Commonly misused words

Part of learning how to write philosophically involves acquiring a new vocabulary. It also means being precise with your language. Below is a list of words students often use incorrectly, with an explanation of how they should be used correctly. I will occasionally update this list.

Note that the explanations below are for using words correctly in the context of writing a philosophy paper in a class or professional setting. Language is flexible and some of the norms below may eventually change. Some of these expressions have different uses outside of  philosophy. However, it is good to know what the conventions are within the discipline, so others can understand you easily.
  • Based (on), basis (of)
    • Correct: The Nyāya approach to epistemology is based on the belief that our ordinary experiences of the world are typically reliable. This belief is the basis of their account of pramāṇas, or knowledge-sources.
    • Explanation: Standard English rejects based off or based off of, although that use is changing. The metaphor is of one claim being placed on top of another, where one claim acts as a basis. When you are talking about the claim at the metaphorical bottom it is the basis of (or reason for) the other claim.
  • Begging the question
    • Correct: Someone might argue that good grammar is a virtue, since it is unethical not to write well. This argument begs the question.
    • Explanation: To beg the question is to assume the conclusion you are arguing for. Here, saying "it is unethical to write well" is equivalent to saying "good grammar is a virtue.'' Begging the question is not the same as raising a question for discussion.
  • Deconstruct
    • Correct: The people who deconstruct texts are followers of Jacques Derrida.
    • Explanation: The term deconstruct is a technical term which is not equivalent to reconstruct (see below). It should be used only when you are talking about Derridean-style analysis.
  • Entail
    • Correct: Śaṅkara argues that the distinction between self and empirical reality is illusory. This entails that our ordinary experience is mistaken.
    • Explanation: One claim entails another when there is a relationship of logical consequence between them. People do not entail, only sentences or proposition do this.
  • Imply
    • Correct: Descartes says, "I am a thinking thing." Here, Descartes implies he is both a subject and an object.
    • Explanation: Something that is implied is not explicit in what is said. If something is explicitly said, you can say it is asserted or claimed. When you say something is implied, you need to justify your interpretation. You can say that a person implies that p through what they say, or that a claim implies that p, although a less ambiguous term is "entails."
  • Highlighting, emphasizing
    • Correct: In his account of the relationship between our sensory perception and the world, Śaṅkara emphasizes that we are always in error if we think in terms of subjects and objects.
    • Explanation: Emphasis is putting weight on a claim. Students frequently use emphasize or highlight when they should say argue. The difference is that when a thinker argues that p, she is putting forward reasons to support p. But when she emphasizes p or highlights p, she has an attitude about p's importance.
  • Presuppose
    • Correct: Ibn Tufayl argues that the existence of God can be proven by reason. This claim presupposes that our reason is capable of proving the existence of imperceptible things.
    • Explanation: A presupposition for x is a claim whose truth is necessary for x. In other words, without the presupposition, the claim cannot be true. Presuppositions are often implicit.
  • Problematize
    • Correct: Michel Foucault problematizes madness through his inquiry into the historical, social structures which give rise to its conception.
    • Explanation: To problematize is to turn something into a problem which requires an answer. This terminology originates with Foucault, but is widely used in academia, often for social concepts that seem like givens such as education, gender, patriotism, etc. The word really does not just mean "question" or "inquire into", and it's frequently held up as an example of obfuscatory academic jargon, so use with caution!
  • Reconstruct
    • Correct: In this paper, I will reconstruct Krishna's master argument which spans the entirety of the Bhagavad Gītā, to convince Arjuna he must fight.
    • Explanation: A reconstruction of an argument is putting it into precise language through interpretation of a text. It means that you are intervening between the original text and your new audience, to help the audience understand what is being argued. It is not the same thing as deconstructing an argument (see above).