I was presenting to a live online audience, had just explained Kendall Haven’s assertion that all humans learn through story structure, and then supported his claim with an example built upon Kenn Adams’ Story Spine.

Once upon a time there was a baby girl.

Everyday, someone comforted her when she cried.

Then one day, she cried and nobody came.

And because of that, she cried louder.

And because of that, she cried even louder.

Until finally, she noticed something. When it’s light outside, people comfort her. When it’s dark outside, they don’t.

And ever since then, she learned to sleep through the night.

The example illustrates how humans build new knowledge on top of existing knowledge by rectifying the differences between expected vs. actual outcomes.

After completing the example, I blurted some superlative like, “See what I mean? That’s exactly right.”

Evidently, someone in the audience took offense to my loose word-choice and typed, “Those with kids are not sure that’s *exactly* correct,” into the webinar’s live commenting system.

OMG. “That’s what you took from that?” I thought to myself. Putting aside the fact that my wife and I have raised two children–thank you very much–I wasn’t saying that ALL children learn to sleep through the night this way. I was demonstrating how people translate anomalies in their expectations into new knowledge through story structure. And while I obviously could have been clearer by tightening up my vague pronoun reference–which I likely would have caught had I been writing instead of speaking–this text-based critique felt familiar.

Recently, I’ve noticed a popular trend to focus on the literal as opposed to the figurative. When faced with a new idea, it’s popular to chip at its edges rather than focus on the main point. A shift in cultural norms has made it fashionable to major in minor things, sweat the small stuff, and dismiss arguments based on exceptions instead of the rules.

Historically, there have been two ways to deal with nitpickers: hold firm on the analogy’s main point or kowtow. The consequences of the latter are chilling. If humans are afraid to share new ideas, we lose the ability to communicate–the lifeblood of human interaction. And so, perhaps as an unintended consequence of this fear, a third option has emerged–a linguistic countermeasure designed to shield communicators from the snipers.

Here’s how it works. You start with an assertion like:

Diving into the shallow end of the pool is dangerous.

Then you soften the statement with a suffix, like this:

Diving into the shallow end of the pool is dangerous…ish.

“Ish” has become shorthand for “don’t shoot me if my statement doesn’t cover one hundred percent of your logical scenarios.” Had I been savvy enough to incorporate it into my talk by saying, “That’s exactly right…ish,” I would have insulated myself from the inflexibility of logic unabated. But, it also would have also watered down the concept I was trying to convey.

Let’s consider the effect of “ish” on the following sentences:

That’s just like the last time we went camping…ish.

He looks like George Clooney…ish.

Your hair is brown…ish.

This product is superior…ish.

That was the best movie ever…ish.

“Ish” is like a good-news-bad-news joke. The good news is that it holds the logic-snipers at bay. The bad news is that it debilitates strong statements.

I wrote an entire book on writing strong statements, so let’s see what happens when we “ish” a few proverbs.

A clean conscience makes a soft pillow…ish

Charity begins at home…ish

Discretion is the better part of valor…ish

Laughter is the best medicine…ish.

Lightning never strikes twice in the same place…ish

Oil and water don’t mix…ish

Old friends and old wine are best…ish

Patience is a virtue…ish

Communicating big concepts frequently requires speakers to employ meaning-approximation devices like simile, analogy, and metaphor. Unfortunately, since all will ultimately breakdown when exposed to the corrosive environment of pure logic, they’ve somehow become easy targets for those who choose to toil in the rhetorical margins.

The tyranny of “ish” is clear. Eroding our ability to convey deeper meaning inhibits our ability to think. For that reason alone, the practice must be stopped. Yet, to do so, we must attack “ish” on two fronts. First, communicators must hold firm on the message–refusing to kowtow to the logical snipers. Second, audiences must extend the benefit of the doubt. Rather than attacking an argument’s weak flanks with a barrage of Lilliputian attacks, what if we actually gave analogies, similes, and metaphors a little chance to breathe first?

Or we could just continue to lob hand grenades at them from the corners…ish.


Photo Credit: Translating a love letter from a Boston girl – “Now, does that mean yes or no?”. , ca. 1903. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2004668492/.