Bryan Caplan  

In Defense of the Obvious

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Writing instructors often attack the use of the words "obvious," "of course," and the like. "If it's 'obvious,'" they mock, "then don't say it!" But giving up these words is easier said than done. I can't imagine giving an econ lecture without occasionally saying them. "Obviously, if you raise the price high enough, people won't want to buy." "In the long-run, of course, entrants will drive prices down again."

Why is it so hard to surrender these words? The main reasons: When you say "obviously," or "of course"...

1. ...listeners know not to waste time looking for a complicated rationale behind your statement. What they see is what they get.

2. ...listeners can identify your starting points. It may be obvious that X is true, and obvious that X-->Y, but if you just start with Y, people will be confused.

3. ...listeners find out what you take for granted. If it's different from what they take for granted, that's news.

Of course, "obvious" can be overused. But you should ignore anyone who tells you to stop saying that things are "obvious." Obviously.


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COMMENTS (17 to date)
george writes:

"Obviously" and "of course" usually indicate something highly non-obvious which the student needs to spend time learning.

I find that I use "obviously" almost apologetically, because I am saying something that I suspect that most of the audience already knows, but I still need to say it because the rest follows it, and there's always at least some people who didn't know it. After all, a writer can't do what a lecturer does and ask for a show of hands of how many people already know something.

Well, they could, but they wouldn't be able to see how many hands went up. Obviously.

Have I mentioned that my nickname used to be Captain Obvious (before a friend pointed out I ain't captain of nothing, so I became Noncommissioned Officer of Obvious)?

dearieme writes:

I'm close to agreeing with George: "obviously" means "if you give this an evening's reflection, all will be clear".

Dan Weber writes:

Many people use "obviously" for "if this isn't true, my worldview would be destroyed."

"Obviously, Smith is the better Presidential candidate."

Peter G. Klein writes:

Don't forget the famous story about G. H. Hardy, who in a lecture said about some detail in a proof: "This is obvious." After a pause, he went on: "Hmm, is it really obvious?" After another pause he left the room to consider the point, returning 20 minutes later with the verdict: "Yes, I was right, it is obvious."

mjh writes:

My use of "of course" and "obviously" is meant to say something about myself, not about the thing I'm saying. I could just as easily say, "Now I realize that..." or maybe "And yes, I've considered that..."

But it's much easier to write "obviously" or "of course". Using those words is meant to communicate to the reader something about *my* state of mind in relationship to the thing I'm talking about.

nicole writes:

"If it's obvious, don't say it" doesn't hold up, largely for the three reasons Bryan gives.

Someone once said to me, though, that his reason for avoiding "obviously" was that it was somewhat rude—"if you can't see this, you must be stupid."

I by no means eliminate the word from my speech or writing, but I do spend a few extra seconds thinking about its use since then. Is it really obvious? I don't want to fall into the trap that Dan Weber mentions above.

Brent Buckner writes:

I like: "Clearly,"
I don't like: "Needless to say,"

jtc writes:

Can we get rid of "To be sure"?

Glen writes:

I often use 'of course' in this type of context:
"X has this property. Of course, this probably has to do with its relationship to y."

In a lecture, if the prof say 'it is obvious that x-->y' but it's not obvious to me, maybe the class is beyond me.

NC Almirall writes:

I edit for a living, and I wish my authors (or most people) wrote as well as you and the commenters here. But they don't, and so when I see one of them using "obviously" or "of course," their point is rarely self-evident. It seems that most of the time they're only using it to show off how familiar they are with a particularly obscure or complex detail.

So I guess that would fall into reason #3, but as far as it goes for most people, it's still a vice, and I imagine that's for whom the writing instructors' advice is meant.

In any event, it takes someone special to know that if you're uncertain whether your point is obvious, you're probably better off erring on the side of omission.

I always take "obviously" to mean "if you don't agree with this, you will not agree with the rest".

Someone might say "obviously, income inequality means a decreasing standard of living". This is not true. It might be true, but not necessarily. What the speaker is doing is communicating his biases beforehand, without exerting any effort on explaining why he is biased or even that he is biased. He may not even know he is biased, but when he says "obviously", you know he is expressing his bias to some extent.

Obviously, this works for me.

ionides writes:

I agree with Nicole: I take "obviously" to mean "if you don't see this you are stupid." It's supercilious.

If it's obvious let the reader have the pleasure of instantaneous comprehension and leave it at that.

When I read a text book, and come upon "the explanation is easy", I have the same feeling as when someone tells me "it's the third turn off after the green bungalow with the open window. You can't miss it". I'm on my guard and it spoils the flow of reading.

dearieme writes:

A friend of mine use to teach Thermodynamics with generous use of "And so it follows, as night follows day,...." and "It is not entirely beyond the grasp of the human intellect to see that...."

Tim writes:

Using these words when stating your premises is fine. Using them when stating your conclusions is not.

Dan writes:

When a speaker/writer correctly uses 'obvious', it is a call for the listener/reader to agree or disagree. Use of this idiom is especially important in conversations containing specialized knowledge of a subject.

When the listener agrees, it establishes a common agreed-upon knowledge base. A listener's verbal response of "of course" in conversations reinforces that commonality, head nodding in lectures provides similar feedback.

When the listener disagrees, it is a sign that the listener needs more basic knowledge to meaningfully participate. If listeners choose, they can signal disagreement with the speaker and perhaps "ratchet down" the conversation to one fitting their knowledge level. Lecturers seeing mostly puzzled faces know what to do.

Unfortunately, many speakers/writers improperly use 'obviously' as a way to slip ideology or questionable facts in without judgement. In that case, it places a burden upon listeners to determine they don't agree it is obvious and then choose how to respond (the classic "yes...no, no" comedic response).

Correct use of the verbal 'obviously' idiom is typically followed by a brief pause while the listeners weigh their response and the speaker gauges the response. When someone uses the verbal 'obviously' idiom and quickly continues, they often are trying to slip in ideology or questionable facts. That's when I interrupt and make them go back and justify the 'obvious' statement.

g writes:

Brian Caplan, we have a mutual acquaintance who is hyper-smart and uses the phrase "for obvious reasons" in lieu of elaborating points that are decidedly not obvious. Although he's not trying to make me feel stupid, he's succeeding.

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