What Is Amphiboly? | Definition & Examples

Reasoning updated on  March 15, 2024 4 min read

Amphiboly refers to ambiguity in language that arises from unclear grammar, allowing a phrase or sentence to be interpreted in multiple ways.

The amphiboly fallacy is a relatively rare logical fallacy in which a statement’s ambiguous grammatical structure leads to misinterpretations and misleading conclusions.

Amphiboly examples

  • Amphiboly: “Call me a taxi.”
  • Explanation: This could be a request to summon a taxi cab, but it could also be interpreted as a request to be referred to as “a taxi.”
  • Amphiboly: “The chicken is ready to eat.”
  • Explanation: This could mean that a cooked chicken is ready to be eaten, but it could also mean that a live chicken is ready to eat something.
  • Amphiboly: “She saw a man on a hill with a telescope.”
  • Explanation: This could mean that someone used a telescope to view a man on a hill, but it could also mean that the man on the hill had a telescope.

What is amphiboly?

Amphiboly occurs when a sentence or phrase has multiple possible interpretations because of ambiguous sentence structure. It is also known as amphibology.

Amphiboly is generally understood as a type of error in communication or reasoning, but it is sometimes used intentionally as a form of equivocation.

There are several categories of ambiguity that, unlike amphiboly, are used intentionally for comedic effect. This phenomenon is often called “wordplay” (or a “play on words”). Specific categories of wordplay include the following:

  • Double entendre: Presenting a phrase with two interpretations, often with one being risqué or humorous
  • Paraprosdokian: Ending a sentence in a surprising way that changes the meaning of the first part of the sentence
  • Pun: Exploiting multiple meanings of a word or similar-sounding words
  • Malapropism: Using an incorrect word that sounds similar to the intended word

What is the amphiboly fallacy?

The amphiboly fallacy occurs when a person relies on a text’s ambiguity to argue a point. Although this fallacy isn’t encountered often in real life, it can occur in contexts such as law and philosophy.

As with other informal logical fallacies, the amphiboly fallacy is an error of content rather than one of form. The amphiboly fallacy can also be classified as a fallacy of ambiguity, along with several other fallacies such as the equivocation fallacy: using a term with multiple meanings in a misleading way.

Amphiboly examples

Examples of amphiboly are often found in media contexts. This type of error is most often associated with news headlines.

Amphiboly examples in headlines
“Paramedics help dog bite victim”
“Red tape holds up new construction”
“Transit employees refuse to work after death”
“Killer bees pose dangers, warn experts”

Amphiboly is also fairly common in articles and news broadcasts. Reporters, editors, script writers, and commentators sometimes structure their sentences in ambiguous ways without realizing it.

Amphiboly examples in media
A news podcast announces “Mayor Bailey announced Friday she would resign.”

The amphiboly in this example is caused by the placement of the word “Friday.” The sentence could mean that the mayor made the resignation announcement on a Friday, but it could also mean that the resignation will occur on Friday.

Examples of amphiboly can also occur in various marketing and advertising contexts, where ambiguous slogans or claims might mislead consumers about a product’s benefits.

Amphiboly fallacy example in advertising
A brokerage service uses the slogan “Watch your wealth grow with CapitalTrade” in its advertisements.

This slogan is an example of amphiboly because it can be interpreted as suggesting that having CapitalTrade as a financial partner will directly lead to an increase in wealth (e.g., through low-cost trades). However, it could also simply mean that customers can view their investments’ growth on the CapitalTrade platform.

In advertising contexts, amphiboly is sometimes used deliberately to equivocate. Using ambiguous language might allow a company to imply a certain benefit without committing to it.

The amphiboly fallacy is most likely to be found in complex philosophical discussions or legal arguments. Unclear language in legal documents can lead to disputes on topics such as contracts and regulations.

Amphiboly fallacy example in law
A contract includes the following sentence that demonstrates amphiboly: “This agreement will terminate on the breach of any party without formal notice.”

The contract most likely means that the agreement will be terminated immediately, without notice, if either party breaches its terms. However, it could also be interpreted as suggesting that the contract is terminated only if a party fails to fulfill their obligation without formally notifying the other party.

An attorney presents a fallacious argument that hinges on this ambiguity in the contract: “The contract clearly states that the agreement will be ended ‘on the breach of any party without formal notice.’ My clients did provide formal notice that they couldn’t fulfill the commitment completely. Therefore, the agreement still stands.”

This argument is an example of the amphiboly fallacy because it exploits the ambiguous language in the contract to defend a misleading conclusion.

Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.

Idioms

Parts of speech

Fallacies

Diamond in the rough

Irregular verb

Slippery slope fallacy

Idioms

Gerund

Sunk cost fallacy

Piece of cake

Infinitive phrase

Red herring fallacy

Better late than never

Infinitive

Appeal to authority fallacy

Salt of the earth

Adverb

Circular reasoning fallacy


How do you pronounce amphiboly?

The word “amphiboly” is pronounced am-FIH-buh-lee (IPA: /æmˈfɪbəli/).

It is the name of a linguistic error as well as a logical fallacy (i.e., the amphiboly fallacy).

What are fallacies of ambiguity?

A fallacy of ambiguity occurs when an argument relies on ambiguous language or unclear definitions to mislead. These fallacies often exploit the vagueness or multiple meanings of terms to make an argument seem strong when it is not.

Fallacies in this category include the following:

  • Equivocation fallacy: Shifting the meaning of a key term within an argument to mislead or confuse
  • Amphiboly fallacy: Justifying a misinterpretation of a statement by exploiting its ambiguous sentence structure
  • Motte and bailey fallacy: Defending a controversial position by retreating to a more widely accepted position when challenged, then returning to the original position

What is the amphiboly fallacy?

The amphiboly fallacy involves using the confusing syntax of a sentence to prove a point. Whereas many logical fallacies result from reasoning errors, the amphiboly fallacy stems directly from linguistic ambiguity—whether due to a mistake or an intentional misuse of language.

Its name is based on the term “amphiboly”: syntactic ambiguity that results in a sentence having multiple possible interpretations.

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Magedah Shabo

Magedah is an author, editor, and educator who has empowered thousands of students to become better writers.

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