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This lesson explains how a person’s argument can be made weaker by using words ambiguously.

You’ll also learn the importance of consistency and clarity when repeating a word or phrase more than once in your argument.

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Flawed Arguments

Bette has a friend, Kara, who loves to debate. But the problem is Kara’s not very good at making clear arguments. She uses flawed approaches, also known as fallacies, to make her point.

One of the most frustrating things Kara does when she’s trying to express her viewpoint is using an equivocation fallacy. This lesson describes what this fallacy is and why it is so maddening to Bette when she realizes Kara has made this mistake.

Confusing Use of a Word

An equivocation fallacy involves using different meanings for a word or phrase at different points in the argument. Kara sometimes has a problem with confusing the meaning of a word when she’s stating her case.

For example, Bette and Kara were talking about rights and responsibilities one day. Kara was trying to argue that it’s correct behavior to speak your mind in public forums. Bette agreed that there’s value in doing this, but she didn’t agree with how Kara came to this conclusion logically.

Here’s how Kara stated her case: ‘We have a right to free speech. Therefore, it is right to speak our minds in public.’ Here, Kara has used the term ‘right’ in two different ways. First, she was noting the protected legal right to perform a certain action – in this case speaking freely. But then she uses the word ‘right’ in a different way.

She says that it is right, or morally correct, good behavior, to speak in public. Bette is a big advocate for free speech and speaking openly about issues, but she thinks that Kara has confused the meanings of the word ‘right’ by using it in two different ways in her argument.

Aiming for Clarity

A helpful way to remember this fallacy is to think about equivocation as related to the words ‘equivalent’ or ‘equal,’ meaning the same or similar. The equivocation fallacy relies on the use of equivalent words or phrases that don’t mean exactly the same thing, but are used as though they do to try to prove a point. Kara either doesn’t realize or doesn’t care that her argument uses this fallacy. When Bette realizes the fallacy, she points it out to her friend.

Kara thinks she understands the problem, so she tries instead to make a different argument about free speech.Kara says, ‘We have a right to free speech. Therefore, listening to political speakers should always be free to the public rather than charging for admission.’ Bette shakes her head again. She says, ‘You did it again, Kara. You used an equivocation fallacy to come to this conclusion.

‘ Bette explains further. ‘First, you claim that we have a right to free speech. In this case, you’re using the word free to mean without controls or limits from others, but then you try to argue that we have a right to hear political speakers for free.

You refer instead to hearing them speak for no cost.’Kara starts to get the idea, but asks Bette what specific things she can do to improve her arguments. Bette replies that Kara’s been using words ambiguously.

Instead, Bette tells Kara she should aim to use a word consistently throughout her argument. Kara could also clarify her meaning when using the same word multiple times. Most importantly, Kara should not rely on this fallacy to come to a conclusion.

The conclusion could be incorrect if the word she uses to connect things logically actually has a change in the meaning of the words mid-argument, as Kara has been doing.

Lesson Summary

An equivocation fallacy involves using different meanings for a word or phrase at different points in the argument. This error includes confusing the meaning of a word in an effort to come to a particular conclusion. The word or phrase is used ambiguously rather than consistently.To help you remember the name of this fallacy, think of how ‘equivocation’ is related to the words ‘equivalent’ or ‘equal,’ meaning that the person is taking an equivalent word or phrase and using it in ways that are actually not equal at all. This issue results in a fallacy where the person uses these different meanings to come to a misleading conclusion.

Learning Outcomes

You should have the ability to do the following after watching this video lesson:

  • Describe the meaning of an equivocation fallacy
  • Explain how to avoid an equivocation fallacy

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