Equivocation is classified as both a formal and informal fallacy. It is the misleading use of a term with more than one meaning (by glossing over which meaning is intended at a particular time).

It is often confused with amphiboly; however, equivocation is ambiguity arising from the misleading use of a word and amphiboly is ambiguity arising from misleading use of punctuation or syntax.


Equivocation is the use in a syllogism (a logical chain of reasoning) of a term several times, but giving the term a different meaning each time. For example::A feather is light.:What is light cannot be dark.:Therefore, a feather cannot be dark.

In this use of equivocation, the word "light" is first used as the opposite of "heavy", but then used as a synonym of "bright" (the fallacy usually becomes obvious as soon as one tries to translate this argument into another language). Because the "middle term" of this syllogism is not one term, but two separate ones masquerading as one (all feathers are indeed "not heavy", but is not true that all feathers are "bright"), equivocation is actually a kind of the fallacy of four terms.

The fallacy of equivocation is often used with words that have a strong emotional content and many meanings. These meanings often coincide within proper context, but the fallacious arguer does a semantic shift, slowly changing the context as they go in such a way to achieve equivocation by treating distinct meanings of the word as equivalent.

In English language, one equivocation is with the word "man", which can mean both "member of species "Homo sapiens" and "male" member of species "Homo sapiens". A well-known equivocation is

:"Do women need to worry about man-eating sharks?"

where "man-eating" is taken as "devouring only male human beings".

A separate case of equivocation is metaphor:

:All Jackasses have long ears:Karl is a jackass:Therefore, Karl has long ears

Here the equivocation is the metaphorical use of "jackass" to imply a stupid or obnoxious person instead of a male ass.

:Margarine is better than nothing:Nothing is better than butter:Therefore margarine is better than butter

In the first statement, "nothing" really means "dry bread" (such that the sentence means "it is preferable to have margarine [on bread] than nothing at all"), whereas in the second, it means, literally, "no thing" (so the sentence means "there exists no thing that is better than butter").

Specific types of equivocation fallacies

:"See main articles: False attribution, Fallacy of quoting out of context, Loki's Wager, No true Scotsman, Shifting ground fallacy.


* F.L. Huntley. "Some Notes on Equivocation: Comment", "PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America" Vol. 81, No 1, (March 1966), p.146.

* A.E. Malloch. "Some Notes on Equivocation", "PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America" Vol. 81, No 1, (March 1966), pp 145–146.

ee also

* Fallacy of four terms
* If-by-whiskey
* Mental reservation
* Plausible deniability
* When a white horse is not a horse

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  • equivocation — late 14c., the fallacy of using a word in different senses at different stages of the reasoning (a loan translation of Gk. homonymia, lit. having the same name ), from O.Fr. equivocation, from L.L. aequivocationem (nom. aequivocatio), from… …   Etymology dictionary

  • Equivocation — E*quiv o*ca tion, n. The use of expressions susceptible of a double signification, with a purpose to mislead. [1913 Webster] There being no room for equivocations, there is no need of distinctions. Locke. Syn: Prevarication; ambiguity; shuffling; …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • equivocation — index ambiguity, color (deceptive appearance), deceit, deception, duplicity, evasion, falsehood, hesitation …   Law dictionary

  • equivocation — *ambiguity, tergiversation, double entendre Analogous words: prevarication, lying or lie, paltering, fibbing or fib (see corresponding verbs at LIE): duplicity, dissimulation, *deceit …   New Dictionary of Synonyms

  • equivocation — [n] avoidance of an issue ambiguity, amphibology, casuistry, coloring, con, cop out, cover, cover up, deceit, deception, deceptiveness, delusion, dissimulation, distortion, double entendre, double meaning, double talk, doubtfulness, duplicity,… …   New thesaurus

  • équivocation — (é ki vo ka sion) s. f. Action d équivoquer. HISTORIQUE    XIVe s. •   Par equivocation [homonyme] l en appelle clef un membre qui est au col d une beste, et appelle l en clef ce à quoy l en ferme les huis, ORESME Thèse de MEUNIER.. ÉTYMOLOGIE… …   Dictionnaire de la Langue Française d'Émile Littré

  • equivocation — equivocate ► VERB ▪ use ambiguous or evasive language. DERIVATIVES equivocation noun …   English terms dictionary

  • equivocation — noun see equivocate …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • equivocation — /i kwiv euh kay sheuhn/, n. 1. the use of equivocal or ambiguous expressions, esp. in order to mislead or hedge; prevarication. 2. an equivocal, ambiguous expression; equivoque: The speech was marked by elaborate equivocations. 3. Logic. a… …   Universalium

  • equivocation — noun a) A logical fallacy resulting from the use of multiple meanings of a single expression. b) The use of expressions susceptible of a double signification, possibly intentionally and with the aim of misleading. See Also: amphiboly, evasion …   Wiktionary

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