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What Is a Fallacy of Ambiguity?

Henry Gaudet
Henry Gaudet

A fallacy of ambiguity is a flaw of logic, where the meaning of a statement is not entirely clear. This can create statements which are both compelling and incorrect, either by accident or by design. Unfortunate phrasing is often responsible for unintentional humor. There are many types of ambiguous fallacy, with fallacies of equivocation, amphiboly, and accent among the most common.

Language is a versatile and subtle tool, able to take advantage of word selection, phrasing, context, and emphasis to shape meaning. Sometimes, multiple interpretations can lead to confusion. Vague statements may lack any clear meaning at all. An unclear or muddled statement that leads the listener or reader to an incorrect conclusion is a fallacy of ambiguity.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Equivocation is a common fallacy of ambiguity, where a word or phrase is used with two distinct meanings. In this case, the conclusion is drawn as if there were only one meaning. “Exciting books are rare, and rare books are expensive, so exciting books are expensive,” is an example of equivocation. Each portion of the statement is factual, but the word “rare” has two similar but distinct meanings.

Amphiboly causes confusion by using words or phrases that may be interpreted in different ways. For instance, on hearing “The landlord kicked the tenant out of the apartment,” a listener interpret this to mean that the tenant was evicted by the landlord. The listener might alternately assume that the landlord physically assaulted and launched the tenant into the street. Context and experience lead to the assumption that the first is more likely, but both are possible interpretations, creating a fallacy of ambiguity.

Accent can become a source of confusion where verbal emphasis alters meaning. For example, any sarcastic statement taken out of context might appear as an argument supporting the opposite position. When this deliberate, it is an especially cynical fallacy of ambiguity. Depending on the emphasis, “Jeff did not mow my lawn today,” might lead the listener to believe that Jeff mowed someone else’s lawn, that he mowed something else, or that he did mow his lawn on another day.

Formal and informal debates, discussions, arguments and even simple statements are all vulnerable to fallacies. Often, a fallacy of ambiguity is unintentional, due to a poor choice of words or awkward phrasing, or due to an actual flaw in the speaker’s logic. Subtle fallacies may also be deliberate, designed to confuse an issue, to conceal an argument’s weaknesses, or connect to unrelated points. Identifying and exposing these flaws can quickly tear down otherwise compelling arguments.

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