Amphibology or amphiboly (from the Greek "amphibolia") is an ambiguous grammatical structure in a sentence.


Teenagers shouldn't be allowed to drive. It's getting too dangerous on the streets.

This could be taken to mean the teenagers will "be" in danger, or that they will "cause" the danger.

Amphiboly can be used humorously. For example:

I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I'll never know.

A famous quotation by Groucho Marx from the comedic film "Animal Crackers". The first sentence alone is unclear about whether the speaker shot the elephant while wearing pajamas or whether the elephant was in the speaker's pajamas.

Amphiboly occurs frequently in poetry, owing to the alteration of the natural order of words for metrical reasons; for example, Shakespeare, in "Henry VI":

The duke yet lives that Henry shall depose." (1.4.30)

Marlowe in "Edward II" provides an equally famous example:

_la. Edwardum occidere nolite timere bonum est.

Depending on how the reader punctuates this line, this can be interpreted as Edward's death sentence, or as an order to preserve Edward's life:

Fear not to kill the king, 'tis good he die... kill not the king, 'tis good to fear the worst.(5.4.8-11)

Other examples of amphibology

*"Used cars for sale: Why go elsewhere to be cheated? Come here first!"
*"At our drugstore, we dispense with accuracy!"
*"Eat our curry, you won't get better!"
*"(Professor to student, on receiving a fifty-page term paper): "I shall waste no time reading it." (Often attributed to Disraeli)
*"No food is better than our food."
*"Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana."

Historical word usage

In reference to his Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to John Adams stating:

We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphibologisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. ( [] )

Outside formal logic

Apart from its use as a technical term in logic, "equivocation" can also mean the use of language that is ambiguous, i.e. equally susceptible of being understood in two different ways. There is usually a strong connotation that the ambiguity is being used with intention to deceive.

This type of equivocation was famously mocked in the porter's speech in Shakespeare's "Macbeth", in which the porter directly alludes to the practice of deceiving under oath by means of equivocation.

Faith, here's an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God's sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven. ("Macbeth", Act 2, Scene 3)

See, for example Robert Southwell and Henry Garnet, author of "A Treatise of Equivocation" (published secretly c. 1595) — to whom, it is supposed, Shakespeare was specifically referring.Fact|date=January 2008 Shakespeare made the reference to priests because the religious use of equivocation was well-known in those periods of early modern England (eg under James VI/I) when it was a capital offence for a Roman Catholic priest to enter England.

A Jesuit priest would equivocate in order to protect himself from the secular authorities without (in his eyes) committing the sin of lying. For example, he could use the ambiguity of the word "a" (meaning "any" or "one") to say "I swear I am not a priest", because he could have a particular priest in mind who he was not. That is, in his mind, he was saying "I swear I am not one priest" (e.g. "I am not Father Brown".) This was theorized by casuists as the doctrine of mental reservation.

According to Malloch (1966) Fact|date=November 2007 , this doctrine of permissible "equivocation" did not originate with the Jesuits.

Malloch cites a short treatise, " _la. in cap. Humanae aures", that had been written by Martin Azpilcueta (also known as Doctor Navarrus), an Augustinian who was serving as a consultant to the Apostolic Penitentiary. It was published in Rome in 1584. The first Jesuit influence upon this doctrine was not until 1609, "when Suarez rejected Azpilcueta's basic proof and supplied another" (Malloch, p.145; speaking of Francisco Suárez).

See also

*Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason"


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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Amphibology — Am phi*bol o*gy ([a^]m f[i^]*b[ o]l [ o]*j[y^]), n.; pl. {Amphibologies} ( j[i^]z). [L. amphibologia, for amphibolia, fr. Gr. amfiboli a, with the ending logia as if fr. Gr. amfi bolos ambiguous + lo gos speech: cf. F. amphibologie. See… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • amphibology — [am fib′ə lē] n. pl. amphibolies [am΄fə bäl′ə jē] n. amphibologies [ME amphibologie < LL amphibologia (altered after words ending in logia, LOGY) < L amphibolia < Gr, ambiguity < amphiballein: see AMPHIBOLE] 1. double or doubtful… …   English World dictionary

  • amphibology — noun (plural gies) Etymology: Middle English amphibologie, from Late Latin amphibologia, alteration of Latin amphibolia, from Greek, from amphibolos Date: 14th century a sentence or phrase (as “nothing is good enough for you”) that can be… …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • amphibology — amphibological /am fib euh loj i keuhl/, adj. amphibologically, adv. /am feuh bol euh jee/, n., pl. amphibologies. amphiboly. [1325 75; ME amphibologie < LL amphibologia. See AMPHIBOLY, LOGY] * * * …   Universalium

  • amphibology — noun /amfɪˈbɒlədʒi/ Amphiboly. In Athens men learnd [...] to resolve a sophisticall argument, and to confound the imposture and amphibologie of words, captiously enterlaced together [...] …   Wiktionary

  • amphibology — n. vagueness in a language; phrase or sentence which can be explained in many ways; ambiguous phrase or sentence (Grammar) …   English contemporary dictionary

  • amphibology — [ˌamfɪ bɒlədʒi] noun (plural amphibologies) a phrase or sentence that is grammatically ambiguous. Origin ME: from OFr. amphibologie, from late L. amphibologia, from L. amphibolia, from Gk amphibolos ambiguous …   English new terms dictionary

  • amphibology — am·phi·bol·o·gy …   English syllables

  • amphibology — am•phi•bol•o•gy [[t]ˌæm fəˈbɒl ə dʒi[/t]] n. pl. gies amphiboly • Etymology: 1325–75; ME amphibologie < LL amphibologia. See amphiboly, logy …   From formal English to slang

  • amphibology — /æmfəˈbɒlədʒi/ (say amfuh boluhjee) noun (plural amphibologies) ambiguity of speech, especially from uncertainty of the grammatical construction rather than of the meaning of the words. {Late Latin amphibologia; replacing Latin amphibolia (see… …   Australian-English dictionary

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