Ten commonly misused terms

August 5, 2011 at 2:37 pm (Arts and languages, Evolution and psychology, Mass media)

1. Social construct

Social construct refers to a specific and arbitrary social arrangement. It can be compared to the idea of a social contract, although a social contract often involves common knowledge while a construct does not.

In critical studies and in other fields, there has been a trend of labeling pretty much every social or natural phenomenon as a “social construct”, often with the implication that it is imaginary and undesirable. But many of these “social constructs” can be attributed to natural causes, and are completely unrelated to society.


  • Languages are social constructs.
  • Gender roles are largely social constructs.
  • The idea that “romantic love” exists is a social construct.
  • Language use is not a social construct.
  • Gender is not a social construct.
  • The feeling described by “romantic love” is not a social construct.

2. Ad hominem

The notion of argumentum ad hominem is distinct from the notion of personal attacks. Argumentum ad hominem is to relate a person’s argument with his character; if someone states that homosexuality is immoral, and is revealed to be a closet homosexual, it is an argumentum ad hominem to question his hypocrisy, though it is not intended as a personal attack. It is also logically permissible.

On the other hand, it is entirely possible to make a personal comment without making an argumentum ad hominem, and in fact this is very common in daily conversation – “It’s not what you said, but the way you said it” “I don’t like your attitude” – etc.

3. Ethos, pathos, logos

These are commonly known as the three “modes of persuasion”, but they are nothing of this sort. Ethos (sense of authority/credibility), pathos (emotion), and logos (reason) belong to the audience. The three modes of persuasion are appealing to ethos, appealing to pathos, and appealing to logos.

These terms are also often confused with each other. For example, Brutus’s speech to the citizens in Julius Caesar is often cited as an appeal to ethos or pathos, but it is in fact mostly an appeal to logos. While he talks about his love of Caesar, and of Rome, it was not an attempt to establish his own character or appeal to the audience’s emotions, but to justify the act of killing Caesar as a reasonable decision. One can speak of his own character and of emotions without it being an appeal to either ethos or pathos.

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