Daily Archives: September 13, 2017

Those weird categorical statements

Before studying categorical syllogisms, students learn to translate statements into standard categorical form. The first step is translating the statement such that it uses only the “to-be” verb, so the form becomes [Subject] [to-be verb] [Predicate nominative]. This standardizes the statements so that the arguments are more easily analyzed, which is beneficial when the arguments themselves get more complicated.

But it can result in some very strange statements, e.g. translating “The Apostle Paul rebuked Peter at Antioch” into

The Apostle Paul was a Peter-at-Antioch rebuker.

Most spell-checkers will mark “rebuker” with that squiggly red underline, and some students might balk at the goofy compound noun.

Also, if one is not careful to keep the meaning the same, some of the translations can get rather awkward, such as turning “Susan works hard to resist temptation” into (ahem),

Susan is a hard-to-resist temptation worker.

Most of my students have found the awkwardness of such translated categorical statements to be merely funny, and have just taken it in stride. But occasionally a student will be bothered by it, perhaps thinking that their answers (and thus they themselves) will be thought of as strange or weird. In a larger classroom setting, when everyone is saying the same strange statements, they get used to it pretty fast, but it might be different in a home school setting, or among a small set of students.

The awkwardness of the translations can often be reduced by simply adding a normal noun in a normal place, trying to make the statement sound as normal as possible. For example, rather than translating “The forests will echo with laughter” into

The forests will be with-laughter echoers,

an acceptable translation would be

The forests will be places that echo with laughter.

This requires the addition of a new noun (“places”), but it is perfectly correct. The two rather awkward statements from above could also be correctly translated

The Apostle Paul was a man who rebuked Peter at Antioch.

Susan is a girl who works hard to resist temptation.

This method usually results in long predicates, but more ordinary sounding statements. For more on this topic, read my earlier post, Common errors to avoid: The “to be” verb.

Common errors to avoid: The “to be” verb

Introductory Logic Lesson 11, “The One Basic Verb,” teaches the first step in translating categorical statements into standard form. This step is to translate the statement so that the main verb in the sentence is a verb of being: is, are, was, were, will be, and so on. Thus a statement like “Stars twinkle at night” gets translated into something like

Stars are nighttime twinklers. 

To do this correctly, the subject and predicate must both be nouns, and the verb must be the proper ‘to-be’ verb. The procedure outlined in the lesson is generally clear, but there are two errors I want to help you avoid.

One common error not mentioned in the textbook is the problem of the helping verb. Some students might try to translate the above sentence this way:

Stars are twinkling at night.

The student thinks, “I used the word are, which is a ‘to-be’ verb, so it must be correct.” The problem is that the whole verb here is “are twinkling,” the are being merely a helping verb. The way to fix this is to make sure that the predicate is a noun, usually formed by turning the main verb into a noun (e.g. twinkle –> twinklers).

Secondly, it is sometimes best to make the predicate a noun by adding a new noun, usually a genus of the subject. For example, you could translate the above statement as

Stars are bodies that twinkle at night.

For clarity’s sake, you may want to use a different noun than the one implied by the verb. For example, in translating “She’s got electric boots” it would be overly awkward to say,

She is an electric boots getter.

Much better to translate this as

She is an owner of electric boots


She is an electric-boot wearer.

Happy translating!