What is a Red Herring?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Four smoked herring fish wrapped in brown paper
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In logic and rhetoric, a red herring is an observation that draws attention away from the central issue in an argument or discussion; an informal logical fallacy. Also called a decoy.

In certain types of fiction (especially in mystery and detective stories), authors deliberately use red herrings as a plot device to mislead readers (metaphorically, to "throw them off the scent") in order to maintain interest and generate suspense.

The term red herring (an idiom) supposedly arose from the practice of distracting hunting dogs by dragging a smelly, salt-cured herring across the trail of the animal they were pursuing.

Examples and Observations

  • A red herring is a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion. The red herring is invariably irrelevant and is often emotionally charged. The participants in the discussion go after the red herring and forget what they were initially talking about; in fact, they may never get back to their original topic."
    (Robert J. Gula, Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language. Axios, 2007)
  • "Some analysts even question the widespread assumption that rising consumption in developing nations will continue to force up food prices. Paul Ashworth, senior international economist at Capital Economics, calls that argument a 'red herring,' saying that consumption of meat in China and India has reached a plateau."
    (Patrick Falby, "Economy: Panicked About Expensive Food And Oil? Don’t Be." Newsweek, Dec. 31, 2007-Jan. 7, 2008)

Alastair Campbell's Red Herring

  • "Credit where credit is due. In the space of a couple of days, Alastair Campbell has managed to turn an argument about the way the government presented its case for war in Iraq into an entirely different dispute about the way the BBC covered what was going on in Whitehall at the time. As a piece of news management, it has been brilliantly done. Hats off to Mr Campbell for the way he pulled the trick. It is easy to imagine, in years to come, how a new generation of trainee spin doctors will be raised on this case study of how the master was able to wrongfoot his tormentors so successfully.
    "Brilliant or not, what Mr. Campbell has achieved is largely a classic use of a very pungent red herring. The BBC's reporting, though important, is not in fact the real issue; that is the strength of the case for action against Iraq. Nor is the red herring within a red herring about single sourced stories really relevant either; if your source is good enough, then the story is too."
    ("Labour's Phoney War," The Guardian [UK], June 28, 2003)

Red Herrings in a Henning Mankell Mystery Novel

  • "'There is something in the report that disturbs me,' [President de Clerk] said. 'Let us assume there are red herrings laid out in appropriate places. Let us imagine two different sets of circumstances. One is that it's me, the president, who is the intended victim. I'd like you to read the report with that in mind, Scheepers. I'd also like you to consider the possibility that these people intend to attack both Mandela and myself. That doesn't mean I'm excluding the possibility that it really is Mandela these lunatics are after. I just want you to think critically about what you are doing. Pieter van Heerden was murdered. That means there are eyes and ears everywhere. Experience has taught me that red herrings are an important part of intelligence work. Do you follow me?'"
    (Henning Mankell, The White Lioness, trans. by Laurie Thompson. The New Press, 2011)

The Lighter Side of Red Herrings

  • "'What about Red Herring, ma'am?''
    "'I'm not sure. Is Red Herring a red herring? Or is it the fact that we're meant to think Red Herring is a red herring that is actually the red herring?'
    "'Or perhaps the fact you're meant to think Red Herring isn't a red herring is what makes Red Herring a red herring after all.'
    "'We're talking serious metaherrings here.'"
    (Jasper Fforde, One of Our Thursdays Is Missing. Viking, 2011)