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What Is a Fallacy of Accent?

By Angie Bates
Updated Feb 16, 2024
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A fallacy of accent occurs when the meaning of a sentence can be taken two different ways depending on whether a specific word is emphasized. Appearing frequently in speech, the fallacy of accent also can be seen clearly in written works. This fallacy is named one of accent because Aristotle's original definition included only those sentences with a variable accent on a specific word. Modern definitions, however, include stresses on whole words or groups of words.

The fallacy of accent falls into the fallacies of ambiguity category. Ambiguity leads to false assumptions about the statement made. The reader or listener is often led to believe that the original statement actually meant the opposite what it was intended to mean.

Sometimes said to be strictly a vocal phenomenon, the fallacy also occurs in writing or when speech is reprinted. For example, a sign which advertises a free product in large, bold letters but has in smaller letters that the free product is only available with a 20 dollar purchase is an example of a fallacy of accent. One group of words is heavily emphasized over another, leading the reader to an inaccurate belief.

Often a spoken comment will either be printed or repeated without the desired emphasis, leading to misinterpreted statements. For example, if someone asks another "did you enjoy the woman's dancing?" the person asked might respond, "I enjoy dancers with skill." Without any clear emphasis, this statement can be taken as a yes. The respondent did enjoy the dancing. If, however, the speaker emphasizes the word skill, "I enjoy dancers with skill," the answer ends up in the negative.

The fallacy also may take a sentence out of context. For example, saying "she was on time for work Tuesday" in response to the question "Was she on time Tuesday?" may have no bearing on whether "she" is normally on time for work. If, however, one puts an emphasis on the word "Tuesday" or omits the question asking about the specific day, a reader or listener may conclude that the "she" in the sentence is not normally on time.

In writing, the fallacy of accent can be avoided or enacted by placing specific words in bold type or italics to change or clarify the meaning of the sentence. Alternately, leaving words that should be emphasized without emphasis leads to this fallacy as well. In speech, intentionally or unintentionally repeating statements with difference emphasis can lead to the fallacy of accent.

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