I. What is Truism?
A truism (TROO-ism) is a bland statement. It’s something that might sound wise or meaningful on the surface, but that’s very obvious and doesn’t add any new ideas or information. Truisms are examples of cliché.
Truisms can be tough to detect because they’re subjective – in other words, where you see a truism, someone else might see a profound insight! The difference is entirely up to each reader. You know you’ve got a truism on your hands when you read a sentence and your first thought is, “Duh…”
People sometimes use “truism” to mean “clear/definite truth,” but this is incorrect. The word is misleading, though, and it’s easy to understand why this mistake is so common!
II. Types of Truism
The majority of truisms don’t fit into any type or category. They’re just bland statements. However, there are more specific terms for a couple types of truisms:
- A platitude is a truism on a moral topic. We’ll see an example of this later on.
- A bromide is a comforting truism, e.g. “things always work out in the end.”
III. Examples of Truism
Life’s not fair
This is certainly true a lot of the time. And it’s certainly a widely-used expression, probably a bit of a cliché at this point. Is it a truism? That’s up to you. It depends whether you think this statement is interesting and contains a new idea, or whether you think it’s so obvious that it’s not even worth saying.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Again, people disagree about whether this is a truism. To some people, it might be helpful – it might give them the motivation to get started on their “journey.” But to others, it’s a “duh” statement that doesn’t add anything new.
They’re down by seven; they’ve got to come back now and try to score.
This kind of thing happens all the time in sports commentary. Two teams are trying to win. They win by scoring. Why would you bother to point out that they’re trying to score? Of course they’re trying to score. Most viewers find this sort of thing to be a truism.
IV. The Problem with Truisms
Truisms often seem like wisdom, and it’s only on further inspection that we realize they’re actually pretty empty and meaningless. That’s why they’re so problematic: they take up room that could be used for actual insights. Think about the sports commentary example from §3. Wouldn’t it be more useful if the commentators told us something new about the game? They might point out, for example, that this quarterback has a good track record of coming back from behind, or that his team was getting more possession and therefore more likely to win the game in spite of the numbers on the scoreboard. Instead, the commentators are wasting the viewer’s time by stating useless truisms.
V. Examples of Truism in Literature
“This above all: to thine own self be true.” (William Shakespeare, Hamlet)
Polonius says this to his son Laertes at a crucial moment in Hamlet. Scholars have debated whether this should be seen as profound advice or a truism. It’s easy to see why it might be wise: being true to oneself is certainly one of the main values in modern American culture. But the whole play deals with themes of madness and isolation, so it’s possible that Shakespeare intended us to laugh at Polonius’s advice – if everyone is being “true to themselves,” and not controlling their actions, then we’re all madmen! Again, it’s up to the reader to decide whether or not this is a truism. If it’s a truism, this statement is also a platitude.
“If he were not dead, he would still be alive.” (Tombstone of Jacques de la Palice)
The French nobleman Jacques de la Palice asked that his headstone be carved with the inscription “If he were not dead, he would still be envied.” But in French, the word “envied” (envie) looks a lot like the word “alive” (en vie). The engraver accidentally put too much space in the middle of the word so it bears a pretty terrible truism.
VI. Examples of Truism in Popular Culture
“You can observe a lot by watching.” (Yogi Berra)
Yogi Berra was once the catcher for the New York Yankees, and during his career he was famous for making statements like this. The sentence has a kind of folksy wisdom on the surface, but if you think about it you may find that it’s a truism, and maybe even a tautology!
The self-help world is notorious for its truisms. In particular, the phrase “you just have to be positive” is often criticized as a truism. Of course it’s helpful to maintain a positive outlook, but does saying this actually help people who are facing a medical or financial disaster? Does it offer a truly valuable insight for people in adversity? Different readers disagree strongly about the value of such statements.
VII. Related Terms
A tautology is the logical term for an extreme version of a truism. Its technical definition is:
A statement whose predicate is contained in its subject.
In other words, it adds no new information. A few basic examples would include:
- This dictionary is a dictionary.
- My cat is a cat.
- (from xkcd): The first rule of tautology club is the first rule of tautology club.
These tautologies stick out like a sore thumb. Unlike truisms, they’re not open to interpretation – anyone reading them would have to agree that they contain no new information about the dictionary, the cat, or the rules of tautology club. Truisms are a lot like tautologies, but harder to see.