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I had originally asked this at English.SE, but a quick disagreement with some of the users, including a high-reputation user caused me to lose faith in the English.SE community to even Identify the fallacy that I was talking about.


I too often see people apply a definition to something because both the thing and the definition share a same connotation, and not because the thing actually matches the definition.

For instance:

Terrorists are cowards because they are evil.

This is a fallacy because "being evil" is not part of the definition of "coward".

The minimum wage is not Socialist because without it, many people will go into poverty.

This is a fallacy, because "not keeping people out of poverty" is not part of the definition of "Socialism".

I want to call people out on this kind of behavior, but I want to be able to do so without being confusing, so I am asking: Is there a word for this?


This is similar to Is there a name for the fallacy to appeal to connotation of an ambiguous term?, but I don't feel as though it's the same.

That question is similar but it seems to be more concerned with whether you use the connotation of a term to imply badness or goodness.

My concern has more to do with categorizing things into categories where they straight up do not fit.

  • "Stupidity"? Any Linguist who tries to represent himself has a fool for a client. Or something like that... I have tried for decades to point out that Jealousy and Envy are opposites, but popular use wins the contest. – user16869 Mar 4 '16 at 19:53
  • I'm a little unclear exactly what you're asking here -- maybe you could spell out a bit more explicitly exactly what you would like someone here to explain to you? – Joseph Weissman Mar 4 '16 at 21:04
  • @JosephWeissman I've tried to describe it as clearly as I can, and I don't think taking additional stabs at it will make it any more clear. I think it might just make things more complex without adding extra clarity. If you can try and explain back how you understood my description, maybe that can help me understand the holes in the description – Sam I am says Reinstate Monica Mar 4 '16 at 21:08
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Confusing a term's definition with its connotation is a linguistic error of mistaking the strict meaning of a term with its associations. Someone who is told, "I love you with all my heart," and responds, "Hearts are just lumps of meat," has clearly failed to understand the intended connotation and is guilty of that confusion. It does not imply any fallacious reasoning as such.

I don't see how the two examples you give relate to this. To say, "Terrorists are cowards because they are evil," is simply a non-sequitur, since not all cowards are evil and not all evil people are cowards. To say, "The minimum wage is not socialist because without it, many people will go into poverty," seems to be a claim that supporting the minimum wage does not make one a socialist, because one might agree with a minimum wage without taking on board all the rest of the socialist ideology. As such, this is a reasonable claim.

More generally, arguments of the form "B because A" (or "A therefore B") are not all about explicating definitions, so it is not correct to dismiss an argument just because B is not part of the definition of A. Plenty of arguments involve more complex lines of reasoning that go beyond merely understanding definitions, and plenty more are not deductive at all, but abductive or inductive: this does not make them fallacious.

Speaking of fallacies, the modern obsession of looking for fallacies everywhere, and asking, "What fallacy is this?" is misleading and unhelpful. Soon I will have to start a petition to get the word fallacy banned; it is one of the most overused and misused words around. Logic is not about fallacy hunting. If you think a particular argument is bad, just say what is wrong with that argument, without trying to compare it with others. Referring to fallacies is only helpful if it is unclear exactly what defect in an argument you are trying to draw attention to.

  • To say, "Terrorists are cowards because they are evil," is simply a non-sequitur Yes it is a non-sequitur, but people use non-sequiturs like that very often. and I want to make it easier to call that kind of thing out – Sam I am says Reinstate Monica Mar 4 '16 at 23:45
  • If you think a particular argument is bad, just say what is wrong with that argument, without trying to compare it with others. I usually do, but as you can see here, and at English.SE, this particular scenario is confusing to explain to people, so I was wondering if there was a word for it that people understood, so that I don't have to explain it at length so much. – Sam I am says Reinstate Monica Mar 4 '16 at 23:46
  • Excellent analysis of the minimum wage-socialist statement. It reveals how wrong it would be to adopt an all-encompassing "fallacy" based mostly on the form of the statement. – Karl Kronenfeld Mar 7 '16 at 0:03
  • @SamIam rather than calling people out (tactic of shaming) one interesting approach is to ask a question about an argument put forward. Like in what way are evil people cowards? or how is preventing people going into poverty not socialist?. This will usually get people thinking and either they put thought into it or they brush it aside at which point they have disengaged from the debate. – James P. Aug 3 '16 at 6:33
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The Noncentral Fallacy seems to fit that. Confusing definitions and connotations.

Suppose someone wants to build a statue honoring Martin Luther King Jr. for his nonviolent resistance to racism. An opponent of the statue objects: "But Martin Luther King was a criminal!"

Any historian can confirm this is correct. A criminal is technically someone who breaks the law, and King knowingly broke a law against peaceful anti-segregation protest - hence his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.

But in this case calling Martin Luther King a criminal is the noncentral. The archetypal criminal is a mugger or bank robber. He is driven only by greed, preys on the innocent, and weakens the fabric of society. Since we don't like these things, calling someone a "criminal" naturally lowers our opinion of them.

  • maybe. I'm thinking more along the lines of the inverse of that. I.E. saying that Martin Luther King was not a criminal because of accomplishments – Sam I am says Reinstate Monica Mar 5 '16 at 7:02
  • This might be relevant, although I'm not convinced the wiki article is that great: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ignoratio_elenchi Which is basically the "missing the point" fallacy. This is relevant because when someone focuses too closely on dictionary definitions, they fail to involve the context of an argument in order to try to understand the argument. That said, focusing closely on definitions and 2 people agreeing on a definition is most important: thus discussions and understandings of the most up-to-date definition of a word is often necessary to have a meaningful conversation. – Adam Rubinson Mar 9 '16 at 13:12
  • So in general one must strike a balance between a) understanding the general meaning and gist of a conversation, and b) understanding the precise, in-depth meaning of definitions of words. – Adam Rubinson Mar 9 '16 at 13:15
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There is a general fallacy of appeal to emotion, but I am not sure that it fits these examples.

Some of them can be interpreted as enthymemes, what Aristotle described as shortened syllogisms. For example, "Terrorists are cowards because they are evil" has the form T->C "because" T->E, the unstated or implicit premise is obviously E->C, "evil is cowardly". Honestly, I can not even tell if "evil" is contained in "cowardly" and therefore implies it, the terms are too vague. On top of that we only need implication, not containment. Since enthymemes are colloquialisms the meaning of terms in them is context dependent, the "evil" and "cowardice" meant may not be generic but rather specific to the context of terrorism. One might feel that with specifics of the context taken into account the implication obtains, even without containment. "Pro-women organizations are not feminist because they do not exclude men" is similar with the implicit premise "feminist organizations exclude men". A way to counter enthymemes is to make the unstated premise explicit, and argue that it is a non-sequitur.

Other examples are better interpreted not as syllogisms with implicit premise, but as counters to an implicit "inference to the best explanation", which provide an alternative explanation. For example, "The minimum wage is not Socialist because without it, many people will go into poverty" sounds like a possible response to the leap that a supporter of minimum wage must be motivated by socialism. Keeping people out of poverty is pointed out as an alternative motivation. The same with "regulating food industry is not socialist because bad food can make people sick", where bad food is an alternative explanation for supporting regulation. A way to counter is to contest the alternative explanation as unlikely or non-explanatory.

Due to the vagueness of rhetorical devices, it is generally difficult to make a straightforward case that reasoning in them is fallacious. Part of it has to be hypothesized, the terms are vague, so valid reconstructions are often possible.

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You need to think of language as a living entity. Words are merely tools we use to describe something to another person and it evolves with time. As long as both parties speak the same language, in other words, understand a word to mean the same thing to both of them, the correct meaning is irrelevant. Basically it's the difference between being book smart and streetwise.

  • I don't think you understood my question. It does not have to do do with people having different definitions that an official definition. It has a lot more to do with people applying a label to something for an emotional reason, and not because of the definition – Sam I am says Reinstate Monica Mar 4 '16 at 22:26
  • In this case you can use the approach of reformulation to verify that you and your interlocutor are using words according to the same meaning. – James P. Aug 3 '16 at 6:37

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