Emotive conjugation

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In rhetoric, emotive or emotional conjugation mimics the form of a grammatical conjugation of an irregular verb to illustrate humans' tendency to describe their own behavior more charitably than the behavior of others.[1]

It is often called the Russell's conjugation[2] in honour of philosopher Bertrand Russell who expounded the concept in 1948 on the BBC Radio programme The Brains Trust,[3] citing the examples:[4]

I am firm, You are obstinate, He is a pig-headed fool.

I am righteously indignant, you are annoyed, he is making a fuss over nothing.

I have reconsidered the matter, you have changed your mind, he has gone back on his word.

Used seriously, such loaded language[4] can lend false support to an argument by obscuring a fallacy of meaning. The inherent incongruity also lends itself to humor,[5] as employed by Bernard Woolley in the BBC television series Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister:[6][7]

It's one of those irregular verbs, isn't it?
I have an independent mind, You are eccentric, He is round the twist.[8]

That's another of those irregular verbs, isn't it?
I give confidential press briefings; you leak; he's being charged under section 2A of the Official Secrets Act.[9]

In applied psychology[edit]

Psychological studies, such as those of Frank Luntz, indicate that Russell conjugation sets the dominant tone for political debates, and the acceptance or rejection of (political) positions is based almost entirely on emotional factors, rather than on any factual basis. Examples from modern political settings include:

  • "Death tax" vs. Estate tax
  • Illegal aliens vs. undocumented immigrants
  • Climate change vs. global warming
  • Anti-abortion vs. pro-life


  1. ^ Ralph Henry Johnson, J. Anthony Blair (2006). Logical self-defense. p. 160 "The Freeloading Term". ISBN 978-1-932716-18-4. 
  2. ^ Robert S. Hartman, The Knowledge of Good: Critique of Axiological Reason, Rodopi, 2002, p. 207.
  3. ^ Robert Audi, ed. (1999). Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 223. ISBN 978-0-521-63136-5. 
  4. ^ a b Douglas N. Walton (2006). Fundamentals of critical argumentation. Cambridge University Press. p. 220. ISBN 978-0-521-82319-7. 
  5. ^ Antony J. Chapman, Hugh C. Foot (1996). Humor and laughter: theory, research, and applications. p. 86. ISBN 978-1-56000-837-8. 
  6. ^ Jonathan Lynn, Antony Jay (1984). The Complete Yes Minister. BBC Books. ISBN 0-563-20665-9. 
  7. ^ Jonathan Lynn, Antony Jay (1989). The Complete Yes Prime Minister. BBC Books. ISBN 0-563-20773-6. 
  8. ^ Yes, Prime Minister: The Bishop's Gambit
  9. ^ Yes, Prime Minister: Man Overboard

External links[edit]