Equivocation is the deliberate use of vague or ambiguous language, with the intent of deceiving others or avoiding commitment to a specific stance. For example, when a person is asked a direct yes-or-no question, and gives a vague response that doesn’t answer the question, that person is equivocating.
The equivocation fallacy is a logical fallacy that involves alternating between different meanings of a word or phrase, in a way that renders the argument that contains them unsound. For example, the statement “I have the right to say whatever I want, so it’s right for me to do so” is fallacious, because the word “right” is used in two different senses: first, to refer to something that someone is entitled to, and second, to refer to something that is morally good.
The term ‘equivocation’ is sometimes used to refer to the equivocation fallacy, particularly when used in discussions on the topic of logic, though the two concepts are distinct from one another.
Equivocation and the equivocation fallacy are both frequently used in various forms of discourse, so it’s important to understand them. As such, in the following article you will learn more about these concepts, and see how you can respond to their use as effectively as possible.
There are two main components to equivocation:
- The use of vague or ambiguous language, which makes the meaning of what is being said unclear.
- The intent to deceive listeners or to avoid committing to a specific stance.
As such, equivocation involves the intentional use of imprecise language, together with other forms of misleading or confusing forms of communication, such as statements that are ambiguous, contradictory, tangential, or evasive. For example, equivocation often involves the use of red herrings, which in this context are irrelevant statements that distract people from the main issue that’s being discussed.
People frequently use equivocation in various everyday situations. For example, people often rely on equivocation where they’re faced with an unpleasant request, in an attempt to avoid direct conflict with the person making that request.
Furthermore, equivocation is prevalent in contexts where it’s important to maintain a certain image of oneself. For example, in politics, politicians often equivocate in order to avoid giving a direct answer to questions that they’re asked, if they believe that the answers to those questions might reflect badly on them, either now or later.
The use of equivocation in these contexts can be highly effective, and research has shown, for example, that deliberate vagueness can be an effective rhetorical technique in some cases, such as when someone needs to communicate a message that people are likely to disagree with.
Note: the term ‘equivocal’ is used to denote that something is ambiguous and open to interpretation, or that a certain statement is phrased in a way that involves equivocation, while the term ‘unequivocal’ is used to denote that something is clear and unambiguous.
Examples of equivocation
An example of equivocation in politics and the media is the following:
Interviewer: Do you support the new law that is being proposed?
Politician: I think that the new law has to do with an interesting and important topic. This is a topic that I know quite a bit about, and others have been discussing it often lately, which could help more people learn about it too. Furthermore, this is something that I care about, and will continue to care about over time.
In this example, the politician equivocates by using evasive language, which involves making a lot of vague, semi-related statements, instead of directly answering the question at hand.
Another example of equivocation is the following:
Interviewer: Your company has been accused of using various legal loopholes to avoid paying taxes. Can you say how much your company paid in taxes last year?
CEO: We paid all the taxes that we owed.
In this example, the CEO equivocates by giving a vague answer to the question; the notable issue here is that saying that they paid all the taxes they owed doesn’t necessarily contradict the accusation that they’ve used loopholes to avoid owing taxes in the first place, and as such this answer is entirely ambiguous.
Finally, a simple example of equivocation in everyday life is the following:
[Kid breaks vase]
Parent: Who broke the vase?
Here, the kid is equivocating by giving an ambiguous answer, that is technically true, but that doesn’t contain the information their parent is looking for.
Difference between equivocating and lying
The concept of equivocation is generally viewed as being distinct from the concept of lying. Specifically, this is because lying involves telling a falsehood directly, while equivocation involves concealing the truth or avoiding commitment to a specific stance, without necessarily telling any falsehoods.
As such, it’s possible to tell a lie without equivocating, just as it’s possible to equivocate without telling a lie, though lying and equivocation can also be used in conjunction with one another. For example, this means that someone might equivocate while telling a lie, in order to make it harder for listeners to notice that lie.
How to respond to equivocation
In order to properly respond to someone’s equivocation, you must first make sure that they’re equivocating. This is generally relatively simple to do, based on the signals that we saw earlier, and namely the use of vague or ambiguous language together with the intent to evade or mislead.
However, if you’re unsure whether someone is equivocating, there are some relevant questions that you can ask yourself, in order to help yourself analyze the situation:
- Is the speaker using language that makes it unnecessarily difficult to understand them?
- How hard is it to identify the speaker’s core message?
- Is the speaker trying to avoid committing to a specific stance?
- How relevant are the speaker’s statements to the discussion at hand?
- If the speaker is responding a question, to what degree does their statement answer that question?
If you’ve determined that the speaker is indeed equivocating, you can respond in various ways, based on your goals and on the way in which they’re equivocating. For example:
- If the equivocator is using vague language, ask them to explain their stance in a more precise manner.
- If the equivocator is presenting a lot of unrelated information, ask them to stick to the topic at hand.
- If the equivocator is trying to avoid committing to a specific stance, ask them to do so explicitly.
However, there are two important caveats to keep in mind when dealing with someone who is equivocating:
- In some cases, the use of equivocation can be reasonable. For example, if someone is pressured to give a yes-no answer in a situation where a more complex answer is needed, or if someone is pressured to give their opinion on something that they don’t have sufficient information about, they may choose to use equivocation in their response. In cases where this happens, you should consider why the person who is equivocating is choosing to do so, and modify your assessment of them and your response to them accordingly.
- People sometimes appear to be equivocating, even though their choice of language is unintentional. For example, someone might think aloud during a conversation, if they’re trying to figure out the answer to a tough question as they’re answering it, which can make them speak in a manner that appears similar to equivocation. It’s important to keep this issue in mind when responding to the potential use of equivocation, to reduce the likelihood that you’ll falsely accuse someone of equivocating. In situations where it appears that someone is using unclear language unintentionally, instead of accusing them of equivocation, simply try to direct the conversation in a way that allows them to express themself more clearly.
Note: a useful concept to keep in mind when responding to equivocation is Hanlon’s razor, which in this context suggests that when someone is using vague or ambiguous language, you should not assume that their intents are malicious, unless you have a compelling reason to think so.
How to avoid equivocating
There are various things that you can do in order to avoid equivocating. Notable among them are the following:
- Use language that is as unambiguous as possible, meaning that it can only be reasonably interpreted in one way.
- Use language that is easy to understand, for example by avoiding the use of unnecessary technical or obscure terms that people won’t be familiar with.
- Avoid mentioning unnecessary information that isn’t relevant to the discussion.
- Make sure that your main point is easy to identify.
- If necessary, make sure to explicitly commit to a certain stance.
- If you’re being asked a reasonable question that calls for a direct response, make sure to provide a clear answer to that question, and make that the answer is easy to identify.
Note that, if you find yourself in a position where your best course of action is to intentionally equivocate, for example because you’re being pushed to give an unreasonably simplified answer to a complex question, it’s generally preferable to be open about your use of equivocation, and to explain why you’re using it in that situation. However, this isn’t always a viable option in cases where you’re pushed to equivocate in the first place.
The equivocation fallacy
“The fallacy of equivocation, then, consists in this: that in the course of an argument a term changes its meaning in such a way that the conclusion seems to follow when it doesn’t. Whether or not the writer is aware of the equivocation, it is still a fallacy. If the reader is not careful, he may think that if the same word appears twice in an argument, it must have the same meaning. This is what causes the trouble.”
— From “Thinking Straight” (Beardsley, 2013)
The equivocation fallacy revolves around a misleading shift between different meanings or connotations of the same word or phrase, within a single argument. As such, the equivocation fallacy occurs as a result of a short-term semantic shift, meaning that there is a change in the meaning of a word or phrase (i.e. in its semantics), which is why this fallacy is sometimes also referred to as semantic equivocation. This semantic shift can occur as a result of several different things, such as:
- A shift between the literal and figurative senses of a word or phrase.
- Polysemy, which is a phenomenon where a word or phrase has multiple meanings, which leads to semantic ambiguity (sometimes also referred to as lexical ambiguity).
- Homonyms, which is a phenomenon where two separate words share the same pronunciation (homophones) or spelling (homographs).
The semantic shift that the equivocation fallacy is based on is usually implicit and subtle. This is because subtle shifts are more likely to occur by mistake, when it comes to unintentional uses of this fallacy, and are also more effective from a rhetorical perspective, when it comes to intentional uses of this fallacy.
Note: the equivocation fallacy is sometimes also referred to as the fallacy of ambiguity. However, a distinction is sometimes made by saying that the equivocation fallacy refers specifically to semantic ambiguity, that relies on the use of a certain word or phrase with multiple meanings, while the fallacy of ambiguity can also involve other forms of ambiguity, such as ambiguity that is based on grammatical structure. Furthermore, in some cases, the equivocation fallacy is therefore classified as one of multiple fallacies of ambiguity.
Examples of the equivocation fallacy
The following is an example of the equivocation fallacy:
Premise: Annoying customers are a headache.
Premise: Aspirin can help you get rid of a headache.
Conclusion: Aspirin can help you get rid of annoying customers.
Here, the equivocation fallacy occurs as a result of a shift from the figurative sense of the term ‘headache’ and its literal sense, in a way that is fairly overt.
However, the equivocation fallacy can also be more subtle than that. For example:
“Just as you have faith in science, I have faith in God.”
In this example, the speaker shifts between two similar but different meanings of ‘faith’, the first of which has to do with having confidence in something, and the second of which has to do with believing in a religious figure based on spiritual conviction.
Note that, in general, words that refer to concrete concepts and words with a small number of possible meanings are less likely it is to be used in the equivocation fallacy. This means, for example, that a word such as ‘table’ is less likely to be used in this fallacy than a word such as ‘love’.
How to respond to the equivocation fallacy
“The method for handling the fallacy of equivocation is… distinguish the different meanings and mark each distinct meaning with a distinct term; the equivocation then disappears. What is left is a simple non sequitur, as childish and harmless as the argument: ‘Anything that goes up must come down. The moon is made of green cheese. Therefore, the moon must come down.'”
— From “Thinking Straight” (Beardsley, 2013)
The method for dealing with the equivocation fallacy is relatively straightforward; you simply need to identify the word or expression in the argument that is used with different meanings, and point out this issue, while explaining how this shift invalidates the original argument.
There are several things that you can do in order to highlight this issue:
- Explain the difference in meaning between the different instances where the problematic term is used.
- Substitute the different instances of the problematic term with different terms, such as synonyms or full definitions, that accurately reflects the meaning of the term in each case.
- Substitute all uses of the term with a single alternative term that clearly represents only one of the meanings that the speaker meant to convey.
Note that the use of this fallacy isn’t always intentional, so you should avoid assuming that this is the case, unless you have a good reason to do so.
Furthermore, in some cases, you can ask the person using the fallacy to clarify the exact meanings of the term, in order to help them identify the issue in their reasoning. This will also be an effective way to respond to such arguments when their use of the equivocation fallacy is intentional, since it helps highlight the issues with the argument.
Note: when in doubt whether or not someone’s argument contains the equivocation fallacy, you should apply the principle of charity, which denotes that, when interpreting someone’s statement, you should assume that the best possible interpretation of that statement is the one that the speaker meant to convey.
How to avoid using the equivocation fallacy
To avoid using the equivocation fallacy yourself, you should make sure to remain consistent when using the same term multiple times in an argument, by sticking to a single meaning of this term throughout the argument.
If you suspect that you might be using the equivocation fallacy, you can use the techniques that you would use to highlight this issue in other people’s speech, such as substituting the different uses of the term with a synonym or with a full definition, in order to identify such cases in your own reasoning and speech.
Concepts related to equivocation
Equivocation is associated with some related concepts, which are briefly explained below. These concepts are not crucial to your understanding of equivocation, but can be of interest to those who want to learn more about the topic.
Doublespeak is deliberately obscure language, that revolves around the use of ambiguity, distorted terms, and euphemisms.
For instance, the following is an example of doublespeak:
“The company recently modified its forecasts based on market performance, and is now expecting to adjust the size of its staff accordingly.”
This is a euphemism-heavy way of saying that the company is performing worse than expected, and is now going to fire people.
Note: the term ‘doublespeak’ is based on a combination of two terms, ’newspeak’ and ‘doublethink’, which appear in George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel “1984“.
Circumlocution is the act of saying something indirectly, by using more words than necessary, often with the intent of being vague, evasive, or misleading. Circumlocution can therefore be viewed as a specific type of equivocation.
However, note that similarly to equivocation, this form of communication isn’t always driven by negative intentions. For example, in some cases, people unintentionally use more words than necessary when they have to discuss a topic that they feel uncomfortable about.
Concepts related to the equivocation fallacy
The equivocation fallacy is associated with a number of related concepts, which are briefly explained below. These concepts are not crucial to your understanding of this fallacy, but can be of interest to those who want to learn more about the topic.
Antanaclasis is a literary and rhetorical technique in which a word or phrase is repeated twice within the same sentence, with a different meaning each time. Antanaclasis involves an open shift in meaning, in a way that doesn’t render the statement logically unsound, so it doesn’t involve the equivocation fallacy.
For example, Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, is reported to have said the following, when calling for colonial unity:
“We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
In the first case here, ‘hang’ means ‘stand’ or ‘stay’, while in the second case ‘hang’ refers to being executed via hanging.
Antanaclasis is frequently used in commercial slogans, in order to make them more memorable and appealing. For example:
Shampoo commercial: “If you don’t look good, we don’t look good.”
Amphibology is ambiguity that occurs when a statement can be interpreted in more than one way, as a result of its grammatical structure. For example, the following is a famous joke by comedian Groucho Marx, which relies on amphibology:
“I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know.”
The ambiguity in this case occurs because “I once shot an elephant in my pajamas” can be interpreted to mean either that the speaker was wearing his own pajamas or that the elephant was wearing them. The more logical and intuitive interpretation is the first one, which is why there’s a comic effect when listeners later find out that the second interpretation is the right one in this case.
Because amphibology is a form of ambiguity that occurs as a result of the grammatical structure of a sentence, it’s different from the equivocation fallacy, which is based on the semantic ambiguity that occurs as a result of multiple meanings of the same term. Accordingly, amphibology is sometimes referred to as ‘grammatical ambiguity’, while equivocation is referred to as ‘semantic ambiguity’ or ‘lexical ambiguity’.
Note: amphibology is sometimes also referred to as amphiboly, or as the fallacy of amphiboly in cases where it renders an argument logically unsound.
The equivocation fallacy in humor
The equivocation fallacy is often used to achieve a comic effect. For example, puns are humorous devices which sometimes rely on the fact that the same term can have different meanings, as in the following example:
“I met some nice aliens from outer space. I have to say, they were pretty down to earth.”
This is a play on the fact that the literal sense of “down to earth” refers to the aliens coming down here from outer space, while the term “down to earth” is also used to call someone friendly and humble.
In the context of logic, quibbling occurs when someone attacks an argument in a fallacious manner, by addressing one of the terms in the argument based on a different meaning than was originally intended. This is explained in the following quote:
“There is a special kind of equivocation that involves two people: we shall call it ‘quibbling.’ A dispute between two people is a conversation in which one of them argues for, and the other argues against, a certain conclusion. Now, suppose A gives a reason for a statement, using a certain term in one sense, and B gives a reason against the statement, using the same term in a different sense. Then B is quibbling on the term.”
— From “Thinking Straight” (Beardsley, 2013)
Accordingly, quibbling can also be viewed as a specific type of a strawman argument, since it involves attacking a distorted version of an opposing stance.
The White Horse Dialogue
When a white horse is not a horse is a paradox in Chinese philosophy, which revolves around whether it’s truthful to say that “a white horse is not a horse”.
The statement is viewed as paradoxical, because it seems to not make sense to say that a white horse is not a horse. One potential explanation for this paradox is that the statement involves the equivocation fallacy, when it comes to the different possible meanings of the word ‘is’. Specifically, there are two possible meanings to the word ‘is’ in this context, each of which leads the statement to mean something else:
- ‘Is’ can mean ‘is a member of group X’. When this meaning of ‘is’ is selected, the statement ‘a white horse is not a horse’ means that a white horse is not a type of horse, which is false.
- ‘Is’ can mean ‘is identical to X’. When this meaning of ‘is’ is selected, the statement ‘a white horse is not a horse’ means that a white horse is not the exact same thing as a horse, which is true, because ‘horse’ is a more general concept (there are also, for example, black horses).
Most people intuitively pick the first interpretation for this statement, which is false. However, the person stating that it’s possible for this statement to be true is focusing on its second, less intuitive interpretation.
The fallacy of four terms
The fallacy of four terms is a logical fallacy that occurs when a categorical syllogism contains four categorical terms, instead of three, in a way that invalidates its logic.
For example, a sound syllogism with three categorical terms is the following:
Premise 1: Chickens are birds.
Premise 2: Birds lay eggs.
Conclusion: Chickens lay eggs.
The three categorical terms in this case are ‘birds’, ‘chickens’, and ‘eggs’. Adding a fourth term renders this syllogism invalid, because the conclusion cannot be logically derived from the premise. This happens, for example, when we add in the term ‘dogs’:
Premise 1: Chickens are birds.
Premise 2: Birds lay eggs.
Conclusion: Dogs lay eggs.
Usually, the fallacy of four terms is more subtle than that, and occurs as a result of the equivocation fallacy, in situations where one of the three terms is used with two possible meanings, thus creating a fourth categorical term and invalidating the syllogism. For example:
Premise 1: Nothing is better than a valuable lesson.
Premise 2: A pointless lesson is better than nothing.
Conclusion: A pointless lesson is better than a valuable lesson.
Here, the argument is rendered invalid because the term ‘nothing’ is used in two senses, first to suggest that what it’s being compared to is of relatively high value, and then to suggest that what it’s being compared to is of relatively low value.
Note: this fallacy is sometimes also referred to as quaternio terminorum, and as the fallacy of the ambiguous middle term or the fallacy of the ambiguous middle when it occurs as a result of the equivocation fallacy, though any of the terms in the syllogism can be the one that renders it invalid.
Summary and conclusions
- Equivocation is the deliberate use of vague or ambiguous language, with the intent of deceiving others or avoiding commitment to a specific stance.
- You can respond to equivocation in a variety of ways, such as asking the equivocator to clarify what they mean, asking them to stick only to relevant information, or asking them to commit to a specific stance.
- The equivocation fallacy is a logical fallacy that involves alternating between different meanings of a word or phrase, in a way that renders the argument that contains them unsound.
- For example, the statement “I have the right to say whatever I want, so it’s right for me to do so” is fallacious, because the word “right” is used in two different senses: first, to refer to something that someone is entitled to, and second, to refer to something that is morally good.
- You can respond to the equivocation fallacy by pointing out the shift in the meaning of the problematic term and demonstrating how this invalidates the original statement, and by using additional techniques, such as substituting the different instances of the problematic term with alternatives terms (e.g. synonyms or full definitions), which accurately reflect the meaning of the term in each case.