AskDefine | Define equivocal

Dictionary Definition

equivocal adj
1 open to two or more interpretations; or of uncertain nature or significance; or (often) intended to mislead; "an equivocal statement"; "the polling had a complex and equivocal (or ambiguous) message for potential female candidates"; "the officer's equivocal behavior increased the victim's uneasiness"; "popularity is an equivocal crown"; "an equivocal response to an embarrassing question" [syn: ambiguous] [ant: unequivocal]
2 open to question; "aliens of equivocal loyalty"; "his conscience reproached him with the equivocal character of the union into which he had forced his son"-Anna Jameson
3 uncertain as a sign or indication; "the evidence from bacteriologic analysis was equivocal"

User Contributed Dictionary



  • a UK /əˈkwɪvəkəl/ /@"kwIv@k@l/


  1. A word or expression capable of different meanings; an ambiguous term; an equivoque.


  1. (Literally, called equally one thing or the other; hence:) Having two significations equally applicable; capable of double interpretation; of doubtful meaning; ambiguous; uncertain; as, equivocal words; an equivocal sentence.
  2. Capable of being ascribed to different motives, or of signifying opposite feelings, purposes, or characters; deserving to be suspected; as, his actions are equivocal.
  3. Uncertain, as an indication or sign; doubtful, incongruous.


Having two significations equally applicable
Capable of being ascribed to different motives, or of signifying opposite feelings, purposes, or characters
Uncertain, as an indication or sign; doubtful


Extensive Definition

Equivocation is classified as both a formal and informal fallacy. It is the misleading use of a term with more than one meaning (by glossing over which meaning is intended at a particular time).
It is often confused with amphiboly. The two are similar but not identical. Both equivocation and amphiboly are fallacies arising from ambiguity. However, equivocation, is ambiguity arising from the misleading use of a word and amphiboly is ambiguity arising from misleading use of punctuation or syntax.


Equivocation is the use in a syllogism (a logical chain of reasoning) of a term several times, but giving the term a different meaning each time. For example:
A feather is light.
What is light cannot be dark.
Therefore, a feather cannot be dark.
In this use of equivocation, the word "light" is first used as the opposite of "heavy", but then used as a synonym of "bright" (the fallacy usually becomes obvious as soon as one tries to translate this argument into another language). Because the "middle term" of this syllogism is not one term, but two separate ones masquerading as one (all feathers are indeed "not heavy", but is not true that all feathers are "bright"), equivocation is actually a kind of the fallacy of four terms.
The fallacy of equivocation is often used with words that have a strong emotional content and many meanings. These meanings often coincide within proper context, but the fallacious arguer does a semantic shift, slowly changing the context as they go in such a way to achieve equivocation by treating distinct meanings of the word as equivalent.
In English language, one equivocation is with the word "man", which can mean both "member of species Homo sapiens" and "male member of species Homo sapiens". A well-known equivocation is
"Do women need to worry about man-eating sharks?"
where "man-eating" is taken as "devouring only male human beings".
A separate case of equivocation is metaphor:
All Jackasses have long ears
Karl is a jackass
Therefore, Karl has long ears
Here the equivocation is the metaphorical use of "jackass" to imply a stupid or obnoxious person instead of a male ass.
Margarine is better than nothing
Nothing is better than butter
Therefore margarine is better than butter
This equivocation exploits two different meanings of the word "nothing" to come to an apparent conclusion about the relative merits of two different things without actually making reference to any of their respective merits. In the first statement, "nothing" really means "dry bread" (such that the sentence means "it is preferable to have margarine [on bread] than nothing at all"), whereas in the second, it means, literally, "no thing" (so the sentence means "there exists no thing that is better than butter").

Specific types of equivocation fallacies

See main articles: False attribution, Fallacy of quoting out of context, Loki's Wager, No true Scotsman, Shifting ground fallacy.


  • F.L. Huntley. "Some Notes on Equivocation: Comment", PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America Vol. 81, No 1, (March 1966), p.146.
  • A.E. Malloch. "Some Notes on Equivocation", PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America'' Vol. 81, No 1, (March 1966), pp 145–146.
equivocal in German: Äquivokation
equivocal in Hebrew: שפה מעורפלת
equivocal in Hungarian: Ekvivokáció
equivocal in Norwegian: Ekvivokasjon
equivocal in Polish: Ekwiwokacja
equivocal in Swedish: Ekvivokation
equivocal in Modern Greek (1453-): Αμφισημία

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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