Equivocation is classified as both a formal
Formal fallacy
In philosophy, a formal fallacy is a pattern of reasoning that is always wrong. This is due to a flaw in the logical structure of the argument which renders the argument invalid...

 and informal
Informal fallacy
An informal fallacy is an argument whose stated premises fail to support their proposed conclusion. The deviation in an informal fallacy often stems from a flaw in the path of reasoning that links the premises to the conclusion...

 logical fallacy
In logic and rhetoric, a fallacy is usually an incorrect argumentation in reasoning resulting in a misconception or presumption. By accident or design, fallacies may exploit emotional triggers in the listener or interlocutor , or take advantage of social relationships between people...

. It is the misleading use of a term with more than one meaning
Meaning (linguistics)
In linguistics, meaning is what is expressed by the writer or speaker, and what is conveyed to the reader or listener, provided that they talk about the same thing . In other words if the object and the name of the object and the concepts in their head are the same...

 or sense
Word sense
In linguistics, a word sense is one of the meanings of a word.For example a dictionary may have over 50 different meanings of the word , each of these having a different meaning based on the context of the word usage in a sentence...

 (by glossing over which meaning is intended at a particular time). It generally occurs with polysemic
Polysemy is the capacity for a sign or signs to have multiple meanings , i.e., a large semantic field.Charles Fillmore and Beryl Atkins’ definition stipulates three elements: the various senses of a polysemous word have a central origin, the links between these senses form a network, and ...


It is often confused with amphibology
Amphibology or amphiboly is an ambiguous grammatical structure in a sentence. -Examples:*Teenagers shouldn't be allowed to drive...

 (amphiboly); however, equivocation is ambiguity arising from the misleading use of a word and amphiboly is ambiguity arising from the misleading use of punctuation or syntax.


This form of word play relies upon two different words that sound alike. However, their different senses become obvious only upon a moment's reflection. One example is the contrast between birth and death, and birth and berth
Berth (sleeping)
The word berth was originally used to describe beds and sleeping accommodation on boats and ships and has now been extended to refer to similar facilities on trains, aircraft and buses.-Beds in boats or ships:...

, and told and toll'd
Funeral toll
Church bells are sometimes rung slowly ' when a person dies or at funeral services.Church bells are rung in three basic ways: normal ringing, chiming, or tolling...

 in Thomas Hood
Thomas Hood
Thomas Hood was a British humorist and poet. His son, Tom Hood, became a well known playwright and editor.-Early life:...

's account of the death of Ben the sailor (which took place at the age of 40, contrasted with his age of zero at birth) in his humorous poem Faithless Sally Brown:
His death, which happen'd in his berth,
At forty-odd befell:
They went and told the sexton
Sexton (office)
A sexton is a church, congregation or synagogue officer charged with the maintenance of its buildings and/or the surrounding graveyard. In smaller places of worship, this office is often combined with that of verger...

, and
The sexton toll'd the bell.

Fallacious reasoning

Equivocation is the use in a syllogism
A syllogism is a kind of logical argument in which one proposition is inferred from two or more others of a certain form...

 (a logical chain of reasoning) of a term several times, but giving the term a different meaning each time. For example:
A feather is light.
What is light cannot be dark.
Therefore, a feather cannot be dark.

In this use of equivocation, the word "light" is first used as the opposite of "heavy", but then used as a synonym of "bright" (the fallacy usually becomes obvious as soon as one tries to translate this argument into another language). Because the "middle term
Middle term
The middle term must distributed in at least one premises but not in the conclusion of a categorical syllogism. The major term and the minor terms, also called the end terms, do appear in the conclusion.Example:...

" of this syllogism
A syllogism is a kind of logical argument in which one proposition is inferred from two or more others of a certain form...

 is not one term, but two separate ones masquerading as one (all feathers are indeed "not heavy", but it is not true that all feathers are "bright"), this type of equivocation is actually an example of the fallacy of four terms
Fallacy of four terms
The fallacy of four terms is the logical fallacy that occurs when a syllogism has four terms rather than the requisite three. This form of argument is thus invalid.- Explanation :Categorical syllogisms always have three terms:...


Semantic shift

The fallacy of equivocation is often used with words that have a strong emotional content and many meanings. These meanings often coincide within proper context, but the fallacious arguer does a semantic shift, slowly changing the context by treating, as equivalent, distinct meanings of the term.

In English language
English language
English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria...

, one equivocation is with the word "man", which can mean both "member of the species, Homo sapiens," and "male member of the species, Homo sapiens." The following sentence is a well-known equivocation:
"Do women need to worry about man-eating sharks?", in which "man-eating" is construed to mean a shark that devours only male human beings.


A separate case of equivocation is metaphor:
All jackasses have long ears.
Carl is a jackass.
Therefore, Carl has long ears.

Here the equivocation is the metaphorical use of "jackass" to imply a stupid or obnoxious person instead of a male donkey
The donkey or ass, Equus africanus asinus, is a domesticated member of the Equidae or horse family. The wild ancestor of the donkey is the African Wild Ass, E...



This occurs where the referent of a word or expression in a second sentence is different from that in the immediately preceding sentence, especially where a change in referent has not been clearly identified.

The following fallacy is an example of amphiboly, and its success relies upon syntactical omissions that obscure an unparallel structure and that result in apparent ambiguity:

"Better than nothing"

Margarine is better than nothing.
Nothing is better than butter.
Therefore, margarine is better than butter.

The fallacy is exposed when the omissions are supplied. Note that, in the first part of the second premise, the present-tense verb, "putting," has been changed to the infinitive, "to put."
[Putting] margarine [on bread] is better than [putting] nothing [on bread].
[However, there is] nothing [to put on bread that] is better than [putting] butter [on bread].

Then note how the meaning would change if the second premise were parallel to the rest of the syllogism:
[Putting] margarine [on bread] is better than [putting] nothing [on bread].
[Putting] nothing [on bread] is better than [putting] butter [on bread].

By supplying the parallel structure, the original conclusion becomes logical.
Therefore, [putting] margarine [on bread] is better than [putting] butter [on bread].

However, by exposing the unparallel structure in the original syllogism, the reader is now able to supply the logical conclusion:
Therefore, [putting] butter [on bread] is better than [putting] margarine [on bread].

Politician's syllogism

A similar example is the Politician's syllogism
Politician's syllogism
The politician's syllogism, also known as the politician's logic or the politician's fallacy, is a logical fallacy of the form:#We must do something#This is something#Therefore, we must do this....

, satirized on the television show Yes Minister
Yes Minister
Yes Minister is a satirical British sitcom written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn that was first transmitted by BBC Television between 1980–1982 and 1984, split over three seven-episode series. The sequel, Yes, Prime Minister, ran from 1986 to 1988. In total there were 38 episodes—of which all but...

Something must be done.
This is something.
Therefore, this must be done.

Specific types of equivocation fallacies

See main articles: False attribution
False attribution
The fallacy of a false attribution occurs when an advocate appeals to an irrelevant, unqualified, unidentified, biased or fabricated source in support of an argument...

, Fallacy of quoting out of context
Fallacy of quoting out of context
The practice of quoting out of context, sometimes referred to as "contextomy" or "quote mining", is a logical fallacy and a type of false attribution in which a passage is removed from its surrounding matter in such a way as to distort its intended meaning....

, No true Scotsman
No true Scotsman
No true Scotsman is an informal logical fallacy, an ad hoc attempt to retain an unreasoned assertion. When faced with a counterexample to a universal claim, rather than denying the counterexample or rejecting the original universal claim, this fallacy modifies the subject of the assertion to...

, Shifting ground fallacy.

See also

  • Evasion (ethics)
    Evasion (Ethics)
    Evasion is, in ethics, an act that deceives by stating a true statement that is irrelevant or leads to a false conclusion.For instance, a man knows that another man is in a room in the building because he heard him, but in answer to a question, says, "I have not seen him," thereby falsely implying...

  • Fallacy of four terms
    Fallacy of four terms
    The fallacy of four terms is the logical fallacy that occurs when a syllogism has four terms rather than the requisite three. This form of argument is thus invalid.- Explanation :Categorical syllogisms always have three terms:...

  • If-by-whiskey
    In political discourse, if-by-whiskey is a relativist fallacy where the response to a question is contingent on the questioner's opinions and use of words with strong positive or negative connotations...

  • 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 :...

  • Plausible deniability
    Plausible deniability
    Plausible deniability is, at root, credible ability to deny a fact or allegation, or to deny previous knowledge of a fact. The term most often refers to the denial of blame in chains of command, where upper rungs quarantine the blame to the lower rungs, and the lower rungs are often inaccessible,...

  • When a white horse is not a horse

External links

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