“In my opinion, …”

It’s one of those little linguistic tics, both in speech and in writing, that is so pervasive it’s almost invisible.

In my opinion …

Three words, sometimes modified by various adjectives, that pretend to be something they are not, and attempt to do something that they should not succeed in doing.

I don’t like the words. I don’t use them. Here’s why.

Each of us, no matter what we’re discussing, no matter our level up expertise on the subject at hand, offers our opinion each time we present our own words. When we’re quoting, we’re offering someone else’s opinion, or facts that support our opinion — but when we fall back on original words, it’s all opinion.

The world is round. My opinion. It’s based on compelling photos of the planet from space, the shape of the other planets as visible through our home telescope, the shadow of the earth as it falls across the moon, and such trivia as the fact that airline timetables would be significantly different if it were not. So I have an informed opinion on the subject. But mine is certainly not the only opinion on planetary shape out there. Ask a member of the Flat Earth Society, and you’ll get a completely different opinion.

The scientific method is a useful methodology for ordering and organizing information on the world around us. My opinion. I like the scientific method because it works for me, because I am the sort of person who questions everything and takes very little on trust, because I like knowing why and how, and because I question the value of unquestioning belief. One of the other opinions on the subject is that the scientific method undermines faith. Which it probably does. Both of these opinions will have differing worth in different circles.

For any issue you care to offer, there are six billion or so separate opinions, based on everything from the latest issue of Scientific American to chicken entrails in a dirt circle. And that’s fine. Each of us filters the world through our own senses, however flawed those might be (I have lousy eyesight and an exquisitely accurate sense of touch and spatial relationships, for example), and these senses make the information we receive subjective, and our brains and our backgrounds and our educations shove that already subjective information through a series of filters that change it and label it and define it even further.

There is no such thing as an objective observer, because we live inside the system, we are an inextricable part of the system, and the simple act of observing the system changes it — and spotting and defining the changes our observation has caused from inside the system that has just changed is as futile as trying to nail water to a wall. Human beings may strive for objectivity, but it is the impossible goal.

So.

If you say it, it’s your opinion.

Fine. Then what is the purpose of the redundant statement “In my opinion?”

“In my opinion” pretends to limit the value of the opinion presented; to make the statement it modifies less threatening by emphasizing it’s uncertainty. That’s what it pretends to do. But that isn’t what it does.

In its simplest form, what it does is attempt to deflect debate from the person making the statement. Kind of the adult version of the kid’s ‘ollie-ollie-in-free’ zone. “In my opinion” says “This is what I think, but because I have labeled it opinion instead of presenting it as fact, you don’t need to argue with me.”

The phrase comes in other variations, too. “In my humble opinion” says “I know so much about this that I am merely humoring you by responding.” It is anything but humble.

“In my not-so-humble opinion” is less objectionable. It at least tries to be funny, and by acknowledging the presence of arrogance, diffuses it. It’s still a discussion-deferral method, though.

“In my studied opinion,” means “I have done research on this, sucker, and unless you have done equivalent or better research, shut up because I don’t want to hear what you have to say.”

And “It’s just my opinion, but …” means “I haven’t done any research on this, and I want to tell you what I think, but I don’t want you to tell me that I’m wrong.”

I don’t use any of these, I don’t like them, I find them irritating. If someone says something, I already know it’s his opinion.

There are other words that work better, that have a legitimate use in the language, and that facilitate discussion rather than blocking it.

“I think” is good. It tells the people who hear or read us that this is an issue we have considered based on some study of information, facts, experience, and so on. “I believe” tells our audience that we are basing our response on personal faith. This is useful to know if only so that we don’t put a great deal of effort into our argument — arguing against belief is pretty futile. “I feel” … ugh. I detest that one. I read it and what I hear the speaker saying is, “I have decided that my limbic and endocrine systems are more effective for making decisions than my finely-developed brain, and I have therefore reverted to a primitive, non-thinking state.” I see a statement prefaced by “I feel” and I cringe. But at least I know where I stand with the person who said it. So even that approach has some value.

Whereas “in my opinion” is the most useless clause in the English language.

But [irony]that’s just my opinion, of course[/irony].

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About the author: Novelist, writing teacher, on a mission to reprint my out-of-print books and self-publish my new ones.

7 comments… add one
  • Mris Mar 6, 2003 @ 11:47

    While it *is* useful to have some things delineated as facts, I think we usually do a pretty good job of that without tacking "in my opinion" on the front of every other sentence. If I said, "I get paid tomorrow," I don’t think anyone would have any doubts as to whether I had evidence to support that or not. Similarly, with subjective phrases like "idiot" and "rocking goddess of speculative prose," nobody is running around thinking that there’s a checklist somewhere, and I’ve just checked off all the boxes to make sure that I’m labeling someone factually.

    So I’m with you, Holly, and when people try to hide behind it (as a guy I dated in college once did), I tend to get sarcastic. "Oh, thanks for telling me! I thought it was inviolable word from on high, but now I know it’s just your opinion! Whew!"

    Some people use it to say, "Don’t take offense at this." But why should I be less offended if they have a truly offensive opinion? Shouldn’t I be more offended than if they had something really firm backing their statement up? And if they don’t have a truly offensive opinion, if we just disagree amiably, why should that offend me in the first place?

  • Tina Mar 4, 2003 @ 20:51

    Eh. I say "IMO" basically to point out that, no, really, this is just my opinion, I’m not arguing about the facts. Mostly because online a whole lot of people seem to think if you express an opinion, you’re talking about gospel truth, not just a way of viewing things, which in turn is because a lot of people are. Alas.

    But it rarely comes out in face to face talk, where my audience is smaller. That’s usually "I think" instead.

    Honestly, though, I’m not sure there’s as wide a gap between those two phrases as you see, even though I don’t find it as natural in speech as online. Online, people get into the habit of falling into the speech patterns that net-users tend to (or, well, "speech"), and that one’s an old chestnut.

    IMO, and all. 🙂

  • Holly Lisle Mar 3, 2003 @ 14:57

    [g] I look at it this way — the more people who share the same opinion, the less need there is for any one of them to express that opinion. So I don’t bother discussing the things that I figure most of the people I’m in contact with would agree with me on.

    Early returns would indicate that I’m the complete contrarian on this one.

    I’ll note this about facts, though. I remember when dinosaurs were cold-blooded, slow, stupid reptiles. Now they’re hot-blooded, fast, smart precursors to today’s birds. Troy was once considered nothing but a pretty good, albeit fictional, place in a story by Homer. Physics is in a tremendous state of flux, medicine is facing the success of techniques, like cloning, that experts in the field declared impossible not long ago. Arithmetic seems pretty stable, but higher math is a jungle.

    Facts tend to be theories with good documentation and popular support. They’re frequently a lot more fluid than they look.

  • Katherine Mar 3, 2003 @ 8:37

    I’ve gotta disagree with you here.

    I’m a journalist. I spend a lot of time writing about facts: things that my readers could verify for themselves if they had the time and inclination to do so. I also draw conclusions from those facts, and encourage the people I interview to do the same.

    Being able to draw a line between facts, which I believe to be objective truth, and opinions which are not is absolutely invaluable. My work would be a lot harder without that little phrase.

  • Nick Mar 3, 2003 @ 8:07

    You’re right that it doesn’t have a rational meaning, but it does have an emotional meaning. It says "I’m not offering this as a universal Truth, just as my opinion". And that can be a good thing when you’re discussing something as charged and One True Way-ridden as writing, for instance.

    And I don’t know if I’d agree that everything you say is your opinion. If I say "I get paid tomorrow" or "Three clients phoned while you were on lunch", I wouldn’t label it as my opinion. That seems to lead down an avenue of "The world only exists inside my head" which may be true but isn’t helpful.

    In my biased opinion 😉

  • mistri Mar 3, 2003 @ 7:01

    I understand what you’re saying. But I use IMO most frequently on internet forums – to keep calm and peace where people can’t look at your face or hear the tone in your voice and see that you’re not presenting anything as absolute fact. They should know that anyway – but the reality is that on the internet people rip what you say apart unless you confirm that it’s only your opinion.

  • PuristLove Mar 3, 2003 @ 2:11

    Holly, to a large extent I agree with you. I am a subjectivist myself, and believe there is nothing we can know with absolute certainty.

    However, I think it is necessary to label some things as facts and some things as opinions in order to make any sense of the world at all.

    Facts are those theories which can and have been tested, or like mathematics are true because they define themselves. Opinions are theories on things like morality, or aesthetics which can ultimately be nothing more than individual judgement.

    I use the phrase "In my opinion" to distinguish between the two types of statements. And when I say, "In my humble opinion," what I mean is that it is something I’ve formed an opinion on, but that I would not dare try to change someone elses mind about. I’m sure people toss these terms around in the ways you’ve indicated. I’ve witnessed it myself. But for some of us, they have use and meaning.

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