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An amphibolous notice in a restaurant (from The Funny Side of English by O. Abootty. Pustak Mahal, 2004)


A fallacy that relies on an ambiguous word or grammatical structure to confuse or mislead an audience. Adjective: amphibolous.

More broadly, amphiboly may refer to a fallacy that results from a faulty sentence structure of any kind.

See also:


From the Greek, "irregular speech"

Examples and Observations:

  • "[T]he 2003 election reform law demanded that politicians acknowledge in their own voices their responsibility for advertisements they run on public airwaves. But five years later, the 'I approved' has become a pivotal device in commercials for Congress and the White House, a place for candidates to make a declaration of intent, summarize the message or take a parting shot. . . .

    "A University of New Hampshire rhetoric professor, James Farrell, was irked as far back as the 2004 Democratic primary campaign, the first time the disclaimers were required. Then, as now, he said, advertisement writers were coming up with awkward non sequiturs just to slip in something extra.

    "Mr. Farrell noted a current commercial for Representative Don Cazayoux, Democrat of Louisiana, in which the candidate said, 'I’m Don Cazayoux and I approved this message because that’s who I’m fighting for.' That, Mr. Farrell said, is 'an amphiboly, a logical confusion created by a grammatical ambiguity.'

    "'Of course, if asked, the candidate will say he means he’s fighting for the middle class,' said Mr. Farrell, of the spot’s theme. 'However, one could easily conclude that the disclaimer addition refers to the candidate himself, as in, "I’m Don and that’s who I’m fighting for."'"
    (Steve Friess, "Candidates ‘Approve’ Ads and Get a Bit Creative." The New York Times, Sep. 30, 2008)

  • Deliberate Ambiguities
    "Amphiboly is the term attached to fallacies or deceptions that result from faulty or careless sentence structures. The carelessness may be intentional, as in the case of the title of the record album Best of the Beatles, which misled many people into buying it, thinking they were getting a record featuring the best songs of the Beatles. In fact what they had purchased was a record featuring Pete Best, who had been a member of the Beatles early in their career."
    (S. Morris Engel, The Study of Philosophy. Rowman & Littlefield, 2002)

  • Amphiboly in a Classified Ad
    "Sometimes the amphiboly is more subtle. Take this newspaper classified ad that appears under Furnished Apartments for Rent:
    3 rooms, river view, private phone, bath, kitchen, utilities included
    Your interest is aroused. But when you visit the apartment, there is neither a bathroom nor a kitchen. You challenge the landlord. He remarks that there are common bathroom and kitchen facilities at the end of the hall. 'But what about the private bath and kitchen that the ad mentioned?' you query. 'What are you talking about?' the landlord replies. 'The ad didn't say anything about a private bath or a private kitchen. All the ad said was private phone.' The advertisement was amphibolous. One cannot tell from the printed words whether private modifies only phone or whether it also modifies bath and kitchen."
    (Robert J. Gula, Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language. Axios, 2007)

  • Characteristics of Amphibolies
    "To become a skilled perpetrator of amphibolies you must acquire a certain nonchalance toward punctuation, especially commas. You must learn to toss off lines such as 'I heard cathedral bells tripping through the alleyways,' as if it mattered not a whit whether you or the bells were doing the tripping. You should acquire a vocabulary of nouns which can be verbs and a grammatical style which easily accommodates misplaced pronouns and confusions over subject and predicate. The astrology columns in popular newspapers provide excellent source material."
    (Madsen Pirie, How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic. Continuum, 2006)

  • The Lighter Side of Amphiboly
    "Some amphibolous sentences are not without their humorous aspects, as in posters urging us to 'Save Soap and Waste Paper,' or when anthropology is defined as 'The science of man embracing woman.' We should be mistaken if we inferred immodest dress on the woman described in a story: ' . . . loosely wrapped in a newspaper, she carried three dresses.' Amphiboly is often exhibited by newspaper headings and brief items, as in 'The farmer blew out his brains after taking affectionate farewell of his family with a shotgun.'"
    (Richard E. Young, Alton L. Becker, and Kenneth L. Pike, Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. Harcourt, 1970)
Pronunciation: am-FIB-o-lee
Also Known As: equivocation, amphibology

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