Semantics 4

Robert Harris
Version Date: June 8, 2000

Fallacies Associated with Language

In addition to the fallacy of emotive language that was discussed earlier, there are several linguistic fallacies associated with language use. A linguist fallacy occurs as a result of a problem with the words or sentences used to present an argument. Since ideas and evidence must be conveyed through language, an arguer skilled at manipulating language can influence the perception of the argument and the attitude of the hearer or reader. Vague words or unclear sentence structure can prevent a proper understanding and evaluation of the ideas, leading to confusion or even deceit. More than that, the words an argument is "clothed" in can make it seem attractive or unattractive. And quite commonly, words and syntax can be exploited to create double meanings, hidden qualifications, and subtle changes in meaning.

Weasel Words. While many asserters of fact are interested in inflating their assertions to make them as impressive as possible, facts can be tested and lies, when exposed, are always embarrassing and sometimes illegal. To "weasel" around this problem, a rhetorical trick has come into use whereby a rather intemperate claim, untrue in itself, can be made and then partly recalled or qualified or in some other way altered (to bring it back within the realm of truth) through the use of one or more weasel words. These words serve as invisible qualifiers because the audience tends to ignore them in favor of the general sense of the statement. For example, when we are told, "Fruit juice can help to cure your cold completely," we hear the "cure completely" but not the "can help." Thus, the net effect of a weasel-worded statement is to make the hearer believe more than is actually expressed while technically protecting the asserter from a charge of falsehood. Weasel words have become a common method of deception in all areas of persuasion--especially in advertising and politics.

Dozens of limiting adjectives, adverbs, verbs, and nouns can be used as weasels. In fact, almost any word denoting qualification or partial rather than complete application can be used as a weasel. Of course not every usage of those words means that the speaker is dishonestly weaseling--judgment is always required on your part since nearly every assertion, honest as it can be, needs some kind of qualification. For example, note the difference between the legitimate and the illegitimate use of "frequently":

Here, the first example is clear and fair enough, while the second uses "frequently" in a way that seems to mean "sometimes" and in a position in the sentence where it less prominently qualifies the energetic "completely eliminates all symptoms." The last example is less clearly categorizable--it may or may not be legitimate, depending on context and the reader's understanding of the sentence.

A few words are used with some frequency as weasels and ought to be discussed briefly.

1. Like. This word introduces a simile, or comparison, and does not imply identity of objects, features, qualities, or experience. A simile implies similarity; and since similarity is a matter of opinion, no real likeness is expressed beyond the assertion that the speaker believes the two things can be compared in some (usually unspecified) way. Whether something "looks like new" or "tastes like chocolate" depends on who is doing the looking or tasting. Simile is a wonderful and useful device for enlivening writing and for clarifying a discussion, since it allows a reader to understand something unfamiliar through something familiar. Unfortunately, it is being increasingly abused by being employed for shifting attention from the thing (often the product) being promoted to the thing used as a comparison. "Cleans like a white tornado" is effective because white tornadoes are more exciting than a bucket of soap suds.

2. Can. In formal English "can" means "to be able to," but in colloquial usage it sometimes means "might." An ambiguity like this can be (might be? is able to be?) exploited in such claims as "can make you feel better" or "can contribute to a better America," or "can be the solution we are looking for." It is one of the most frequently used weasels because it is one of the most powerful. Notice the overwhelming difference between "It does pay a thousand dollars" and "It can pay a thousand dollars."

3. Helps and Contributes. The effective presence of a certain factor, even to an infinitesimal degree, may be said to "help" or "contribute to" a certain end. The statement, "Gritty Motor Oil contributes to longer engine life," appears to imply a significant contribution, but the real effect may be minuscule. (Even to say, "contributes significantly," would not help much, since significance is a matter of opinion rather than fact: one tenth of one percent may be "significant" to the arguer or advertiser, though not to you.)

"Help" is problematic in an additional way. The word can mean both "relieve," "promote," or "benefit" and merely "assist." Thus the claim, "This book helps cure your problems in logic," may mean either "promotes the cure of problems" or "assists (some other, unidentified thing) in the cure of problems." Note too that these two meanings of "help" can be equivocated: "Is there no help for the problems we face? Yes, my new bill will help solve the problems."

4. Almost. Whether or not one thing is almost another thing is, within limits, a matter of judgment; and to that extent a statement including an assertion of "almost" is moved from the realm of objective fact to that of subjective opinion. When I say, "This beaker contains almost two liters," you might imagine that I mean 1.9 or so, when I had in mind 1.6 instead. What do you think is meant by expressions like, "almost the finest money can buy," "almost an anarchist proposal," "almost impossible"?

5. Relatively. Relative to what? Whenever the object of comparison is omitted, no conclusions can be drawn. The asserter no doubt wants you to assume something here, but what seems to be the obvious assumption may not result in a true statement, which is why the asserter omitted it. "It was a relatively effective project, senator." "Relative to the other projects in your department?" "No, relative to the Edsel." (See the fallacy of missing comparison later in this book.)

The weasel words in these examples have been underlined for easy identification and represent some of the more common ones. But as I said, almost any adjective or other word can be misused: the key is whether or not there is a difference between the overall impression given by a statement and the meaning the statement yields upon close examination. Notice here how easily several weasels can be combined to qualify a statement rather remarkably, while they still remain unobtrusive ("relatively" unobtrusive?).

Some Words Commonly Used as Weasels
some most tested sometimes
often surveyed frequently virtually
similar symptoms almost nearly
usually style looks like practically
feel of look of smell of qualities of

Wisdom on Weasel Words

Weasel words are words that suck all the life out of the words next to them, just as a weasel sucks an egg and leaves the shell. --Stewart Chaplin

One of our defects as a nation is a tendency to use what have been called weasel words. When a weasel sucks eggs, the meat is sucked out of the egg. If you use a weasel word after another, there is nothing left of the other. --Theodore Roosevelt

And, in fact, a weasel word has become more than just an evasion or retreat. We've trained our weasels. They can do anything. They can make you hear things that aren't being said, accept as truths things that have only been implied, and believe things that have only been suggested. Come to think of it, not only do we have our weasels trained, but they, in turn, have got you trained. When you hear a weasel word, you automatically hear the implication. Not the real meaning, but the meaning it wants you to hear. --Carl Wrighter

Composition. This fallacy occurs when an arguer wrongly assumes that a whole is just a collection of parts, and that whatever is true about the parts must be true about the whole also. But the parts of something (whether those parts are human or mechanical) have to work together, and in working together they will not necessarily have the same attributes as they do individually. For example, to argue that "a car made from the highest quality part from every other car in the world would be a really great automobile" would be obviously fallacious because such a car would probably not even run--the parts could not work together, regardless of their individual quality. Another example would be the claim that "every ingredient in this cake is the freshest and best quality we can get, so you know the cake must be of excellent quality." The ingredients have to work together, and if mismeasured, mismatched, or wrongly prepared, they will not produce an even edible cake. Here are a few other examples of the fallacy of composition:

Another form of this fallacy, something quantitatively true of each of the individual parts of something is assumed to be still true when those parts are considered collectively. For example, one strand of spider web is pretty weak, but to argue that "therefore a cable made out of spider webs would be pretty weak" would commit the fallacy of composition. Actually, spider web has a tensile strength greater than that of steel for the same diameter, so that a cable (of reasonable thickness) made of spider web would be very strong. Note these other examples: Division. This is simply the converse of the composition fallacy; division wrongly assumes that what is true for a whole, a collection, or an integrated assembly is true for each part separately. Wholes, like human bodies or flowers, cannot be chopped up without some kind of alteration. In the other form of the fallacy of division, the assumption is made that what is quantitatively true of a collection is also true of each part. Vicious Abstraction. In a word, this is the fallacy of misquotation. In its first form (quoting out of context) it is committed whenever a statement is removed from a context or discussion which is necessary for the statement's meaning. Notice how each of the following statements, while quoted accurately from the passages above them, takes on a different meaning, so that the original speaker seems to be saying something he never intended: An important thing to remember about this form of vicious abstraction is that the context necessary for meaning may be larger than a few sentences. You may have to have a paragraph, a chapter, or even a whole work in order to understand the true import of a statement or viewpoint. (And this is especially true with Biblical interpretation.)

The second form of the fallacy of vicious abstraction occurs when a statement is quoted inaccurately--that is, some part of a statement is omitted, thereby changing the meaning of the statement, or the statement itself is changed somewhat. Note how different the originals here are from their alleged sources:

For a couple of other Biblical examples see John 21:21-23 and compare John 2:19 with Matthew 26:61 or Mark 14:58.

Especially when reading political or polemical materials, you should beware of quotations which seem to contradict known positions of the speaker or writer and be skeptical of statements which appear inhumanly callous or inanely simplistic. Such quotations may have been viciously abstracted.

Paraphrases of opinions, stands, and even literary or philosophical works often contain vicious abstractions because the paraphrasers are not careful to include qualifications, details, exceptions, or circumstances which are essential to a proper meaning. For this reason, accurate conclusions can seldom be drawn from paraphrases.

Suppressed Quantification. Many statements are both vague and ambiguous in that many interpretations are possible, but only if the reader supplies details or contexts. A particularly worrisome kind of statement involves an unqualified plural, blurring the distinction between "some" and "all," a fallacy known as suppressed quantification. An example would be, "Economists say that this policy is unworkable." Does this mean that all economists are saying that? Most? Many? Some? A few? Two? In all probability only "some" or "a few" really are saying this, but the impression such an unqualified plural gives is almost invariably that of "all" or "almost all." Notice how this works:

Suppressed quantification occurs quite commonly in everyday discourse, largely because it has become an ingrained habit of sloppy thinking, and partly because some people like to use it to deceive. So habituated are we to thinking and talking in unqualified plurals that this fallacy is often difficult to spot--we simply overlook it. Be on your guard, though, and avoid this mental carelessness.

A variety of suppressed quantification comes from the confusion over whether a plural noun is intended to refer to the members of that group all added together or all considered individually. For example:

Here we can clearly see that in the first statement, "Americans" refers to Americans considered individually (or "distributively") while in the second statement, Americans are considered all added together (or "collectively"). The intended reference is not always clear, however, and in such cases the statement becomes ambiguous: Equivocation results from using a word (or phrase) in more than one sense, playing with a double meaning, or changing the connotation or meaning of a word in the course of the argument, all the while implying that a the word means exactly the same thing all the way through the argument. The word may be inherently ambiguous or vague, but often it is a specific word which simply has two or more different meanings. For example, most people would agree with the statement, "Only man can reason." But would we accept the conclusion that "since Mary is not a man, she cannot reason?" Of course not. In the original statement, to which we assented, "man" is understood in the sense of "mankind" or "the human species." But in the conclusion "man" means "male human being," an entirely different sense of the word. The strength as well as the deceitfulness of equivocation lies in the fact that the reader or hearer agrees with some statement containing some sense of the equivocal term. If the equivocation is not detected, the argument can appear very strong.

Not every case of equivocation results from intentional dishonesty; many times the arguer himself has confused two different senses of the same word or phrase and believes the argument to be sound. But in either case, any conclusion drawn from arguments in which some term does not retain the meaning with which it began is illegitimate, whether the term changes meaning once or several times.

Another kind of equivocation occurs when an arguer suddenly shifts from metaphor to reality or from reality to metaphor. We become so used to expressing ourselves in metaphors that we sometimes find it difficult to detect the shift or to realize the significance of it. But such a shift is improper in argument since figurative meanings and literal meanings are quite different. Amphibology. The fallacy of amphibology (also called amphiboly) is committed by using a statement which allows two interpretations, either because of the physical grammatical structure (syntax) of the sentence, or because a word or phrase can have two possible meanings, causing the entire statement to be understood in two different ways. This fallacy can be a tricky one because our minds, looking for a particular expected meaning or perceiving immediately an obvious one, may be slow to perceive the other. The Fallacy of Accent. This fallacy arises when the meaning or significance of a true statement is distorted or changed because of improper emphasis upon a part of the statement or upon the whole statement. In its simplest form the fallacy occurs when the emphasis (accent) in a sentence is placed upon a particular word in such a way that the meaning is changed from the author's real intention. For example, the commandment, "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife," takes on quite a different apparent meaning if read as, "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife," because it then seems to imply that coveting the wife of a non-neighbor is all right. Notice the difference a special emphasis can make: The more serious and dangerous forms of the fallacy of accent involve the whole statement and create significant deception by overemphasizing literal truth. An arguer creates the distorted emphasis by carefully selecting, isolating, and presenting some fact or statement which automatically gains apparent significance simply because it has been brought into the prominence of attention. The arguer may then use the improperly or excessively emphasized truth as the basis for a seemingly reasonable conclusion. More commonly an arguer will allow his hearers to draw their own conclusions from his statement. When a statement itself is absolutely true, but implies something false, or leads to a seemingly obvious conclusion which, however, is false, a form of the fallacy of accent is committed--suggestio falsi (false suggestion). For example, if a student should say, "My roommate didn't take any drugs today," he could be telling a literal truth, but he is insinuating that this fact is somehow remarkable, atypical, or unusual--which, his hearers will assume, must be why he stated it. In reality, the roommate may never take drugs, and the student has not stated that his roommate ever does. Yet we can scarcely escape the seemingly automatic conclusion that the roommate must be an addict or abuser. We constantly seek contexts, cause-and-effect relationships, and implications for the statements we read or hear, and this fact is sometimes exploited by those who wish to deceive or even lie by telling only the truth.

When you are confronted by remarks heavy with innuendo, seek confirmation of the implications. If the asserter begins to back off or deny that he meant what you think he meant, then you have probably exposed a suggestio falsi. When the remarks are in print, of course, you cannot question the author. But often you can seek confirming or refuting information elsewhere. Until you have it, withhold your judgment.

Consider the difference between the literal statement and the apparently implied meaning in each of these instances of suggestio falsi:

Another form of the fallacy of accent occurs when one true fact or statement is presented, while another important fact or circumstance is not presented. This is called suppressio veri (suppressing the truth). Suppressio veri can be very difficult to detect because the suppressed truth must be known in advance if it is to be recognized by its absence. Suppose, for instance, you read the following sentence in one of those check-out counter newspapers: "John Jones and the woman he is currently sleeping with were seen yesterday outside the Noodie Cudie Adult Bookstore, not far from Frimpson's Bar and Grill." No doubt you do not think very highly of Mr. Jones, especially when you understand that this statement is absolutely true. But your opinion of him might be different if you knew that "the woman he is currently sleeping with" is his wife of 22 years, and that they walked past the Noodie Cudie on their way from a parking lot to a sewing machine shop.

The best way to prevent yourself from being victimized by this fallacy is to inform yourself about all sides of an issue, and about the pluses and minuses of each position or decision. Some examples of suppressio veri:

Advertisers have also exploited our normal mental processing habits by using the fallacy of accent. The most common form here is the presentation of two statements which apparently, though not literally, have a cause-effect, question-answer or problem-solution relationship. For example, the statements, "Have fun today; drink Bubbly Beer," seem to say that you can have fun by drinking Bubbly, but they do not actually state or promise that. (The advertiser might have meant, "Have fun today and drink Bubbly.") Consider these:

Wisdom on the Fallacy of Accent

Half a truth is a whole lie. --Proverb

To assume is to be deceived. --Proverb

Exercise 1

Determine which linguistic fallacy is committed in each of the following:

1. In coming to a final decision, I have taken your letter into consideration and have voted accordingly.

2. Owning this new stereo could contribute to a happy, rich life for you, full of joy, harmony, and wonderful experiences.

3. "If they shoot their missiles at us, we should shoot ours right back immediately." --Gen. Blow


4. You'll be the talk of the town in that new dress.

5. Every member of the choir is a solo voice champion, so you know the choir will be great.

6. The Koreans believe that Ginseng tea is an aphrodisiac, enhancing sexual desire and performance.

7. As a new believer, you want to join God's Church so that you can be with God's people don't you? Isn't God's Church the Church you want to worship in? Not the world's church, but God's Church. Well, then, come on down to God's Church. We're located on the corner of 6th and Main. God's Church, Inc., 3422 6th St., Costa Mesa, CA.

8. By blowing up the houses of suspects and beating civilians, the government of Israel is acting like terrorists.

9. This is an award winning TV series, so this episode from the series must be really great.

10. The students in critical thinking kept their clothes on in class today even though they were talking about fallacies again.

Exercise 2

For each discourse below, name the fallacy committed. If the discourse contains no fallacy, so state. Feel free to make brief comments pertinent to uncertain or context-dependent cases.

1. And the Lord God commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die." --Gen 2:16-17

He [the serpent] said to the woman, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?" --Gen. 3:1b

2. Now! $2000 investment can return $6500 gross in 90 days with limited risk! Call collect or direct to Currency Specialists, Inc.

3. Is he a good boy? Well, his reputation is everywhere remarked upon.

4. There are 43 meetings in a semester class at SCC. And there are about 43 professors. So if we took the best lecture from each professor and put them all into one class, we'd have the best possible class.

5. Women are not interested in how computers work; they just want to be productive with them.

6. All I can say about our neighbors is that the police have driven past their house more than once.

7. Why are you worried about having a so-called stranger in the house. Mr. Smother is a member of the Rotary Club International, and that's a great organization.

8. 50% OFF! Yes, we're having a 50% OFF sale! Bedspreads were $200, now 50% off. Just buy one at the regular price and get a second for 50% OFF. (50% off the second bedspread is calculated on the original manufacturer's list price of $350.)

9. "Master of the Game was CBS slop that was at least watchable. Now comes ABC's . . . Lace. . . . It deserves a category all its own. Sub trash." --Howard Rosenberg article in L. A. Times.

"Howard Rosenberg says that the cinematic achievement of Lace 'deserves a category all its own.' So don't you think we should watch it?" --Fred to Joe

10. Pediatricians recommend Cheerios for your toddler.


Terms and Concepts
weasel words
vicious abstraction
suppressed quantification
fallacy of accent


1. Discuss how to judge whether a word is being used as a weasel word or as a legitimate qualifier.

2. How could you avoid becoming the victim of a vicious abstraction?

Test Yourself

For each argument, choose the single best answer.

1. Our experience with X-rays and nuclear energy has taught us how dangerous radiation is, so I do not understand why you want to buy that electric heater, since you will be subject to its radiation almost everywhere in the room.

A. equivocation
B. weasel words
C. composition
D. suppressed quantification
E. vicious abstraction

2. [Each of the following sentences commits the same fallacy. What is it?]

+ He labors daily for the end of virtue.
+ This concept cannot be understood by a single generalization.
+ He likes bubble gum better than his wife.
+ All patients who are hypnotized do not sleep.
+ That book cannot be understood by a single person.
+ This copier costs less than the other equipment in our office.
+ This machine will allow us to stamp out high quality parts.

A. vicious abstraction
B. amphibology
C. accent
D. division
E. suppressed quantification

3. [Review: "Even though the cinematography is impressive, I strongly recommend that you avoid seeing this turkey of a movie because it is senseless, plotless, boring, and pervaded by very bad acting." --Sam Eyeball]

Advertisement: "The cinematography is impressive!" --Sam Eyeball

A. vicious abstraction
B. amphibology
C. accent
D. division
E. suppressed quantification

4. I hope you know that those Biskitco cheese crackers are made with casein--a substance also used in making plastic and glue.

A. vicious abstraction
B. amphibology
C. accent
D. division
E. suppressed quantification

5. You're against the Nuclear Safeguards Act? Why don't you want nuclear power plants to have safeguards?

A. equivocation
B. weasel words
C. composition
D. suppressed quantification
E. vicious abstraction

6. These headlines commit what fallacy?


A. vicious abstraction
B. amphibology
C. accent
D. division
E. suppressed quantification

7. Students often fail to detect this fallacy because it is so common to our thinking.

A. vicious abstraction
B. amphibology
C. accent
D. division
E. suppressed quantification

8. I know how to make a great cold medicine. We'll take the best antihistamine available, the best analgesic available, the best decongestant available, and the best drowsiness reliever available and put them all together into one pill. That would make a great medicine!

A. equivocation
B. weasel words
C. composition
D. suppressed quantification
E. vicious abstraction

9. This jacket has the look of hand made, carefully tooled, selected wool fabric of the best quality available at any price.

A. equivocation
B. weasel words
C. composition
D. suppressed quantification
E. vicious abstraction

10. I want to buy a large house because I can't stand small bathrooms.

A. vicious abstraction
B. amphibology
C. accent
D. division
E. suppressed quantification

Answers to Test Yourself: 1A2B3A4C5A6B7E8C9B10D

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Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com