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Fallacies of Ambiguity

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• Fallacies of Ambiguity
• Equivocation
• No True Scotsman
• Illicit Observation
• Amphiboly
• Scope Fallacy
• Quantifier Fallacy
• Reification
• Accent
• Quoting out of Context

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• Fallacies of Analogy
• Fallacies of Ambiguity
• Fallacies of Relevance
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Fallacy Name:
Fallacy of Accent

Alternative Names:

Fallacy of Ambiguity

The Fallacy of Accent was one of the original fallacies described by Aristotle, the philosopher who seems to be the first person to have systematically categorized and described logical errors like this. Unfortunately, it was more of a fallacy in his native Greek than it is for anyone else today.

Accent refers to the stress placed upon a word in a sentence or a syllable in a word. In Greek, this was very important because a written word with one spelling could have more than one pronunciation and meaning, thus creating multiple words. They would be homographs (written the same), but not homophones (sound the same). An example in English would be the words invalid (someone who is ill) and invalid (as with a faulty argument). The two are spelled the same and their meaning is dependent upon how they are pronounced.

Written Greek did not include accent marks telling people where to place the stress in words which were spelled the same but had different meanings. This meant that written Greek could have ambiguities in the meaning of the text, depending upon what the word really was.

Examples and Discussion:
This is rarer in modern English, but here is an example which will give you an idea of what it is like:

1. Why are you asking me about Mary's message? I resent her question.

What is meant by the above passage? In its written form, it could either mean that the writer was upset about the question Mary asked and didn't want to talk about it, or it could be that the question had been sent out again and the speaker is waiting for a reply. The different meanings depend upon where the (spoken) stress is placed in the word "resent."

Such ambiguities are a little more common when it comes to questions of where stress should be placed in a sentence, rather than in particular words because few English words are homographs rather than homophones. For example:

2. My spouse must be cheating on me - he told me "I don't really love you now."

In the above example, the conclusion depends upon placing the stress on the word you, thus indicating that someone else is loved now. But if we place the stress on other words, like really or love, different shades of meaning become evident. Perhaps the person has simply grown tired of the relationship, for example.

One of the statements given as an example of the Fallacy of Amphiboly can also be expressed as this sort of Accent Fallacy. Imagine the following being spoken by a politican:

3. I am opposed to taxes which slow economic growth.

What exactly is this political candidate trying to say? Is she opposed to all taxes because they all slow economic growth? Or is she instead only to those taxes that have the effect of slowing economic growth? In writing, this distinction can be made clear with the presence or absence of a comma after "taxes"; but when spoken, the location of stress in the sentence is what indicates the proper interpretation. If no stess is given, then the speaker is committing the Fallacy of Amphiboly.

However, if the correct stress is ignored or simply lost, then we are looking more at an Accent Fallacy. Thus, we can see that this fallacy is more often committed not by an original speaker or writer, but instead by someone quoting or reporting the words of others. In this fashion, a newspaper article might quote the above and give it a meaning other than the original stresses had intended.

Sometimes, the ambiguity occurs because stress is used in spoken language to express sarcasm which does not come across in the written form. Thus:

4. I cannot praise her work too highly.

5. I will waste no time in reading your letter.

6. I've never seen you looking better.

All of the above comments could be meant literally. On the other hand, if we stress the right words in the right way, we will come off sounding sarcastic and thus mean just the opposite of the literal interpretation. Sometimes, of course, words are carefully chosen just in order to foster such ambiguity.

Except for example #2 above, none of statements considered here really come close to being actual arguments - and fallacies can only occur in arguments, not in mere propositions or exclamations. It would be very difficult to create much of an argument which commits the Fallacy of Accent in English, and nowadays you will usually only find it in texts about logic and arguments.

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