Amphibology

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Amphibology or amphiboly (from the Greek ἀμφιβολία, amphibolia) is an ambiguous grammatical structure in a sentence.[citation needed]

Contents

Examples

  • Teenagers shouldn't be allowed to drive. It's getting too dangerous on the streets.
  • Used cars for sale: Why go elsewhere to be cheated? Come here first!
  • 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.

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.[1]

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.[citation needed] Shakespeare made the reference to priests because the religious use of equivocation was well-known in those periods of early modern England (e.g. under James VI/I) when it was a capital offence for a Roman Catholic priest to enter England.

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