What Is the Fallacy of Accent?

Ambiguity Fallacy of Ambiguous Stress in Word, Sentence

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Fallacy Name:

Fallacy of Accent

Alternative Names:

Fallacy of Emphasis


Fallacy of Ambiguity

Explanation of the Fallacy of Accent

The Fallacy of Accent is one of the original fallacies described by Aristotle, the first philosopher to systematically categorize and described logical errors like this. Accent, however, was more of a fallacy in Aristotle's native Greek than it is for English-speakers today.

Accent is the stress placed upon a word in a sentence or a syllable in a word. In Greek, the accent was important for meaning because a written word with one spelling could have more than one pronunciation and meaning, thus creating multiple words. They would be homographs (written the same), but not homophones (sound the same).

An example in English of two words that are homographs but not homophones would be the words invalid (someone who is ill) and invalid (as with a faulty argument). The two are spelled the same, and their meaning is dependent upon how they are pronounced.

Written Greek did not include accent marks telling people where to place the stress in words which were spelled the same but had different meanings. Written Greek could thus have ambiguities in the meaning of the text, depending upon what the word was.

Fallacy of Accent in Modern English

It is rare in modern English to be able to be able to create ambiguity with a word that has multiple meanings based on where the accent is placed, but here is an example which will give you an idea of what it is like:

1. Why are you asking me about Mary's message? I resent her question.

What is meant by the above passage? In its written form, it could either mean that the writer was upset about the question Mary asked and didn't want to talk about it, or that the question had been sent out again and the speaker is waiting for a reply.

The different meanings depend upon where the (spoken) stress is placed in the word "resent."

Except for example #2 below, none of the examples here are actual arguments — and strictly speaking, fallacies can only occur in arguments, not in mere propositions or exclamations. It would be very difficult to create much of an argument which commits the Fallacy of Accent in English and nowadays you will usually only find it in texts about logic and arguments.

What's more, ambiguities are more common when it comes to questions of where stress should be placed in a sentence, rather than in particular words because few English words are homographs rather than homophones. Those ambiguities aren't fallacies of accent, though, if you stick to the strictest, most limited definition of the concept. Christopher W. Tindale writes in Fallacies and Argument Appraisal:

Because Greek is an accented language, meanings could shift depending on how a word was accented through rises and drops of intonation or the pronunciation of long or short vowels. In nonaccented languages, the problem disappears. It persists in contemporary accounts only insofar as theorists are able to distort it to cover change of emphasis on various words in a sentence.

But this is not what Aristotle had in mind, particularly when it is changed to include any kind of emphasis,2 and likewise with Form of Expression (or Figure of Speech), which involves being misled by the structure or root of a word. Modern writers who include this have difficulty finding plausible examples.

There are two ways that you might see something like a Fallacy of Accent: something taken out of context and the use of typographical techniques like italics or boldface to mislead readers about a full truth of a statement. The former is usually treated as its separate fallacy, the Quoting out of Context Fallacy.

The latter is commonly employed in all sorts of advertising and propaganda. Modern "truth in advertising laws" require that the full truth be included somewhere, and it's usually found in the "fine print" — but the misleading techniques remain in the headlines, usually accompanied by an asterisk.

Examples and Discussion of the Fallacy of Accent

Here's example of how shifting the accent in a sentence can change meaning:

2. My spouse must be cheating on me - he told me "I don't really love you now."

In the #2, the conclusion depends upon placing the stress on the word you, thus indicating that someone else is loved now. But if we place the stress on other words, like really or love, different shades of meaning could become evident. Perhaps the person has simply grown tired of the relationship, for example.

One of the statements given as an example of the Fallacy of Amphiboly can also be expressed as this sort of Accent Fallacy. Imagine the following being spoken by a politician:

3. I am opposed to taxes which slow economic growth.

What exactly is she trying to say? Is she opposed to all taxes because they all slow economic growth? Or is she instead only to those taxes that have the effect of slowing economic growth? In writing, this distinction can be made clear with the presence or absence of a comma after "taxes"; but when spoken, the location of stress in the sentence is what indicates the proper interpretation. If no stress is given, then the speaker is committing the Fallacy of Amphiboly.

However, if the correct stress is ignored or simply lost, then we are looking more at an Accent Fallacy. Thus, we can see that this fallacy is more often committed not by an original speaker or writer, but instead by someone quoting or reporting the words of others. In this fashion, a newspaper article might quote the above and give it a meaning other than the original stresses had intended.

Sometimes, the ambiguity occurs because stress is used in spoken language to express sarcasm which does not come across in the written form. Thus:

4. I cannot praise her work too highly.
5. I will waste no time in reading your letter.
6. I've never seen you looking better.

All of the above comments could be meant literally, but if we stress the right words in the right way we sound sarcastic and thus meaning just the opposite. Sometimes, of course, words are carefully chosen to deliberately foster such ambiguity.