Amphiboly in Grammar and Logic

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Amphiboly is a fallacy of relevance that relies on an ambiguous word or grammatical structure to confuse or mislead an audience. Adjective: amphibolous. Also known as amphibology.

More broadly, amphiboly may refer to a fallacy that results from a faulty sentence structure of any kind.


From the Greek, "irregular speech"

Pronunciation: am-FIB-o-lee

Examples and Observations

  • "[T]he 2003 election reform law demanded that politicians acknowledge in their own voices their responsibility for advertisements they run on public airwaves. But five years later, the 'I approved' has become a pivotal device in commercials for Congress and the White House, a place for candidates to make a declaration of intent, summarize the message or take a parting shot. . . .
    "A University of New Hampshire rhetoric professor, James Farrell, was irked as far back as the 2004 Democratic primary campaign, the first time the disclaimers were required. Then, as now, he said, advertisement writers were coming up with awkward non-sequiturs just to slip in something extra.
    "Mr. Farrell noted a current commercial for Representative Don Cazayoux, Democrat of Louisiana, in which the candidate said, 'I’m Don Cazayoux and I approved this message because that’s who I’m fighting for.' That, Mr. Farrell said, is 'an amphiboly, a logical confusion created by a grammatical ambiguity.'
    "'Of course, if asked, the candidate will say he means he’s fighting for the middle class,' said Mr. Farrell, of the spot’s theme. 'However, one could easily conclude that the disclaimer addition refers to the candidate himself, as in, "I’m Don and that’s who I’m fighting for."'"
    (Steve Friess, "Candidates ‘Approve’ Ads and Get a Bit Creative." The New York Times, Sep. 30, 2008)

Humorous Amphibolies

"Amphiboly is usually so recognizable that it is rarely used in real-life situations to make a claim seem stronger than it is. Instead, it more often leads to humorous misunderstandings and confusions. Newspaper headlines are one common source of amphiboly. Here are a few examples:

'Prostitutes Appeal to Pope' -- 'Farmer Bill Dies in House' -- 'Dr. Ruth to Talk About Sex With Newspaper Editors' -- 'Burglar Gets Nine Months in Violin Case' -- 'Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant' -- 'Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge' -- 'Marijuana Issues Sent to a Joint Committee' -- 'Two Convicts Evade Noose: Jury Hung.'

. . . Most of these cases of amphiboly are the result of a poorly constructed sentence: 'I like chocolate cake better than you.' Although we normally try to avoid them, intentional amphiboly may prove useful when we feel obligated to say something we would rather not have to say, yet want to avoid saying something that is patently not true. Here are lines from letters of recommendation: 'In my opinion, you will be very fortunate to get this person to work for you.' 'I am pleased to say that this candidate is a former colleague of mine.' From a professor on receiving a late paper from a student: 'I shall waste no time in reading this.'" (John Capps and Donald Capps, You've Got To Be Kidding!: How Jokes Can Help You Think. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009)

Amphiboly in a Classified Ad

"Sometimes the amphiboly is more subtle. Take this newspaper classified ad that appears under Furnished Apartments for Rent:

3 rooms, river view, private phone, bath, kitchen, utilities included

Your interest is aroused. But when you visit the apartment, there is neither a bathroom nor a kitchen. You challenge the landlord. He remarks that there are common bathroom and kitchen facilities at the end of the hall. 'But what about the private bath and kitchen that the ad mentioned?' you query. 'What are you talking about?' the landlord replies. 'The ad didn't say anything about a private bath or a private kitchen. All the ad said was private phone.' The advertisement was amphibolous. One cannot tell from the printed words whether private modifies only phone or whether it also modifies bath and kitchen." (Robert J. Gula, Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language. Axios, 2007)

Characteristics of Amphibolies

"To become a skilled perpetrator of amphibolies you must acquire a certain nonchalance toward punctuation, especially commas. You must learn to toss off lines such as 'I heard cathedral bells tripping through the alleyways,' as if it mattered not a whit whether you or the bells were doing the tripping. You should acquire a vocabulary of nouns which can be verbs and a grammatical style which easily accommodates misplaced pronouns and confusions over subject and predicate. The astrology columns in popular newspapers provide excellent source material." (Madsen Pirie, How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic. Continuum, 2006)

The Lighter Side of Amphiboly

"Some amphibolous sentences are not without their humorous aspects, as in posters urging us to 'Save Soap and Waste Paper,' or when anthropology is defined as 'The science of man embracing woman.' We should be mistaken if we inferred immodest dress on the woman described in a story: ' . . . loosely wrapped in a newspaper, she carried three dresses.' Amphiboly is often exhibited by newspaper headings and brief items, as in 'The farmer blew out his brains after taking affectionate farewell of his family with a shotgun.'" (Richard E. Young, Alton L. Becker, and Kenneth L. Pike, Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. Harcourt, 1970)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Amphiboly in Grammar and Logic." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Amphiboly in Grammar and Logic. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Amphiboly in Grammar and Logic." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).