Definition and Examples of the Straw Man Fallacy

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Low Angle View Scarecrow Against Cloudy Sky
Aoi Igarashi / EyeEm / Getty Images

Straw man is a fallacy in which an opponent's argument is overstated or misrepresented in order to be more easily attacked or refuted.

Although the term straw man is a recent coinage, the concept is ancient. In the Topics, Aristotle acknowledges "that in argument it would be inappropriate to interpret as someone's position an opinion that he did not express or is not committed to, in virtue of what he said" (Douglas Walton, Methods of Argumentation).

The straw man fallacy also goes by the name Aunt Sally, particularly in Great Britain.

Examples and Observations

"Straw man has always been the stock-in-trade of advertisers and political smear campaigns. A group called Common Sense Issues made a million automated phone calls to voters in the 2008 South Carolina primaries claiming that John McCain 'has voted to use unborn babies in medical research.' This was a gross distortion of his position to support research on stem cells gathered from embryos."

"The straw man fallacy often misrepresents the context from which a quotation is taken. More often, however, it takes place without a quotation; the straw man usually occurs when the point of view is paraphrased or summarized."

Straw Men and Slippery Slopes

"Sometimes people morph the straw man into a warning about a slippery slope where allowing one side to win would put humanity on a course of destruction. Any time someone begins an attack with 'So you're saying we should all just . . .' or 'Everyone knows . . .,' you can bet a straw man is coming. . . . Straw men can also be born out of ignorance. If someone says, 'Scientists tell us we all come from monkeys, and that's why I homeschool,' this person is using a straw man, because science doesn't say we all come from monkeys."

Ideological Arguments

"The straw man fallacy is also commonly used in ideological arguments. Antiabortion advocates frequently argue that abortion is an inhumane form of birth control and should thus be outlawed. However, pro-choice advocates have never recommended abortion as a means of birth control--that claim is a straw man argument that will naturally be demolished by pro-life advocates."

The Hopeless Straw Man

"When he was really rolling in February, Barack Obama would close every speech with a peroration about the importance of hope. The setup always seemed a bit defensive to me--an attack on the pundits and party elders who thought he was too idealistic, a 'hopemonger' who needed to have the 'hope boiled out of me.' Having knocked down that straw man, he would soar through an American history of hope, from the colonists to civil rights marchers."

Aunt Sally

"Though Alan R. White, one of [G.E.] Moore's more sympathetic interpreters, has denied that 'the perpetrators of the naturalistic fallacy were men of straw set up by Moore,' our examination of Moore on [Herbert] Spencer suggests otherwise. One can't help wondering whether Moore deliberately made Spencer into an Aunt Sally for the sake of better illustrating the argument of his chapter, 'Naturalistic Ethics.'"


  • Nancy Cavender and Howard Kahane, Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric, 12th ed. Wadsworth, 2014
  • Jon Stratton, Critical Thinking for College Students. Rowman & Littlefield, 1999
  • David McRaney, You Are Not So Smart. Penguin, 2011
  • Charles Larson, Persuasion: Reception and Responsibility, 13th ed. Wadsworth, 2013
  • Joe Klein, "The Patriotism Problem." Time, April 3, 2008
  • David Weinstein, Equal Freedom, and Utility: Herbert Spencer's Liberal Utilitarianism. Cambridge University Press, 1998