The terms we use to discuss something have a big effect on our perception of it. In his book Language as Symbolic Action, Kenneth Burke says, “Even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality” (45). Burke calls a terminology a “terministic screen.” We might also call it a terministic “filter.”
What he means is that though we see through words and think about reality in words, no set of words accurately represents reality. The words we use influence how we see. When we speak or write, the words we use can make others see things as we do. Analyzing the terms that a writer or speaker uses can therefore tell us a lot about how they see the world. It also means that if we can get an audience to start using a different set of terms, we might change their views.
Burke’s fundamental example is the distinction between “action” and “motion.” Where Burke sees a motive and an act, a behaviorist sees a “stimulus” and a mechanistic “response.” In the behaviorist terminology, human action is reduced to a serious of chemical reactions, turning us into chemical machines (A Grammar of Motives, 59-60).
In this activity, find two articles that take very different positions on an issue. As you read them, collect a list of three to six key terms for each article. These “terms” could be nouns, verbs, adjectives, or phrases. For each term, you will think about the following questions and record your findings in a chart like the one below.
- What object in reality does the term reflect? What is the denotation?
- What qualities does the term select from or emphasize about the object? How does the term draw attention to this particular object and away from others?
- What qualities does this term deflect or conceal?
- What other terms are related to this term in the system of this terministic screen? What relations do they have?
Here are some examples of different terms that might be used to describe fighters in a political situation:
When you have a set of key terms for each article, compare them to see how they overlap and how they differ. Finally, what is the effect on the attitude of the audience when seeing through these terministic screens?
A copy of this post as a .docx file plus a chart for tracking terms is provided in the link below.