Often, in a dispute, people only suggest their point without ever articulating it.

An awful lot of people actually do that. This makes any rational debate impossible (if you second guess, they can deny having said that).

Is there a name for this sort of fallacy?

Some definitions, to help the reader...

Articulate tr. v. - 10. to give clarity or coherence to: to articulate an idea.

Suggest tr. v. - 2. To express or say indirectly: The police officer seemed to be suggesting that the death was not an accident.

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    The boundary between "suggest" and "articulate" is vague, and both parties often accuse each other of being on the wrong side of it. All articulation is inherently vague to lesser or greater extent, so everybody does "that" of necessity, and rational debate better be possible in its presence. Shared context is often used to resolve the vagueness sufficiently, and when it is not enough requests for clarification are expected be made and responded to. Unresponsiveness to such requests is often called evasion. – Conifold Mar 7 '20 at 23:35
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    internet forum fallacy? – PatrickT Mar 9 '20 at 8:59
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    Can you give an example of this tactic? – user253751 Mar 9 '20 at 11:21
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    One can well articulate a suggestion. They are not mutually exclusive. As your definitions state, "to articulate an idea" - if the idea happens to be a suggestion that the death was not an accident; it could be done well "I'm not sure this was an accident" or poorly "I ain't sure that the deff were done accidental like". – UKMonkey Mar 9 '20 at 11:43
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    Obligatory. The adventures of Fallacy Man. existentialcomics.com/comic/9 – Stewart Mar 9 '20 at 19:55

First, my standard observation that the term 'fallacy' is often misused. A fallacy, properly put, is a mistake in the structure of an argument that makes a claim invalid without considering the sense or meaning of the argument. You're actually asking about a rhetorical tactic: an effort to persuade someone (reasonably or unreasonably) of the 'truth' of a claim as a matter of semantics, not structure. Rhetorical tactics are a normal part of argumentation — the only reason we make arguments is to convince others of senses and meanings — but note the irony that misusing the term fallacy is itself a bit of a rhetorical trick.

That aside...

The particular thing you're talking about might be covered by a number of 'informal' fallacies (what I've called 'rhetorical tactics'): begging the question, questionable causal chains, appeal to popular thinking, false equivalence, hasty generalization, or others as yet unspecified. The list of informal fallacies grows and changes over time as people grapple with different kinds of rhetorical ploys.

If you want a general category for this kind of tactic, though, I'd call it argument by implication. The aim of this kind of rhetoric is to imply a reasoning chain without expressing it. Obviously we can't condemn implication, because it's an essential part of logic and reasoning. I'd go so far as to argue that we get the term 'fallacy' (in its proper sense) because the Ancient Greeks laid out the basic forms of simple implication — the extension of properties from categories to their members — and noted which forms were valid and which invalid. But pernicious implication is common enough, and generally falls into a few different types:

  • Invoking bias: conforming to listeners' biases, so that they will accept a conclusion without needing to hear the reasoning explained
  • Weaponizing ambiguity: using vague pointing to force opponents to do all of the cognitive work, since the opponent must lay out the implied reasoning before s'he can critique it
  • Deflecting accountability: attributing unexpressed arguments to vague or absent others, who are implicitly assumed to have plausible justifications

In short, pernicious implication uses natural forms of cognitive laziness — the preference for mental shortcuts and the resistance to heavy cognitive work that all of us are inclined towards — to get listeners to mislead themselves.

Of course, be aware of the opposite side of this coin — argumentative dissection — in which someone refuses to accept any form of implication, and demands proof or evidence for even the most trivial extensions of reasoning. Sometimes these are even used in tandem, where someone makes vague, general statements and then demands that others prove them wrong according to impossible standards. There is a cautious balance: one should say enough to make an argument clear, but not get caught in the trap of over-explaining.

The best approach I've found to dealing with people who use pernicious implication is to feign (or actually practice) open-minded ignorance. Tell them you don't follow their point and ask them to explain; pester them with questions to draw out the unexpressed reasoning; challenge their egos with little jabs like "Seriously? That's the best explanation you can give?". The goal is to force them out of that fortress of cognitive laziness onto the open field of expressed ideas where (more likely than not) they have few skills; people with real argumentation skill rarely hide behind implication.

  • Thanks for your answer. 1. Argument by implication is not in itself a fallacy. It is when the implication is fallacious. However, in the case I consider in my question, the implication is not even made explicit. It is only suggested. - 2. Similarly, the pernicious implication could not be characterised because it is not even articulated. – Speakpigeon Mar 8 '20 at 17:01
  • @Speakpigeon: That's the point, though. Even though it's not articulated, you still 'get' the implication enough to know where it's going. – Ted Wrigley Mar 8 '20 at 18:47
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    I think it is a fallacy; a syllogism requires all of its steps to be stated. If you say "All dogs are mammals, and we all know what animal Snoopy is, so Snoopy is a mammal", then that arguably is not a valid syllogism, and thus fallacious, as "Snoopy is a dog" is not explicitly asserted. – Acccumulation Mar 8 '20 at 23:25
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    @Acccumulation That is not what the inventor of syllogisms thought, see Enthymeme. When a premise is common knowledge or can be inferred from context it can be skipped. And spelling out all the steps would make most ordinary conversations and arguments completely impractical. – Conifold Mar 9 '20 at 5:45
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    Your "fortress of cognitive laziness" and "open field of expressed ideas" have also been called motte and bailey. – workerjoe Mar 9 '20 at 12:44

Douglas Walton calls this the fallacy of plausible deniability. It seems that this terminology is his own, and not standard (at least, a quick Google search for "fallacy of plausible deniability" doesn't reveal too much other than his own article Plausible Deniability and Evasion of Burden of Proof). Walton writes:

In everyday argumentation, propositions are often brought forward as suggestions or provisional hypotheses, rather than as outright assertions. In many instances of argumentation, especially in practical deliberations, the evidence for or against a particular proposition may be insufficient to categorically deny or assert it as true. However, if, at any particular point in a dialogue, there is no overwhelming evidence against the proposition, and there is some small weight of evidence put forward in favor of it, a speaker may propose the proposition as a suggestion, and the hearer may provisionally accept it on that basis.

When suggestions are put forward, they are accepted tentatively rather than wholeheartedly (in Hamblin's sense). This means they are accepted provisionally, i.e. they are accepted as presumptions holding at that point, and for some subsequent points in the dialogue, but they may later be given up or rejected.


One often notices in the study of fallacies how plausible deniability is preserved by ambiguity, and other deceptive or confusing techniques that enable an arguer to keep the back door open, should one's argument be directly confronted or challenged. A good example is the ad baculum argument, a form of sophistical technique that typically takes the form of an indirect speech act, e.g. "I would stop advocating that policy if I were' you, because the last person who persisted in advocating it wound up on the bottom of the river in a cement coating." When confronted with having made a threat, the ad baculum arguer replies: "That wasn't a threat. I was only giving you some good advice - this is a dangerous city!" Here the use of the indirect speech act leaves the fallacy committer a back door open for plausible deniability. Threats tend to be highly contextual, and it has proved to be a legal problem to pin them down with evidence in specific cases.

Of course, whether this is a fallacy or not depends on context. Sometimes in conversation I explore an idea that I haven't really thought too much about by making such "suggestions", without wanting to commit myself to one position or another. But, as you point out, in the context of a debate or dispute, one ought to try and make one's position clear.

  • Ah, the expression would be appropriate in this context but it already means something else in very different contexts where the idea is that some official makes sure they can plausibly deny any awareness of illegal or otherwise disreputable acts. The expression suggests dishonesty rather than a flaw in reasoning. – Speakpigeon Mar 8 '20 at 16:42
  • This sounds similar to the Socratic Method. – Parrotmaster Mar 9 '20 at 14:36
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    One of the reasons people make vague arguments is that it allows them to "move the goalposts" without being noticed. – Monty Harder Mar 9 '20 at 18:59

I'm not sure that there is a fallacy here if by 'fallacy' is meant, as standardly in logic, an error of reasoning, flawed reasoning. In the cases you describe the other side doesn't so much argue incorrectly as withdraw from argument by failure to articulate a premise.

A term from rhetoric, aposiopesis, covers at least a range of your cases.

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    1. Aposiopesis The act of breaking off midway through a sentence as if unwilling or unable to continue. Doesn't seem to fit. 2. There is no withdrawal since there is a point. Usually, I qualify this as a red herring as whatever is made explicit is not explicitly relevant. However, it is more than a red herring because what is made explicit suggests something relevant. Relevant but fallacious since it only follows from an irrelevant premise. – Speakpigeon Mar 8 '20 at 16:10
  • I only meant that not completing a sentence is one way of failing to articulate a premise. – Geoffrey Thomas Mar 8 '20 at 18:43

I'd describe it as a "non-argument":

a flawed, empty, or incorrect argument that should be dismissed or disregarded

"nonargument", Merriam-Webster

To make an argument, someone has to make an argument. If they stop short of making an argument, then they haven't made an argument.

Discussion: Non-arguments can be regarded as silence.

A related concept is "kettle logic":

Kettle logic (la logique du chaudron in the original French) is a rhetorical device wherein one uses multiple arguments to defend a point, but the arguments are inconsistent with each other.

"Kettle logic", Wikipedia

If someone's using fuzzy reasoning, then they might have a lot of incomplete justifications for why they believe something. Sorta like having a lot of circumstantial evidence.

If you disagree with their conclusions, you may want them to clarify some of the fuzzy assertions as to critically analyze them. The argumenter may be unwilling to facilitate this process as clear statements of their argument may sound stupid, compelling them to silence.

To be fair, we should note that someone who's unable to articulate an argument without sounding stupid doesn't necessarily have a bad argument; I mean, imagine a theoretical physicist trying to defend some complicated scientific theory to skeptical children – it'd be hard for them to do even if they've got something.

Still, whether or not the person asserting an argument has a good argument in their mind, their incomplete description of an argument still constitutes a non-argument.

Rather than saying that they're right or wrong, it's perhaps best to describe them as silent – perhaps not audibly silent, but silent with respect to having failed to express an argument.

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    1. The term "non-argument" isn't appropriate since an argument is put forward. An the definition in Webster gives itself an example which is an actual argument qualified of a non-argument. Certainly in use but not appropriate. 2. There is also no fuzzy logic necessarily. Rather, it is a matter of making explicit the premise instead of the conclusion, leaving the other side to do the inference. If Joe claims that God exists, someone may make the point, explicitly, that his own prayers are never answered, leaving Joe to infer that therefore God doesn't exist. – Speakpigeon Mar 8 '20 at 16:26
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    "Kettle logic" isn't necessarily a non-argument. Even though the multiple arguments aren't consistent with one another, they could still combine to form a sound argument. For instance, if I can show that A=>X and ~A=>X, then I've proven X, even though A and ~A aren't consistent with one another. – Monty Harder Mar 9 '20 at 19:03
  • @Speakpigeon: Yeah, I think I get your question now. Originally, I read that they failed to "articulate" their argument, which'd mean that you literally couldn't decipher what they were trying to say. But instead, it seems like you're asking about when people do articulate their arguments, just in a manner designed to enable them to deny having done so later. – Nat Mar 10 '20 at 14:47
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    @Monty Harder The argument in this case is not (A and ~A)=>X, which is not valid, but (A=>X and ~A=>X)=>X, which is valid, the premises A=>X and ~A=>X being consistent. – Speakpigeon Mar 10 '20 at 20:10
  • @Nat They articulate an irrelevant argument, with one possible implication, left implicit, that would be relevant, but still deniable in case it is wrong. – Speakpigeon Mar 10 '20 at 20:15

Stratagem 26: 指桑骂槐 (Zhǐ sāng mà huái)

"Point at the mulberry tree while cursing the locust tree".

Create a scapegoat and badmouth it, with plausible deniability.


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    The expression applies to personal criticism rather than arguments, but the analogy is excellent: We make something explicit but irrelevant, while the bit possibly relevant is left implicit and therefore deniable. Excellent! Not really a fallacy, though. Rather, seems to be a strategy for criticising without direct confrontation. – Speakpigeon Mar 10 '20 at 20:02

There are a variety of terms that can apply: vagueness, argument by intimation (not to be confused with argument by intimidation), dog whistle (if a specific audience is intended to understand what the assertion is), imprecision, lack of rigor, implication, coyness.

  • Thanks for your suggestions. 1. Dog whistle is not appropriate as it implies that the explicit point is innocuous, and in our case it won't be. 2. Intimation is really the same idea as suggestion, and equally not necessarily fallacious. 3. Vagueness, imprecision etc. don't apply as the explicit point may be sharp. – Speakpigeon Mar 9 '20 at 10:33

If they have no point, there cant be a fallacy.

I find the most appropriate action with these people is to use their weapon, answering as follows:

"you seem to imply this, implying this would be incredibly stupid because of that. But you told me you didnt mean to imply this, so that's ok you are obviously not incredibly stupid. If however you were maliciously ambiguous, that would make you an terrible asshole, but of course I trust you were sincere and not such a terrible asshole."

Here we are suggesting disrespect, perfectly appropriate for this lame technique disrespecting debate.....and we of course keep the plausible denyability as thin as possible.

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