Tag Archives: argument

Do You Make These Six Mistakes When Debating?

These six mistakes are arguments that are ambiguous. In other words, they stem from use of language having more than one meaning.

No doubt you’ve seen this yellow diamond road sign. You have a hunch you know what it means, but…

Is the City trying to tell you that the children playing on this street are moving in slow motion? Mentally handicapped? Or…

Merely you, as the car driver, need to slow down along this stretch of street because children live and play here?

Common sense tells you it’s the last one.

Why the confusion? Bottom line: Poor sentence structure. Insert a comma after “Slow” and the meaning becomes clear.

This mistake is known as a fallacy of amphiboly. And it’s part of a class of ambiguous arguments that are unsound because they contain words that can be understood in more than one sense.

Here are five more common fallacies of ambiguity.

Accent

Arises when there is ambiguity on stress or tone. Think email or blog comments taken the wrong way or out of context. If someone writes, “It’s impossible to praise this book too highly,” you have to wonder: are they being sarcastic or not? You just don’t know.

Hypostatization

Occurs when you regard an abstract word as a concrete one. Commonly known as personification. “The City can do no wrong.” Only a person can do no wrong, not the City.

Equivocation

Stems from a shift in meaning of a key term during an argument. Here’s an absurd example to prove my point: “Only man is rational. No woman is a man. Thus, no woman is rational.” See the shift in meaning on the word “man?” That’s equivocation.

Composition

Results when you try to apply what is true of the individual to the whole group. The first violinist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra maybe the best violinist in the country, but…that doesn’t mean that the CSO is the best symphony in the country.

Division

Occurs when you try to apply what is true of the group to each part or member. The Chicago Symphony maybe the best orchestra in the world, but that doesn’t mean the first violinist in the orchestra is the best violinist in the country.

Why do I bring this up? I bring this issue up because I make these mistakes quite often on this blog and elsewhere. And I’ve seen others do the same. My goal is to help us all avoid these mistakes so we can exchange sound arguments as best as we can.

Got any other good examples of these mistakes? Things you’ve seen in your own experience? I’m looking forward to your thoughts.