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Concourse 2

Expressing opinion

opinion


grenade

Cultural note

In most western cultures, people tend to separate their opinion of a person from their opinion of the person's views.  That is not a universal tendency.  In many other cultures, a person's opinions are an integral part of how we see the person as a whole.  This means that showing disagreement may be akin to showing dislike of the person so this is an area to handle with a bit of sensitivity.


3

Three types of opinion

In many teaching handbooks, coursebooks and worthy websites, learners are simply presented with a phrase-book approach to giving opinions.  Such phrases are often classified under headings such as Giving an opinion, Disagreeing with an opinion or Agreeing with an opinion.  While the lists are probably helpful for some teaching purposes, learners need a bit more guidance.  There is more than one sort of opinion and how we express an opinion often depends on what sort of opinion it is.
Here's short list for you to classify.  What kinds of opinion are represented by these 5 sentences?
Click here when you have an answer.

  1. Sorbet is better than ice-cream.
  2. Doctor: You need to lose weight.
  3. There is evidence of water on Mars.
  4. Bakers are concerned with bread making.
  5. Tigers ought not to be kept in zoos.

The sort of language used to present an opinion will depend on the kind of opinion is being expressed.

Try dividing these into the sorts of language used to state a value, state a fact and state an expert opinion.
Click on the table for comment.

opinion 1

The key here is to distinguish between the following examples of opinions:

personal values
Statements such as I like fish or Grey is a boring colour for a car are facts of a sort but they are merely points of view rather than real opinions.  They brook no argument and apart from bland agreement or disagreement will not form the basis for a productive exchange of views.
verifiable data
Statements such as There is no evidence of life on the moon or Anne Boleyn was Henry VII's second wife are also unlikely to form the basis for an exchange of views.  They are disprovable statements which are either confirmed or not.  End of argument.
arguments and theories
Statements such as Earth has never been visited by aliens or A university degree is essential for everyone are, however, proper arguments which can be backed up by an appeal to evidence or a reliance on personal experience or both.  Such statements do form the basis for an exchange of views.

argument

Arguments and Theories

It the last of these three types of opinion which will produce the most language and enable learners to participate in exchanges of views.

However, before we can get on and analyse how opinions are given and responded to, there is one more distinction that needs to be made.  It can be exemplified by the dual meaning of these sentences:

  1. John must be in the meeting
  2. Mary should come before 6
  3. The wedding has to be held soon

All these sentences can be introduced by expressions of opinion such as I think ..., I imagine ... etc. but they are all ambiguous as they stand (i.e., out of context).
Click here when you have figured out the essential ambiguity.


opinion

Disjuncts and opinion

Often, opinions are prefaced by some kind of disjunct.  (If you are concerned about what that word means, you should look at the guide to adverbials but you don't need to for our purposes here.)  Disjuncts exist outside the clause they introduce and come in two flavours:

style
style disjuncts indicate what the speaker / writer thinks about the form of what is being said.
For example, personally shows that the speaker is not being general; seriously refers to lack of flippancy and so on.
attitude
attitude disjuncts indicate how the speaker / writer feels about what is being said.
For example, obviously makes it clear that the speaker thinks something is clear to see; of course implies that it is an obvious logical deduction and so on.

In our examples above we have both forms of disjunct.

  1. In my experience is a style disjunct and expresses the angle the speaker wants to make clear.  It is similar to personally, in my view, as far as I'm concerned, from my perspective etc.
  2. Scientifically speaking is an attitude disjunct and expresses the speaker's feelings about what is said (in this case that the point is based on sound evidence).  It is similar to obviously, in fact, politically speaking, historically, usually etc.

Disjuncts do not only fall at the beginning of sentences (although they often do in this function).  They may interrupt a clause (It is not, to me, just a matter of money) or at the end (That is not true, historically).

There is a separate guide on this site which deals with disjuncts and their meanings much more thoroughly linked in the list of related guides at the end.


softstrong

Softening and strengthening

There are many strategies for softening or strengthening the nature of what one is saying.  For example

Softening Strengthening
adverbs of frequency:
I sometimes think
I frequently get the idea that
I often notice that

downtoners:
You are slightly mistaken
That's nearly right but
That's roughly true but

other modifiers:
In my country at least
Almost everyone agrees that
adverbs of frequency:
It is invariably the case
I always get the idea that
I consistently notice that

intensifiers:
You are completely mistaken
That's wholly wrong
That's absolutely true

other modifiers:
Anywhere you go
Absolutely nobody accepts that


authority

Using authority

When giving an opinion, we often appeal to authority to back us up.  The most frequent way to do that in English is to use a disjunct such as economically (see above) or by deploying the passive.  For example

Instead of We can use
I sometimes think
I think
People in my country think that
It is often stated that
It is accepted that
In Germany it is believed that

This is, also, a trick used by those who wish to give an air of authority (i.e., generally accepted opinion) to what is simply a personally value.  In other words, we are dressing up a personal value as an expert opinion.  Politicians and business people are adept at it but the assumption here is that our learners wish to present their views honestly.


respond

Responding to opinion

Most phrase-book approaches to this area provide lists of expressions to use when agreeing or disagreeing but there is clearly a cline from whole disagreement to absolute agreement that needs to be taught.
Style and levels of politeness also play a large role.  The more assertive the disagreement, the less well it is likely to be received.
For example:

response to statements 

Much fun (and much usefulness) can be derived from getting learners to stick phrases onto a grid like this before they practise using the expressions.

Caution: when presenting, practising and using these sorts of realisations of the functions, bear in mind the cultural point made at the beginning.  For some people from certain backgrounds, it may be advisable to include some less confrontational phrases and expressions such as
    I've also heard that some people think ...
    It is probably true but may I suggest ...
    I think you are usually correct but there may be times when ...

picking the appropriate response type

A difficulty which immediately arises is that certain response types are more appropriate to certain statements of opinion.  For example, it is clearly inappropriate to respond to I like coco-cola with What evidence do you have for that?  This is not a systematic area because much will depend on the intonation and the speaker's intent.  However, there are rules of thumb.
Try matching the statement types on the left with the response types on the right and then click on the table.  In other words, what should go where?
If you want to, you can download the task here in PDF format and work on it.

response type task

The rules of thumb:

is it worth responding?

One of the many reasons why teaching this area often goes wrong is that course materials and their writers rarely take the time to distinguish between values, facts and arguments.  Which of the following is it worth responding to, either in agreement or in disagreement?

  1. I prefer the cinema to the theatre.
  2. The English Civil War ended in 1651.
  3. Male humans can't multi-task.
  4. Democracy simply doesn't work in some countries.
  5. The English are cold and distant people.
  6. Mobile phones on buses and trains should be banned.
  7. I painted my bedroom green because I love the colour.

Right.  A moment's thought makes it clear that disagreeing with someone who prefers the cinema to the theatre or likes the colour green is unlikely to be very productive.  There's little to be said after I agree or I disagree, So do I, Neither do I etc.
Equally, there is little point in arguing about a historical fact which a moment's research will confirm or deny.
However, ideas 3, 4, 5 and 6 in this list are suitable topics for an exchange of views because they are arguments rather than values or facts.


phrasebook

The phrase-book approach ...

... and why it should be avoided

One website presents this list of opinion phrases, asserting that they all express a personal point of view:
"In my experience…
As far as I'm concerned…
Speaking for myself…
In my opinion…
Personally, I think…
I'd say that…
I'd suggest that…
I'd like to point out that…
I believe that…
What I mean is…"

http://www.vocabulary.cl/Lists/Opinions.htm

They do, of course, and these are undoubtedly useful expressions to learn.  But it is becoming clear why simply presenting learners with a phrase book of expressions to use when giving their opinions can be a confusing and ineffective approach.  Learners need to know what they are trying to do with the language and how their comments may be received.  In other words:

Am I stating what I believe to be true or what I want to be true?

A 5-minute search of the web will identify well over 200 hundred expressions used in English to express an opinion.  However, the sorts of opinion they are best used to express are variable and many of the items listed by well-meaning but ignorant people on such sites can't actually be used to express an opinion at all.  Lists like these do a lot more harm than good because they positively encourage learner error.

If we don't make the distinctions clear, we'll encourage, for example,
    In my opinion, light travels faster than sound.
    I'd like to point out that sorbet is better than ice-cream.
    I'd say that confectioners sell sweets.
    Speaking for myself, Cromwell was the leader of the New Model Army
.
    It is unjustifiable to say that the film was wonderful.
and so on.
We may also end up encouraging other kinds of error such as:
    Blue is my favourite colour.  Well, I'm not so sure about that.
    Olive oil is very pleasant on salads.  That's a bit different.

Learners need to identify:


analytic

A more analytical approach ...

... and why it should be used

Here's an example of what is meant by making sure we categorise the language we are presenting.

In this table, two sorts of categorisation are attempted:

  1. By language form in the two left-hand columns
  2. By function (i.e., type of opinion) in the remaining three columns

The terms epistemic (referring to the likely truth of a proposition) and deontic (referring to the advisability, obligatory nature or otherwise of an event) are used.  You don't need to trouble your learners with the terminology but the categories are very important.  You will instantly see that personal attitudes cannot be expressed at all using many formulations.

Language forms Examples Personal attitude Epistemic Deontic
Prepositional phrases For me, ...
From my perspective ...
In my experience, ...
By and large, ...
No
*From my perspective, I don't like sweet tea
*For me, I don't like sweet tea
No
*In my experience, the train will be here by 6
*For me, the train will be here by 6
*From my perspective, the train will be here at 6
Yes
In my opinion, cars should be banned in city centres
According to the mayor, cars should be banned in city centres
In my view, cars should be banned in city centres
Disjuncts Quite frankly, ...
Speaking personally, ...
To be honest, ...
According to ...
In my view, ...
In my opinion, ...
Yes
Quite frankly, I don't like sweet tea
Speaking personally, I don't like sweet tea
BUT
*According to me, I don't like sweet tea
No
*Speaking personally, the train will be here by 6
*To be honest, the train will be here by 6
Yes (often with a projecting verb)
Quite frankly, I think cars should be banned in city centres
Plainly, cars should be banned in city centres
Projecting verbs I think ...
I believe ...
Mary suggests ...
I reckon ...
I would argue ...
No
*I think I don't like sweet tea
*Mary suggests she doesn't like sweet tea
Yes
I think the train will be here at 6
I reckon the train will be here at 6
Yes
I believe cars should be banned in city centres
Mary suggests cars should be banned in city centres
It + adjectival phrase It is quite possible that ...
It is certain that ...
It's conceivable that ...
It is probable that ...
No
*It's possible that I don't like sweet tea
?It's conceivable that Mary doesn't like sweet tea
Yes
It is certain that the train will be here by 6
It's conceivable that the train will be here by 6
No
*It's probable that cars should be banned in city centres
*It is possible that cars should be banned in city centres
Passives and non-personal statements It is said that ...
It has been suggested that ...
It is asserted that ...
Some people believe that ...
Some would say that ...
No
*It is asserted that I don't like sweet tea
*It has been suggested that I don't like sweet tea
Not usually
?It is said that the train will be here by 6
*Some would say that the train will be here by 6
Yes
It has been suggested that cars should be banned in city centres
Some people believe that cars should be banned in city centres



teaching

Teaching

raising awareness

Saying what you think is such an obvious language function that most learners have not given much thought to the fact that there are different classes of opinion giving.  The first step, therefore, is to raise awareness.

Simple exercises such as which response goes with which statement are good places to start.  For example,
Draw lines between the response and the statement:

Statement   Response
I like sugar in tea.   No, he wasn't.
Men are better at chess than women. That's a bit extreme, don't you think?
Joseph Conrad was born in Poland. I don't think that's a justifiable view.
I forbid my kids to watch TV. Oh, do you?  I don't.

Exercises like this, which can be longer and more challenging as well as having multiple possible solutions to discuss, alert learners to the types of opinion that are possible and the sorts of responses which are appropriate.

presenting

Idea 1
Contrasts between poor and appropriate exchanges are sometimes helpful, especially if you focus on things such as intonation and stress as well as on communicative intent.  For example,
Which of the following is more likely?
Why?

Dialogue 1 Dialogue 2 Dialogue 3
A: I think he was born in Nottingham.
B: That's a ridiculous thing to claim!  He was born in London.
A: You may have a point but have you considered the other possibilities?
B: OK.  That's a good point but that's a bit different, isn't it?
A: No, it's the same thing, in fact.
B: Where's the evidence?
A: English people seem a bit cold and distant to me.
B: Oh, I don't know that's generally true.  My experience is a bit different.
A: In what way?
B: Well, I have managed to make some good friends here quite easily.
A: You may have a point but that's not my experience.
A: I painted my house blue because I wanted it to stand out.
B: That's just silly.  There's no evidence for that.
A: Yes, there is.  It's a scientific fact that blue is better.
B: Now you are making a different point.  Don't change the subject.
A: I'm not.  It's a fact.
B: I'd go along with that.

This can be a mildly entertaining task as well as giving you the opportunity to introduce and practise the language of giving and responding to points of view, discuss better alternatives and then go on to some freer productive work.

Idea 2
The task you did on picking appropriate response types to match statement of the three sorts can be used at higher levels or amended as appropriate for lower levels.  Download it here.

practising

Idea 1
If the groundwork has been laid and people can distinguish between the main types of opinion and the sorts of responses which are appropriate you can get on to some practice.
The following has proved productive:

Write down three statements which are true for you.

  1. A fact you are not completely sure about such as Hitler was over 50 when he died.
  2. A personal preference such as I enjoy science-fiction movies.
  3. An argument you agree with such as I think people should go to prison for possessing cannabis.

Now get up and find someone to share opinions and views with.  Remember that they have done the same task so think about how to respond to each type of opinion.
Try to find:

  1. Two people who agree with each of your statements.
  2. Two people who disagree with each of your statements.
  3. One person who has no view either way.

Idea 2








This is a revision game.

  1. Make an opinion statement of some kind while holding up a green, red or yellow card.
  2. If the card is green, the learner(s) must respond with an agreement.  If the card is red they must disagree and if it's yellow, they must accept what you say but go on to make a counter suggestion.
  3. Hand over to the class and get them to play the game in groups.

Adjustments will have to be made to both these ideas for the level and interests of your learners.  For idea 2, at lower levels, exclude the yellow card, for example.



Related guides
culture there are two articles linked from this index concerned with cultural issues
disjuncts or sentence adverbials for a specific guide to what is briefly covered above
matching task for the matching task mentioned above as a PDF document
functions index for the index to allied areas


Reference:
http://www.vocabulary.cl/Lists/Opinions.htm [accessed 29/05/2015]