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1.5: Linguistic Pitfalls

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  • Linguistic pitfalls are misuses of language where language is used in an inappropriate way toobscure, distort, or mislead.


    A word, phrase, or sentence is ambiguous when it has more than one meaning. There are different kinds of ambiguity.

    • Lexical ambiguity refers to cases where a single term has more than one meaning in the language. For example, the word deep can mean profundity (What you have said is very deep.), or it can be used to describe physical depth (This hole is very deep). Similarly for words like young (inexperienced or young of age), or bank (river bank or financial institution).
    • Referential ambiguity arises when the context does not make it clear what a pronoun or quantifier is referring to, e.g. Ally hit Georgia and then she started bleeding. In the preceding sentence, it is not clear whether it was Ally, Georgia, or some other person who was bleeding.
    • Syntactic ambiguity are cases of ambiguity that comes about because there is more than one way to interpret the grammatical structure. This can happen even when there is no lexical ambiguity. Consider the sentence “we shall be discussing violence on TV”. It might mean the discussion will be conducted during a television program, or it might mean violence on TV is the topic to be discussed.

    When dealing with ambiguity we should ensure that the context makes it clear to the audience what the correct interpretation should be. We can also try to clarify meaning explicitly by listing out all the different possible interpretations. This process of removing ambiguity is known as disambiguation. Naturally, avoiding ambiguity applies only to situations where we want to communicate precisely and accurately.


    A term is vague if it lacks a precise boundary. When the sun sets it becomes dark, but there is no sharp boundary where it abruptly switches from bright to dark. So “dark” and “bright” are vague terms.

    “Tall” is also vague since sometimes we are not sure if a person is tall or not, even when we know the person’s exact height. This is because the meaning of “tall” is not precise enough. The same applies to words like “mountain”, “clever”, “cheap”, etc. In fact, probably most words in natural languages are vague.

    Notice that vagueness is not the same as ambiguity. A word can be vague even though it is not ambiguous, and an ambiguous term can have two meanings which are both very precise.

    When we need to be precise and informative, we should avoid vagueness. Vague claims are frequent in horoscope predictions. Here is one:

    • Be prepared for a change of direction this week as something unexpected comes up.

    What counts as a change of direction is very vague. Does it count if someone blocks your way so you cannot walk in a straight line? Without a precise explanation it is too easily to find one event or another as evidence that confirms the prediction.

    Instructions that are vague offer little concrete guidance. Someone being told to try harder might not really know what to do, and setting more precise goals are often more useful.

    However, it would be a mistake to say that critical thinking requires the elimination of all vagueness. Vague terms are useful in everyday life because we do not always have to be precise. It is also difficult if not impossible to be precise about when we have to be precise. It all depends on the situation.

    Incomplete Meaning

    A term has an incomplete meaning if the property or relation it expresses depends on some further parameter to be specified by the context, either explicitly or implicitly. This includes terms such as “useful”, “important”, “similar”, and “better”. Practically all objects are useful and important only in some respects but not others. For example, is a life buoy more important than a million dollars? Well, it depends. If you are about to drown, then yes. But not if you never go near water.


    Distortion is a matter of using words with inappropriate semantic associations, or to use words in a way that deviates from its standard meaning without clear indications.

    The use of inappropriate emotive expressions is one typical example of distortion. Many expressions in the language are not purely descriptive but carry positive or negative connotations.

    Sometimes people define “democracy” as dictatorship of the majority. The word “dictatorship”carries a negative connotation, so this description implicitly assumes that democracy is bad.This distorts the meaning of “democracy”. Democracy as a system of government might not be perfect, but we should justify our criticisms more carefully and clearly.


    The word “reify” came from the Latin word res, which means thing. Reification is treating an abstract idea or property as if it were a concrete physical object. Consider the popular claim that “History is just”. A person or a system of rules or laws can be just or unjust, but justice is not really a property of history, taken as a body of facts about what has happened in the past. But of course we can guess what the speaker might have in mind when the statement is made. Perhaps the intended meaning is something like Eventually people will make the correct and fair judgment about what has happened.

    Reification in itself need not be objectionable. It increases dramatic impact and is often used in poetry and metaphors. The test is whether the original claim can be translated into a sentence without reification. If not, this is a sign that the original claim does not have a clear meaning.

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