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
My experience of both anaphora and epistrophe is that their effects are more dramatic in spoken language than in written language, especially when delivered by someone seeking dramatic effect. They are more powerful because a speaker's influence on a listener's perception of tone and rhythm is more direct than is an author's influence on a reader's perception of tone and rhythm.
Chiasmus is probably less widely recognized or used than alliteration; though once identified it's instantly recognizable. Chiasmus is a rhetorical device in which words, grammatical constructions, or concepts are repeated in reverse order, possibly in a modified form. An example from John F. Kennedy, in his inaugural address: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." And an example from Winston Churchill in 1942, about the war: "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
If rhyme is symmetry of the ends of words in a phrase, and alliteration is symmetry of the beginnings of words in a phrase, chiasmus is an anti-symmetry — a reversal — of the order of the words in a phrase, usually at the ends. In some sense, a chiasmus is a reversed epistrophe. Chiasmus works because both symmetry and anti-symmetry are aesthetically pleasing. Because of the Keats Heuristic, symmetry and anti-symmetry can endow the phrases they decorate with perceived validity beyond their actual validity.
Chiasmus is more difficult to find in writing about the field of business, but it is present. An example from Peter Drucker: "Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things." This sounds so right, we dare not question it. Yet, it is worth questioning — but that's a topic for another time.

Rhyme, alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus are all devices that can interfere with clear thinking by appealing to our emotions and to our affinity for the pleasures of symmetry and anti-symmetry. I'm sure there is an opportunity in this closing paragraph to use one of these devices to persuade you, dramatically, that understanding these devices can help you make sound decisions for the right reasons. But I prefer that you reach that conclusion on the basis of clear thinking. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Disjoint Awareness  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info


[McGlone 1999]
Matthew S. McGlone and Jessica Tofighbakhsh. "The Keats heuristic: Rhyme as reason in aphorism interpretation." Poetics 26:4 (1999), 235-244. Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Cognitive Biases at Work:

A visual illusionScope Creep and the Planning Fallacy
Much is known about scope creep, but it nevertheless occurs with such alarming frequency that in some organizations, it's a certainty. Perhaps what keeps us from controlling it better is that its causes can't be addressed with management methodology. Its causes might be, in part, psychological.
Brendan Nyhan and Jason ReiflerHistorical Debates at Work
One obstacle to high performance in teams is the historical debate — arguing about who said what and when, or who agreed to what and when. Here are suggestions for ending and preventing historical debates.
An actual bandwagon in a circus paradeCognitive Biases and Influence: I
The techniques of influence include inadvertent — and not-so-inadvertent — uses of cognitive biases. They are one way we lead each other to accept or decide things that rationality cannot support.
Roger Boisjoly of Morton Thiokol, who tried to halt the launch of the Challenger space shuttle in 1986Risk Acceptance: Naïve Realism
When we suddenly notice a "project-killer" risk that hasn't yet materialized, we sometimes accept the risk even though we know how seriously it threatens the effort. A psychological phenomenon known as naïve realism plays a role in this behavior.
18 hatsIllusory Management: II
Many believe that managers control organizational performance more precisely than they actually do. This illusion might arise, in part, from a mechanism that causes leaders and the people they lead to tend to misattribute organizational success.

See also Cognitive Biases at Work and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Cracking walnuts with a nutcrackerComing February 1: The Big Power of Little Words
Big, fancy words, like commensurate or obfuscation, tend to be more noticed than the little everyday words, like yet or best. That might be why the little words can be so much more powerful, steering conversations where their users want them to go. Available here and by RSS on February 1.
Two bull elk sparring in Grand Teton National Park, WyomingAnd on February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.