Amphibology or amphiboly (from the Greek
Greek language
Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the majority of its history;...

 ἀμφιβολία, amphibolia) is an ambiguous
Ambiguity of words or phrases is the ability to express more than one interpretation. It is distinct from vagueness, which is a statement about the lack of precision contained or available in the information.Context may play a role in resolving ambiguity...

 grammatical structure in a sentence
Sentence (linguistics)
In the field of linguistics, a sentence is an expression in natural language, and often defined to indicate a grammatical unit consisting of one or more words that generally bear minimal syntactic relation to the words that precede or follow it...



  • Teenagers shouldn't be allowed to drive. It's getting too dangerous on the streets.
These sentences could be taken to mean the teenagers will be in danger, or that they will cause the danger.

  • The duke yet lives that Henry shall depose.Henry VI
    Henry VI, part 2
    Henry VI, Part 2 or The Second Part of Henry the Sixt is a history play by William Shakespeare believed to have been written in 1591, and set during the lifetime of King Henry VI of England...

    (1.4.30), by Shakespeare
    William Shakespeare
    William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world's pre-eminent dramatist. He is often called England's national poet and the "Bard of Avon"...

Amphiboly occurs frequently in poetry
Poetry is a form of literary art in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, its apparent meaning...

, owing to the alteration of the natural order of words for metrical reasons.

  • Edward II
    Edward II (play)
    Edward II is a Renaissance or Early Modern period play written by Christopher Marlowe. It is one of the earliest English history plays. The full title of the first publication is The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud...

    by Marlowe
    Christopher Marlowe
    Christopher Marlowe was an English dramatist, poet and translator of the Elizabethan era. As the foremost Elizabethan tragedian, next to William Shakespeare, he is known for his blank verse, his overreaching protagonists, and his mysterious death.A warrant was issued for Marlowe's arrest on 18 May...

According to legend, Isabella of France
Isabella of France
Isabella of France , sometimes described as the She-wolf of France, was Queen consort of England as the wife of Edward II of England. She was the youngest surviving child and only surviving daughter of Philip IV of France and Joan I of Navarre...

 and Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March famously plotted to murder Edward II of England
Edward II of England
Edward II , called Edward of Caernarfon, was King of England from 1307 until he was deposed by his wife Isabella in January 1327. He was the sixth Plantagenet king, in a line that began with the reign of Henry II...

 in such a way as not to draw blame on themselves, sending a famous order in Latin which, depending on where the comma
A comma is a type of punctuation mark . The word comes from the Greek komma , which means something cut off or a short clause.Comma may also refer to:* Comma , a type of interval in music theory...

 was inserted, could mean either "Do not be afraid to kill Edward; it is good" or "Do not kill Edward; it is good to fear":
Fear not to kill the king, 'tis good he die. / Kill not the king, 'tis good to fear the worst. (5.4.8-11)

  • (Professor to student, on receiving a fifty-page term paper): "I shall waste no time reading it." (Often attributed to Disraeli)
Implies either that the professor avoid all delays to reading, or that he will not misspend his time by reading.

  • No food is better than our food.
Implies that ours is best, or that ours is so poor that having none is the better choice.

Historical word usage

In reference to his Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the United States Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom , the third President of the United States and founder of the University of Virginia...

 wrote a letter to John Adams
John Adams
John Adams was an American lawyer, statesman, diplomat and political theorist. A leading champion of independence in 1776, he was the second President of the United States...


We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphibologisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves.

Outside formal logic

Apart from its use as a technical term in logic, equivocation
Equivocation is classified as both a formal and informal logical fallacy. It is the misleading use of a term with more than one meaning or sense...

 can also mean the use of language that is ambiguous, i.e. equally susceptible of being understood in two different ways. There is usually a strong connotation that the ambiguity is being used with intention
Intention is an agent's specific purpose in performing an action or series of actions, the end or goal that is aimed at. Outcomes that are unanticipated or unforeseen are known as unintended consequences....

 to deceive
Deception, beguilement, deceit, bluff, mystification, bad faith, and subterfuge are acts to propagate beliefs that are not true, or not the whole truth . Deception can involve dissimulation, propaganda, and sleight of hand. It can employ distraction, camouflage or concealment...


This type of equivocation was famously mocked in the porter's speech in Shakespeare's Macbeth
The Tragedy of Macbeth is a play by William Shakespeare about a regicide and its aftermath. It is Shakespeare's shortest tragedy and is believed to have been written sometime between 1603 and 1607...

, in which the porter directly alludes to the practice of deceiving under oath by means of equivocation.

Faith, here's an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God's sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven. (Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 3)

See, for example Robert Southwell and Henry Garnet
Henry Garnet
Henry Garnet , sometimes Henry Garnett, was a Jesuit priest executed for his complicity in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Born in Derbyshire, he was educated in Nottingham and later at Winchester College, before moving to London in 1571 to work for a publisher...

, author of A Treatise of Equivocation (published secretly c. 1595) — to whom, it is supposed, Shakespeare was specifically referring. Shakespeare made the reference to priests because the religious use of equivocation was well known in those periods of early modern England (e.g. under James VI/I) when it was a capital offence for a Roman Catholic priest to enter England. A Jesuit priest would equivocate in order to protect himself from the secular authorities without (in his eyes) committing the sin of lying. For example, he could use the ambiguity of the word "a" (meaning "any" or "one") to say "I swear I am not a priest", because he could have a particular priest in mind who he was not. That is, in his mind, he was saying "I swear I am not one priest" (e.g. "I am not Father Brown".) This was theorized by casuists
In applied ethics, casuistry is case-based reasoning. Casuistry is used in juridical and ethical discussions of law and ethics, and often is a critique of principle- or rule-based reasoning...

 as the doctrine of mental reservation
Doctrine of mental reservation
The doctrine of mental reservation, or the doctrine of mental equivocation, was a special branch of casuistry developed in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and most often associated with the Jesuits.- Secular use :...


According to Malloch (1966) , this doctrine of permissible "equivocation" did not originate with the Jesuits.

Malloch cites a short treatise, , that had been written by Martin Azpilcueta (also known as Doctor Navarrus), an Augustinian who was serving as a consultant to the Apostolic Penitentiary
Apostolic Penitentiary
The Apostolic Penitentiary, formerly called the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary, is one of the three tribunals of the Roman Curia. The Apostolic Penitentiary is chiefly a tribunal of mercy, responsible for issues relating to the forgiveness of sins in the Catholic Church.The...

. It was published in Rome in 1584. The first Jesuit influence upon this doctrine was not until 1609, "when Suarez rejected Azpilcueta's basic proof and supplied another" (Malloch, p. 145; speaking of Francisco Suárez
Francisco Suárez
Francisco Suárez was a Spanish Jesuit priest, philosopher and theologian, one of the leading figures of the School of Salamanca movement, and generally regarded among the greatest scholastics after Thomas Aquinas....


See also

  • One of the chapters in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason is entitled "On the Amphiboly of Concepts of Reflection".
  • Syntactic ambiguity
    Syntactic ambiguity
    Syntactic ambiguity is a property of sentences which may be reasonably interpreted in more than one way, or reasonably interpreted to mean more than one thing...

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