Part of the Applied Logic Series book series (APLS, volume 1)


Amphiboly continues to be treated as one of the major informal fallacies by many of the logic textbooks that deal with fallacies, following a longstanding tradition that goes back through the Middle Ages, originating in Aristotle. Aristotle, in his De Sophisticis Elenchis or On Sophistical Refutations (165 b 27)— see Chapter 1—defined amphiboly as the fallacy dependent on language that arises from ambiguity in the grammatical structure of a sentence.1 However, as noted in Chapter 1, Aristotle’s examples do not translate very well into English as common errors or sophistical deceptions that contemporary students would recognize as significant fallacies. One example Aristotle gave is: ‘A man a pillar sees, therefore the pillar sees.’ (166 a 10). Another is: ‘Surely you insist on being what you insist on being. You insist on a stone being. Therefore, you insist on being a stone’. (166 a 12 – 166 a 14). The logic textbooks in Latin, and subsequently in English and other modern languages, have struggled to find useful and convincing examples of amphiboly, in order to retain the Aristotelian tradition of having amphiboly as a fallacy. But as we will see below, these attempts have failed, quite consistently, and generally the burden of proof seems to be more and more against amphiboly as a significant fallacy [Hamblin, 1970, p. 18].


Ambiguous Sentence Special Price Structural Ambiguity Informal Logic Regular Price 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Form of expression, sometimes also called ‘figure of speech’, (the subject of Chapter 5) is a fallacy that also has to do with grammatical ambiguity, but not of a whole sentence.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The difference between the two fallacies is that in equivocation, the ambiguity is in a word or phrase. As shown in Section 2 below, it is not hard to see this kind of ambiguity can produce a failure of argument that represents a genuine, common fallacy. By contrast, in amphiboly, the ambiguity is in a grammatical construction rather than in the component words or phrases themselves.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    According to Joseph [1916, p. 580], the Greek word is amphibolia (also written this way in Latin), meaning ‘being misled by a form of words’, as opposed to ambiguity in a single word. This often became amphibologia, or amphibology, as it is called in many textbooks, a usage that Joseph calls a ‘corruption’ (p. 580). Joseph contrasts amphiboly with homonymia, where the ambiguity is in an onoma, or word. However, Hintikka [1959] has shown that there are two types of ambiguity in Aristotle homonymy (things which share the same name, literally) and multiplicity of applications (pollachos). According to Hintikka [1959, p. 148], homonymia occurs as one particular type of ambiguity (ambiguity of a term) in the De Sophisticis Elenchis. It is distinguished from amphibolia (syntactic ambiguity), whereas pollachos is used as a wider term that applies to both.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Interestingly, Schiller went on [1912, p. 351] to use this type of case, along with other cases, to argue for the ‘futility of the notion of formal fallacy’. Hamblin [1970, pp. 44–45] also discusses the fallacy of four terms in relation to equivocation.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Essentially the same case is found in Gibson [1908, p. 285].Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    See Walton [1985; 1989a].Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    See section 8 below on Gricean implicature, however.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Aristotle in the De Sophisticis Elenchis (166 a 7) gives the following example of a refutation that depends on amphiboly: ‘I wish that you the enemy may capture’.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    A similar example, according to Hamblin [1970, pp. 16–17] came originally from Cicero (De Divinatione, Book II, 116), and is found in the medieval Viennese Fallacies, and in several modern textbooks. In this case, King Pyrrhus asks the devil whether or not to attack the Romans. That ‘olde sophister, the Devill’, in the version found in Abraham Fraunce, replies to Pyrrhus with a Latin phrase that could be translated either as ‘I say that you can conquer the Romans’, or ‘I say that the Romans can conquer you’. (Aio te Romanos vincereposse). Google Scholar
  10. 1.
    See the conclusions on this point drawn in Section 10.Google Scholar
  11. 1.
    Walton [1990b].Google Scholar
  12. 1.
    Here the use of the term ‘serious’ is in a different context from its use in the seriousness requirement. In the latter use, seriousness refers to practical import in the kinds of argumentation that users of informal logic need to deal with in their lives and work. In the former use, we mean that an allegation ‘You have committed a fallacy!’ is a powerful accusation that borders on being impolite in normal conversation. It is a serious accusation in the sense that it attacks the credibility of the accused, and demands a vigorous reply, if the allegation is to be rebutted. There is a difference, for example, between saying, ‘Your argument is insufficiently supported by evidence!’ and ‘You have committed a fallacy!’ The latter allegation points to a systematic underlying error of a sort that vitiates your argument, opening it to strong refutation as deeply incorrect. It is a stronger, and in this sense more ‘serious’ charge than the former allegation.Google Scholar
  13. 1.
    But see the discussion in Section 10 below.Google Scholar
  14. 1.
    Gair[1992,pp. 1–2].Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of WinnipegCanada

Personalised recommendations