In My Opinion, I Think that I Believe This Is Bad Writing


I recently responded to the following question: “I am trying to improve the exposition/argument I am writing in English. What can I write instead of ‘in my opinion . . .’?”

As an editor, I like writing that gets to the point, communicates confidently, and provides new information. Phrases such as “in my opinion,” “I think that,” and “I believe” create three problems for writers.

  1. They delay the writer’s message.
  2. They demonstrate insecurity.
  3. They tell the reader what he already knows.

Let’s look at why this is, using the sample sentence, “In my opinion, flowers are better than elephants.”

elephlower

1. Delayed message
The statement the writer wants to make is “flowers are better than elephants.” If that’s the statement, then the writer simply needs to make it and not waste the reader’s time with “in my opinion.” Phrases such as “in my opinion” will always delay the writer from the point he or she wants to make. My advice: Get to the point. Make the statement.

2. Insecurity
Writers use these types of phrases so that they don’t have to make clear, definitive, confident answers. When you express something as only an opinion or personal belief, you can’t be blamed later if you are wrong. After all, the statement was only an opinion, not fact. The reader will be right to wonder if the information is only opinion, in which case it can be ignored, or if it is fact. Strong, confident writing expresses information as the truth. Confident writing is more direct and more persuasive.

3. Unnecessary information
Who is writing the words? The writer is. Unless the writer is quoting or citing the ideas from someone else, whose ideas are they? The writer’s. What this means is that the statement is the writer’s idea, opinion, belief, and thoughts. The reader will understand this. As such, the writer doesn’t need to tell the reader that the ideas are his own.

Formal vs. informal writing
In personal writing, such as letters, diaries, journals, and private memos, the writer can write whatever he wants, however he wants. In formal writing, though, the standards are much higher. Formal writing includes academic papers, business reports, letters to colleagues or stakeholders, and journal articles.

Standards are higher for two main reasons. First, the need to communicate accurately is higher. Ideas are stated more directly and clearly. Second, the writer needs to create an image, or demonstrate a level of credibility. When a writer creates a good image, the reader will be confident that the information is accurate and that the person writing is credible. By maintaining high standards, the writer builds trust in the reader.

Answer to the question
So this brings us back to the original question: “What can I write instead of ‘in my opinion’?” Based on the issues discussed above, the answer is “Nothing.” In my response to the person asking the question, I encouraged him to remove that phrase, or any similar phrase, and get to the point. “Don’t replace it with something else,” I advised. “Replace it with nothing.”

Using our example
Instead of writing, “In my opinion, flowers are better than elephants,” the writer should concisely, directly, and confidently state, “Flowers are better than elephants.”


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6 Comments

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6 responses to “In My Opinion, I Think that I Believe This Is Bad Writing

  1. Excellent advice! Succinct writing rules!

  2. Chris Arnold

    Great post on the use of opinions in writing. Would you be willing to offer your opinion on something for me? I asked students in a class to partner up and have one student express an opinion. The other student was then to argue the opposite position. In one group, the student stated their opinion as, “I can’t believe that Tiger Woods cheated on his wife.” I overheard this and explained to the student that the statement was not an opinion, it was merely a statement. The student challenged me on this, and while I intuitively understood that it was not an opinion, I struggled to provide evidence to the contrary. “I don’t believe that…” strikes me as an opinion, “I can’t believe that…” does not. Can you shed any light on this for me?

  3. Chris,
    I think you are correct in your response to the student. If I say, “I can’t believe,” then I am making a statement about my ability. The long form of the student’s statement is “I do not have the ability to believe Tiger Woods cheated on his wife.” This is similar to saying, “I can’t drive a car.” This is a factual (presumably) statement about my ability. On the other hand, if I say, “I do not believe,” then I am expressing my opinion, my belief, about something. I am telling you my belief. This is similar to saying, “I do not believe the mayor told the truth.” This is a statement of my belief, my opinion, about the mayor’s honesty.

    I can understand the student’s point of view about this. The reader’s/listener’s interpretation of the two statements are similar. Still, the expressions do have different meanings. However, the first statement (“I can’t believe”) is a factual statement about my ability, and the second statement (“I don’t believe”) is my opinion about the topic.

    I hope this helps. Good luck.

  4. As Devil’s Advocate, I must point out that “I can’t believe that Tiger Woods cheated on his wife” does actually go beyond the student stating his/her ability to believe something; he/she is implying the opinion that Tiger Woods is not the type of person to cheat on his wife or, at least, that he does not appear to be. One must look beyond the explicit meaning of words and phrases sometimes. Why would the student be making this statement? How would someone answer it? Perhaps one would respond, “Oh, but I believe it! He’s entirely capable of cheating on his wife! Did you see how he lied about …” or “I agree – he’s always been so honest before! Don’t you remember when he …”
    The student used an indirect speech act, certainly, but the semantics of an argument, i.e. opinion, are certainly present.
    Plus, you are both overestimating the semantic difference between “I don’t” and “I can’t”; the former addresses a present state of being, while the latter addresses the expectation of an ongoing state of being, as if to say, “I strongly doubt that you can convince me of another perspective.” Both, in fact, address a state of being. In this case, the student’s only error was that his/her statement of opinion was hyperbolic, but the doubt expressed about Woods’ character and his ability to cheat on his spouse is still quite evident.

    On the other hand, I found this blog entry to be quite accurate in its advisement against “I think” and “I believe” – I would also add “I feel” (which is wishy-washy to begin with). However, one could also mention that, if an author is not entirely positive of his/her statement’s essential veracity (beyond the point to which it can be proven), then words like “possibly,” “likely,” and “probably” are extremely useful! For example, “Flowers are more-than-likely better than elephants.”
    These adverbs are quite useful when analyzing a work of literature – or in any persuasive undertaking, really – so as not to bash one’s own ideas over readers’ heads (i.e. hold oneself in higher regard than everyone else).

  5. Regarding “think,” “feel,” and “believe,” you might be interested in “10 Words to Avoid When Writing” – items 3 and 4. http://wp.me/pqyRj-lG

  6. If I am leaving a public comment, I always use “In my opinion” because my opinion can’t be used against me in a court of law, or no-one can sue me if I make comments about other people or companies or whatever subject that I am commenting about. FYI. Martha in TN

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