What Is Equivocation Fallacy? | Examples & Definition

Reasoning updated on  February 7, 2024 4 min read

Equivocation fallacies occur when an argument’s persuasiveness depends on the confusing use of a word that has multiple meanings. When a word is used in different ways in the same argument, and no clear distinction is made, the argument can become misleading.

Equivocation fallacy example
“Our nation values freedom. That’s why we should have only state-run media. Government controlled media that aligns with our national values will keep our citizens free from foreign influences and disinformation.”

This argument commits the equivocation fallacy by conflating two meanings of being “free.” Initially the word “freedom” is used to refer to the idea of having civil liberties and not being controlled or dominated by anyone. However, the word “free” is later used in the sense of being relieved of something negative.

People may commit the equivocation fallacy intentionally, in persuasive contexts, or as a result of faulty reasoning.

What is the equivocation fallacy?

The equivocation fallacy occurs when a key term is used with different meanings in an argument, resulting in a misleading argument. Equivocation can make an argument’s premises seem to support the conclusion when in reality they do not.

As an informal logical fallacy, equivocation isn’t strictly related to the structure of an argument. Rather, informal fallacies are errors in reasoning that involve incorrect assumptions, irrelevant information, or misleading uses of language. Informal fallacies are said to render an argument unsound.

Equivocation belongs to a group of informal fallacies known as fallacies of ambiguity. Other fallacies of ambiguity include the following:

  • Amphiboly fallacy: Misinterpreting a text based on ambiguous sentence structure
  • Fallacy of accent: Altering the meaning of a statement by emphasizing different words or phrases
  • Fallacy of composition: Assuming that what's true for parts is also true for the whole
  • Fallacy of division: Inferring that what’s true for the whole is also true for its individual parts

How does the equivocation fallacy work?

The equivocation fallacy involves using a word or phrase with multiple meanings, while ignoring the fact that it has multiple meanings. Arguments that commit the equivocation fallacy may have the following characteristics:

  • Verbal ambiguity: A word is used with multiple definitions or shades of meaning.
  • Contextual shift: The same word shifts context within the argument without clear explanation.
  • Unsound reasoning: The argument ultimately doesn’t make the point that it intends to make because it relies on the inconsistent use of a word or phrase.

The equivocation fallacy is distinct from the more general term “equivocation,” which refers to communication that is intentionally evasive or ambiguous. This general type of equivocation, which isn’t limited to the context of a fallacious argument, may be used to evade direct answers, navigate sensitive topics, or avoid committing to a clear stance.

Equivocation fallacies are also distinct from puns and other forms of play on words. Whereas equivocation occurs in an argument, puns are a rhetorical device that rely on the multiple meanings of a word for the purpose of humor.

Equivocation fallacy examples

Examples of equivocation fallacies can be found in a variety of contexts, from casual discussions to political discourse.

Equivocation fallacy examples in politics

Equivocation fallacies can be used strategically in politics to influence public opinion. By deliberately exploiting the ambiguity of words, politicians and commentators can construct arguments that appear sound but are actually misleading.

Equivocation fallacy example in politics
A mayoral candidate makes the following statement in a campaign speech:

“My priority is stabilizing the city’s economy. That’s why implementing rent-stabilized housing will be my first action in office.”

While “stabilizing” in the first instance refers to achieving overall economic balance and growth, the term “rent-stabilized” specifically means controlling rent increases to maintain affordability. This shift in the meaning of “stabilize” from general economic health to specific rent control measures demonstrates the equivocation fallacy.

Equivocation fallacy examples in real life

In daily life, the equivocation fallacy can be found in contexts such as consumer advertising, social media debates, and business discussions, among others.


Equivocation fallacy example in real life
In a conversation at the office, a coworker offers investment advice:

“With the economy being so unpredictable, they say it’s important to choose solid investments. That’s why I'm going for tangible assets like gold and silver. At the end of the day, I’ll be left with something solid that I can hold in my hands.”

This is an example of the equivocation fallacy because the rationale for the conclusion rests on the ambiguous use of the term “solid.” In the first sentence, “solid” implies financial reliability and security. However, “solid” is later used to describe the tangible nature of gold and silver. This shift in meaning creates a misleading link between financial stability and the physical state of an asset, which are not inherently connected.

How to avoid the equivocation fallacy

To avoid the equivocation fallacy, it’s essential to use language clearly and consistently. Here are some strategies that can help you avoid committing or falling for the equivocation fallacy:

  • Define key terms: At the beginning of a discussion or argument, define any critical terms or phrases to avoid multiple interpretations.
  • Maintain consistency: Use important words and phrases as clearly and consistently as possible throughout an argument to prevent shifting meanings.
  • Be alert to ambiguity: Pay attention to words that have multiple meanings and ensure their use is context-appropriate in your argument.
  • Ask for clarification: When others’ statements are unclear, ask for specific definitions or explanations of key terms.
  • Reflect on word choice: Regularly review and consider the words used in an argument to ensure they convey the intended meaning without ambiguity.

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


Frequently asked questions about equivocation fallacy

Why is equivocation a fallacy?

The core problem with the equivocation fallacy is its deceptive nature. An argument that commits this fallacy is misleading because it uses a word in multiple ways without acknowledging the different meanings.

The equivocation fallacy can lead an audience to accept a conclusion that seems to be supported by the premises but is actually based on a semantic trick.

What is an example of the equivocation fallacy in advertising?

Examples of equivocation fallacies can be found in many advertisements. In particular, advertisements for products marketed as natural, environmentally friendly, or healthy often commit the equivocation fallacy.

“Feeling tired? Pick up a can of NutriBuzz, the healthy energy drink. It’s designed to energize you to pursue a healthy lifestyle, so you can hit the gym and stay active.”

This advertisement initially suggests that NutriBuzz is a “healthy” product, implying that its ingredients are beneficial. However, the primary benefit mentioned is an energy boost to support a “healthy” lifestyle (i.e., exercise), which doesn’t necessarily make the drink itself healthy in terms of ingredients.


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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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