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Equivocation

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Equivocation

What is “sound”? It depends on the context, of course. A “sound” can be something you hear, a “sound” can be a body of water, and a “sound” argument is a valid and truthful one. This confusing fact of the English language is what makes equivocation possible. For every definition there is not a different word; there are many definitions for a single word, and that can be a problem.

Equivocation Definition

Equivocation is a logical fallacy. A fallacy is an error of some kind.

A logical fallacy is employed like a logical reason, but it is actually flawed and illogical.

Equivocation is specifically an informal logical fallacy, which means that its fallacy lies not in the structure of the logic (which would be a formal logical fallacy), but rather in something else.

Equivocation is using the same word ambiguously throughout an argument.

An equivocator treats a given word as meaning the same thing from instance to instance, while in reality, the equivocator uses many definitions of that word.

Equivocal Language

Equivocal language is an intentionally ambiguous language that may lead to differing interpretations. Importantly for this discussion, equivocal language can include homophones, homographs, and particularly homonyms.

Homophones sound the same but have different meanings.

For example, knight and night, sun and son, band and banned.

Homographs sound different and have different meanings, but are spelled the same.

For example, you might object to a motion (ob-JECT), while you hold an object (OB-ject).

Homonyms sound alike and are spelled alike, but they have different meanings.

For example, an exposition is the introductory part of a story; an exposition is also a public show.

Homonyms are highly utilized in equivocation because no matter how you write or say homonyms, they read and sound the same. The following is how equivocal language can be used to create an argument from equivocation, which is a logical fallacy.

Equivocation Argument

Here’s an example of equivocation.

Logical arguments use rhetoric, but arguing is petty and inflammatory, and rhetoric is for propagandists. Perhaps “logical arguments” are not so good after all.

Here’s the problem. In terms of logical argumentation, an argument is a persuasive point. It is not, as the equivocator suggests, an angry verbal fight. Likewise, in terms of logical argumentation, rhetoric is the study and implementation of written and verbal persuasion and communication. It is not, as the equivocator suggests, loud and untrustworthy language.

By attempting to attack logical argumentation and rhetoric by attacking different uses of those same words, this writer is guilty of equivocation.

Equivocation argument example StudySmarterNot all arguments are angry, flaticon.

The Logical Fallacy of Equivocation

Equivocation is a logical fallacy because it is deceptive and logically unsound.

An equivocator wants the reader or listener to confuse the ambiguous word. This is deceptive. Logical arguments do not aim to confuse someone; they aim to enlighten someone.

To the second point, equivocation is unsound. For an argument to be valid, its conclusion must simply follow from the premises. For the argument to be sound, it must be both valid and true.

Take a look again at this example.

Logical arguments use rhetoric, but arguing is petty and inflammatory, and rhetoric is for propagandists. Perhaps “logical arguments” are not so good after all.

This argument is valid because the conclusion (that logical arguments are not so good after all) follows from the premise (that arguments are petty and rhetoric is for propagandists). However, this argument is not sound, because the premise is not true. In this context, arguments are not petty and rhetoric is not exclusive to propagandists.

Equivocation is not the same as amphiboly. Equivocation is the ambiguous misuse of a single word. Amphiboly, which may or may not be fallacious, is an ambiguous phrase. For example, “I wrote a love poem on the library desk” could mean that someone scratched/wrote the poem onto the desk itself OR that someone wrote a poem while sitting at that desk.

Effect of Equivocation

When someone equivocates, they can trick their audience into believing that something is what it is not. Here is an example.

During a huge war, if a country remains neutral, that's on them, but they aren't doing the world any favors. Neutrality is a choice. When you don't go to the polls to vote for us, you're stuck in neutral. Your wheels are spinning. The time to act is now.

This example uses the term "neutral" in several contexts throughout. Neutrality in war is not the same as not unbiased voting, for one, and for two, being neutral is not the same as being "stuck in neutral." An equivocator puts all their focus on a single word and then uses that word to redefine many ideas related to that word.

Equivocation Example (Essay)

Here is an example of how someone might use equivocation in an essay.

The law of gravity is not up for debate. You would be a fool to walk into a classroom and attempt to debate it, and why? Because it is a law. Just the way the law of gravity is not debatable, neither is the law handed down by the US Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court’s law isn’t paramount, then whose law is? Once a decision is made by the US Supreme Court, we cannot question this law or argue about it anymore. It is set in stone, just like the law of gravity."

This excerpt contains multiple fallacies, but the main one is equivocation. The essayist attempts to equate a scientific law with a rule of law, which are entirely different. Yes, they both use the word “law,” and “law” is spelled the same, sounds the same, and they have similar meanings; however, these two instances of “law” do not actually mean the same thing.

A scientific law is scientifically provable. A rule of law is a guideline decided upon by human judgment. Thus, to equate a rule of law with a scientific law is the logical fallacy of equivocation.

Equivocation law example StudySmarterLaws are not created equal, flaticon.

Tips to Avoid Equivocation

To avoid equivocation, follow these three tips.

  1. Understand the many definitions of a single word. Most words can be used in multiple contexts, and many in very confusing and similar contexts.

  2. Do not try to hide anything. When writing your essay, don’t use logical fallacies like a shield to hide a weak point. If something does not mean what you want it to mean, do not pretend that it does.

  3. Slow down if you find yourself using the same word again and again. If you continue to use the same word to make more and more points, you might be using that word in different contexts. Reexamine your line of reasoning.

Equivocation - Key takeaways

  • Equivocation is using the same word ambiguously throughout an argument.
  • Homophones, homographs, and particularly homonyms can be employed in equivocation.
  • Homonyms sound alike and are spelled alike, but they have different meanings.
  • An equivocator wants the reader or listener to get confused. This is deceptive.
  • To avoid equivocation, understand the many definitions of the words you use.

Frequently Asked Questions about Equivocation

Equivocation is using the same word ambiguously throughout an argument. 

No, it is a logical fallacy.

Equivocation is a logical fallacy because it is deceptive and logically unsound

An informal fallacy.

Equivocation is the ambiguous misuse of a single word. Amphiboly, which may or may not be fallacious, is an ambiguous phrase.

Final Equivocation Quiz

Question

Equivocation is a _____ fallacy.

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Answer

Informal

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Question

Equivocation is using the _____ ambiguously throughout an argument. 

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Answer

Same word

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Question

What is equivocal language?

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Answer

Equivocal language is the kind of language used in equivocation. Equivocal language is intentionally ambiguous language that may lead to differing interpretations.

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Question

What are three types of words that equivocal language can use?

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Answer

Homophones, homographs, and homonyms.

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Question

_____ sound the same but have different meanings.


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Answer

Homophones

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Question

_____ sound different and have different meanings, but are spelled the same.

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Answer

Homographs

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Question

_____ sound alike and are spelled alike, but they have different meanings.

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Answer

Homonyms

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Question

Lute and loot are examples of what?

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Answer

Homophones

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Question

Equivocation is a logical fallacy because it is _____.

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Answer

Deceptive and unsound

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Question

How is equivocation different from amphiboly?

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Answer

Equivocation is the ambiguous misuse of a single word. Amphiboly, which may or may not be fallacious, is an ambiguous phrase.

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Question

To avoid equivocation, understand the many what of a single word?

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Answer

Definitions.

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Question

"To avoid equivocation, hide all but your 'last minute' arguments."

True or false?

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Answer

False. Hide nothing.

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Question

If you continue to build arguments upon the same word, do you risk equivocation?

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Answer

Yes.  If you continue to use the same word to make more and more points, you might be using that word in different contexts. Reexamine your line of reasoning.

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