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Techniques > Use of language > Modifying meaning > Generalization

Exaggerating | Hiding | Assumption | See also



In a generalization, the scope of a word or phrase is amplified or attenuated, covering a greater or lesser scope than it should. This is achieved by taking the scope to the limit and elements such as 'all', 'none' and 'every' are typically used, either as separate words or as partial words (such as 'everyone' or 'always'.

When speaking or writing, understand the deletions, distortions and generalizations you use and beware of them leading to mis-communication. If you can identify these omissions and corruptions in others, you can understand something of what they are are saying. You can also question them to get to the finer detail -- this can also be helpful to the other person in getting them to realize their inner thoughts and processes.

Chomsky (1955, 1975) described how what we say is often a long way from what we mean and that even generalization is a normal and often subconscious aspect of speech. This 'unrealized' nature makes it a potentially useful lever when changing minds.


Generalization is often used as a form of exaggeration, with the intent of making the case being argued more powerful. The item in question is typically extended to the limit.

This product is in widespread use.

Everybody's got one? I'll be the only person without!

Nobody loves me! I'm always alone.

Exaggeration by one person often triggers the opposing side of the argument into an opposite position, thus creating a polarized argument where either side takes an extreme position in order to differentiate and then tries to defend their castle whilst attacking the other side. This typically results in win-lose, competitive negotiation and destructive tactics.

A: Nobody goes there any more.
B: Come on, there's always loads of people there.

A: That's the worst hat I've ever seen.
B: Well you have the worst taste of anyone I know.


Generalization can be used to hide problems, for example where a misdemeanor is trivialized to a common social act. Using a generalization to hide often puts the person into the area in question and then expands the area, making the person difficult to find, much like a 'needle in a haystack'.

Oh, don't worry, everyone's doing it nowadays.

It may look strange to you, but it is the height of fashion.

Another approach is to take the area in question and make it very small, thus hiding the undesirable item, making it unassailably secret.

Nobody could possibly know.

Oh, that's nothing.


Assumptions are used in generalization when it is supposed that something is more or less possible or likely than it actually is, thus generalizing the statement.

I can't do it.

It must be done.

It's bound to happen.

See also

Amplification principle, Argument, Negotiation


Chomsky N. (1955). The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory. Manuscript, Harvard University. Published, with an introduction by the author, New York: Plenum Press, 1973

Chomsky N. (1975). Reflections on Language. New York: Pantheon

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