Fallacy of Equivocation | Definition & Examples

The fallacy of equivocation refers to the use of an ambiguous word or phrase in more than one sense within the same argument. Because this change of meaning happens without warning, it renders the argument invalid or even misleading.

Fallacy of equivocation example
Premise 1: Annoying co-workers are a headache.
Premise 2: Painkillers can help you get rid of a headache.
Conclusion: Painkillers can help you get rid of annoying co-workers.

The fallacy of equivocation can be used in a humorous way, but it can also be used in a deliberate attempt to confuse others or hide the truth.

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What is the fallacy of equivocation?

The fallacy of equivocation occurs when a word is assumed to mean the same thing in two different contexts, when it actually means two different things. In the example above, the word “headache” is used in both a literal sense and a figurative sense.

Equivocation is an informal logical fallacy, which means the error lies in the content of the argument and not the structure. Because the meaning of the ambiguous word changes halfway through the argument, the conclusion does not logically follow from the premise and is thus invalid.

The fallacy of equivocation belongs to a larger group of fallacies called fallacies of ambiguity. This term describes reasoning errors caused by different sources of ambiguity, such as grammatical structure (e.g., when it is unclear whether a word is used as a verb or a noun).

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How does the equivocation logical fallacy work?

The fallacy of equivocation involves using an ambiguous word or phrase whose meaning changes throughout the argument. This can be because:

  • The speaker deliberately shifts from the literal to the figurative meaning of a word. For instance, “bright” means “reflecting light” but also “intelligent”.
  • A word has multiple meanings (a phenomenon called polysemy) and the correct interpretation lies in the context. The word “bank” for instance may refer to either a river bank or a financial institution.
  • A word resembles another word (e.g., they are homonyms) because they share the same pronunciation or spelling. For example, the word “lies” sounds the same as the word “lice”, but they have very different meanings.

People sometimes commit the fallacy of equivocation for comical effect (i.e., to make a pun). In other cases, they may try to conceal the truth or to avoid commitment to a point of view. Regardless of whether the speaker is aware of the equivocation or not, it is still a fallacy.

Fallacy of equivocation examples

The equivocation fallacy can occur in various contexts, including political debates and everyday conversations.

Fallacy of equivocation examples in politics

The equivocation fallacy is often committed by politicians who take advantage of ambiguous language in order to mislead.

Fallacy of equivocation example in politics
Suppose a reporter asks a congressperson whether they are in favor of people wearing masks in public places as a protective measure against COVID-19. The congressperson replies by saying: “On the masks, you have two stories.” They then walk away.

This is an example of equivocation because the phrase “two stories” is up to interpretation: it can refer to two things (1) both of which are true, (2) both of which are false, (3) one of which is true and one of which is false.

The congressperson is intentionally vague here because they don’t want to take a clear stance on the matter. Instead of presenting arguments about these “two stories”, they imply that the existence of two sides makes it impossible to say which side is correct.

Fallacy of equivocation examples in real life

People resort to equivocation fallacy when they intentionally want to blur the line between facts and opinions.

Fallacy of equivocation example in real life
You and your friend are discussing how bad sugar is for your health. Your friend, who has a sweet tooth, claims that sugar is an important source of fuel throughout the body, so sugar is not bad.

However, your friend seems to purposefully forget that blood sugar (glucose) is not the same as table sugar (sucrose).

How to avoid the fallacy of equivocation 

Although we often commit the equivocation fallacy without realising it, these types of arguments are deceiving, and it’s best to avoid them. Here are some questions you can ask to identify this fallacy in your own arguments and those of others:

  • Are all terms clearly and consistently defined? This is especially important when we are using words or phrases that are open to interpretation. For example, abstract or philosophical terms like “capitalism”, “faith”, or “progress” can mean different things to different people.
  • Has a shift in meaning taken place in the course of the discussion? Point this out to your discussion partner. You can identify the two different meanings by using two different words or phrases.
  • Is the equivocation unintentional? Ask the person committing the fallacy to clarify the exact meaning of the term to help them identify the issue in their reasoning.

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Other interesting articles

If you want to know more about fallacies, research bias, or AI tools, make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

Frequently asked questions about the fallacy of equivocation

Why is equivocation a fallacy?

Equivocation is a fallacy because it is a form of argumentation that is both misleading and logically unsound. When the meaning of a word or phrase shifts in the course of an argument, it causes confusion and also implies that the conclusion (which may be true) does not follow from the premise.

The fallacy of equivocation is an informal logical fallacy, meaning that the error lies in the content of the argument instead of the structure.

What is an equivocation fallacy example in advertising?

In advertising, the fallacy of equivocation is often used to create a pun. For example, a billboard company might advertise their billboards using a line like: “Looking for a sign? This is it!” The word sign has a literal meaning as billboard and a figurative one as a sign from God, the universe, etc.

Sources for this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

This Scribbr article

Nikolopoulou, K. (2023, May 18). Fallacy of Equivocation | Definition & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved 10 July 2024, from https://www.scribbr.co.uk/fallacy/fallacy-of-equivocation/

Sources

Woods, J., & Walton, D. (1989). Equivocation and Practical Logic. In De Gruyter eBooks (pp. 195–208). https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110816082-017

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Kassiani Nikolopoulou

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex scientific information into easily accessible articles to help students. She specialises in writing about research methods and research bias.

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