Equivocation (Fallacy)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Fallacy of equivocation
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Equivocation is a fallacy by which a specific word or phrase in an argument is used with more than one meaning. It's also known as semantic equivocation. Compare this with the related term of amphiboly, in which the ambiguity is in the grammatical construction of the sentence rather than just a single word or phrase. Semantic equivocation can also be compared to polysemy, in which a single word has associations with more than one thing and lexical ambiguity, which is when a word is ambiguous due to having more than one meaning.

An Example of Equivocation

"Equivocation is a common fallacy because it often is quite hard to notice that a shift in meaning has taken place," note "Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric" authors Howard Kahane and Nancy Cavender. "The sugar industry, for instance, once advertised its product with the claim that 'Sugar is an essential component of the body...a key material in all sorts of metabolic processes,' neglecting the fact that it is glucose (blood sugar) not ordinary table sugar (sucrose) that is the vital nourishment."

Recognizing Fallacy

In a broader sense, equivocation refers to the use of vague or unclear language, especially when the intention is to mislead or deceive an audience. To dismantle a fallacy of equivocation, you must first discover the context behind the questionable terminology as it compares to the assertions an argument is attempting to prove. Have particular words or phrases been chosen because they might be relied on to lead to the wrong conclusion? Other areas to scrutinize when you suspect a statement might be fallacious are the vagueness of the claims being made or terms that have been left purposely undefined.

For example, when President Bill Clinton claimed not to have had "sexual relations" with Monica Lewinsky, he was referring to the act of sexual intercourse, however, the way in which he presented his claim inferred denial of all types of sexual contact.

"The fallacy of equivocation occurs particularly in arguments involving words that have a multiplicity of meanings, such as capitalism, government, regulation, inflation, depression, expansion, and progress...To expose the fallacy of equivocation you give accurate and specific definitions of terms and show carefully that in one place the definition of the terms was different from the definition in another."
(From "Influencing Through Argument" by Robert Huber and Alfred Snider)

Combatting Equivocation

Consider the following example of a ridiculous syllogism taken from "Informal Fallacies: Towards a Theory of Argument Criticisms" by Douglas N. Walton:

"An elephant is an animal. A gray elephant is a gray animal.
Therefore, a small elephant is a small animal.
Here we have a relative term, 'small,' that shifts meaning according to the context. A small house may not be taken, in some contexts, as anywhere near the size of a small insect. 'Small' is a highly relative term, unlike 'gray,' that shifts according to subject. A small elephant is still a relatively large animal."

Ferreting out equivocation in some arguments won't likely be as simple a leap of logic as with the example cited above, however, whenever possible, fallacies should be exposed for what they are, especially when social policy is at stake, such as during political campaigns and debates.

Unfortunately, the image-makers who employ the art of the spin as a powerful weapon in political campaigns often rely heavily on equivocation to get their not-always-truthful messages across. Facts and data can be manipulated, either via statements taken out of their original context or by leaving out critical information that modifies a statement. Using such tactics can twist a positive into a negative or vice-versa—or at the very least cast doubt on an opponent's character.

For instance, say Candidate A claims to have voted for every consumer tax break since he'd been elected to office. That would be viewed by many as a positive thing, right? However, what if there were simply no tax breaks voted on during his term? The candidate's statement wouldn't exactly be false, however, it would say something entirely different about his voting record. Not only that, by spinning the information as he did, voters would likely get the impression that he'd actually done something he had not (voted for tax breaks), and that he would likely do the same in the future. Whether or not he would is anyone's guess.