Fallacy of equivocation


The fallacy of equivocation is a trick in arguing where a word changes its meaning in the middle of the conversation. Imagine driving to a place where the road signs keep pointing in different directions for the same location; it’d be tough to get where you want to go, wouldn’t it? That’s what it’s like when someone uses the same word in different ways in an argument. It’s not about a word having many meanings, but about using those varied meanings to make an argument look stronger than it is.

Another way to understand the fallacy of equivocation is by thinking about a magician who uses sleight of hand to distract you. If a magician says they will make a coin disappear and they hide it under a cup but later show you their empty hand, they’ve used ‘disappear’ in two ways. First, the coin ‘disappeared’ under the cup, and then it ‘disappeared’ from their hand. They rely on the double meaning to perform the trick. Similarly, in arguments, using a word in more than one way can distract and mislead.

Logical Form

The structure of the fallacy of equivocation might look right at first, but it’s deceiving. Here’s a way to see it: think about saying ‘all roses are flowers’ and ‘all violets are flowers’, so all roses must be violets. Sounds weird? That’s because the logic is twisted due to the way ‘flowers’ is used to connect things that aren’t the same. This kind of mix-up can happen in arguments if we’re not watching the meaning of words closely.

The basic pattern of an equivocation fallacy goes like this:

  • The same word or phrase is used with one meaning at one point in the argument.
  • Later on, that same word or phrase is used with a completely different meaning.
  • This flip-flopping between meanings creates a false appearance that everything makes sense, which is actually wrong.

What makes it so sly? The argument can look flawless on the outside, but as soon as you spot the switch in the meaning of the word, you’ll see the flaw in the reasoning.

Examples of Equivocation Fallacy

  • In Politics: Politicians often argue about ‘liberty’. One might talk about ‘liberty’ as being able to choose freely, while another might mean ‘liberty’ as living without strict government rules. Each politician uses the same word but with very different meanings, which can make it hard to really understand what they’re talking about in discussions about freedom and laws.
  • In Religion: Debates about religion can get twisted by equivocation, too. Let’s say someone first explains ‘faith’ as ‘believing in something without needing evidence.’ But then, they talk about ‘faith’ as if it simply means ‘trusting in God’. This person has changed the meaning of ‘faith’ halfway through their argument, which isn’t fair to those trying to understand religious belief.
  • In Literature: Authors like to use equivocation for twists in their stories. Take ‘Macbeth’ by William Shakespeare, where a spooky prediction tells Macbeth he cannot be harmed by anyone ‘born of a woman’. The story takes a sharp turn when we find out Macduff, who is set to confront Macbeth, was born by C-section, so he wasn’t ‘born of a woman’ in the usual way. This surprise uses the phrase ‘born of a woman’ with a special meaning and catches Macbeth off guard because he misunderstood the prophecy.

Origin of Equivocation Fallacy

Tricking people with words isn’t new, it’s been around as long as humans have argued. The smart Greek philosopher Aristotle noticed this problem when he looked at a claim from another thinker, Parmenides, who said that nothing changing was real. Parmenides was using ‘nothing’ as if it meant both ‘not anything at all’ and ‘a thing called nothing’, but they’re not the same thing. Aristotle cleverly pointed out this sneaky switch in word use to clear up any confusion about whether stuff can really change or not.

How to Avoid Equivocation

Keeping your argument free from equivocation is about being crystal clear with the words you choose. When crafting your argument, be like a detective who looks for clues and keeps track of them. Watch each key word like a hawk—make sure you use it in the exact same way from the beginning of your argument to the end. Do this, and you’ll dodge the mistakes of the equivocation fallacy gracefully.

Related Topics

There are a few other types of misleading logic that are like relatives to equivocation you should know:

  • Amphiboly: This happens when sentences are structured in a confusing way, often with poor grammar. The entire sentence is written so awkwardly that it becomes unclear, which leads to ambiguous or double meanings.
  • Straw Man Fallacy: This is when someone doesn’t argue against the real point someone else made, but instead sets up a much weaker version, like a “straw man,” and attacks that. It’s a decoy that distracts from the actual strong argument.
  • Slippery Slope: In this fallacy, an argument suggests that one small event will definitely lead to another and then a bunch of extreme events, all without proof that these events are connected.


The fallacy of equivocation is like a stealthy word game—it’s when a word changes meaning halfway through an argument and makes the logic look sound when it’s not. To steer clear of this trap, always examine words closely and be super sure you use them consistently without shifting their meanings. By keeping your arguments transparent and your meanings constant, you’ll be well-prepared to spot and counter equivocation fallacy when you encounter it in discussions or debates.