Equivocation: Wikis


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Equivocation is classified as both a formal and informal fallacy. It is the misleading use of a term with more than one meaning or sense (by glossing over which meaning is intended at a particular time).

It is often confused with amphiboly; however, equivocation is ambiguity arising from the misleading use of a word and amphiboly is ambiguity arising from misleading use of punctuation or syntax.




This form of word play relies on two different words, that sound alike, being used in different senses, and where these different senses are not immediately apparent, but become obvious upon a moment's reflection; for example the contrast between birth and death, and birth and berth, and told and toll'd in Thomas Hood'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, and
The sexton toll'd the bell.

Fallacious reasoning

Equivocation is the use in a syllogism (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" of this syllogism is not one term, but two separate ones masquerading as one (all feathers are indeed "not heavy", but is not true that all feathers are "bright"), this type of equivocation is actually an example of the fallacy of four 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 as they go in such a way to achieve equivocation by treating distinct meanings of the word as equivalent.

In English language, one equivocation is with the word "man", which can mean both "member of species Homo sapiens" and "male member of species Homo sapiens". A well-known equivocation is

"Do women need to worry about man-eating sharks?"

where "man-eating" is taken as "devouring 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.


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


One typical form of applied equivocation is demonstrated in the following valid, but untrue syllogism, which revolves around the usage of the homograph "theory", when applied to evolution:

Evolution is a theory.
Theories are speculative.
Therefore evolution is speculative.

The source of this equivocation is what linguists term a switch-reference: where, the subject of the second statement is a different subject from that of the first -- as in the case of the homograph bank (which can just as easily designate a financial institution as a riparian zone).

The result is that, despite the application of two identical signs (i.e., the word "theory"), the actual referent of the word in the first statement, the actual object in the world which it designates, is an entirely different entity from the referent designated by the identical homograph in the second statement:

  • In the first statement, "theory" is used in its neutral, specific, scientific context, where its referent is an intellectual framework (e.g., "atomic theory", "quantum theory", etc.).
  • In the second statement, "theory" is used in its colloquial, ambiguous, and generally pejorative application, where its referent is an unverified hypothesis.
  • The overall goal of this fallacious syllogism is to create the impression that evolution is merely a conjecture and has never been subjected to scientific scrutiny.

And, moreover, regardless of whether or not it actually is, or is not, the case, it is transparently clear that the allegation that "evolution has never been subjected to scientific scrutiny" is not supported by (and is not demonstrated per medium of) the argument that is displayed in the "Evolution is a theory; Theories are uncertain; Therefore evolution is uncertain" syllogism.

"Better than nothing"

Another example of switch-referencing:

Margarine is better than nothing.
Nothing is better than butter.
Therefore margarine is better than butter.
  • In the first statement, "nothing" really means "dry bread" (such that the sentence means "it is preferable to have margarine [on bread] than nothing at all").
  • In the second statement, "nothing" means, literally, "no thing" (so the sentence means "there exists no thing that is better than butter").
  • The overall goal of this fallacious syllogism is to create a false impression that "magarine is better, by definition, than butter".

Politician's syllogism

A similar example is the Politician's syllogism, satirized on the television show Yes Minister:

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

Specific types of equivocation fallacies

See main articles: False attribution, Fallacy of quoting out of context, No true Scotsman, Shifting ground fallacy.


  • F.L. Huntley. "Some Notes on Equivocation: Comment", PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America Vol. 81, No 1, (March 1966), p.146.
  • A.E. Malloch. "Some Notes on Equivocation", PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America Vol. 81, No 1, (March 1966), pp 145–146.

See also

External links

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