AskDefine | Define amphibology

Dictionary Definition

amphibology n : an ambiguous grammatical construction; e.g., `they are flying planes' can mean either that someone is flying planes or that something is flying planes [syn: amphiboly]

User Contributed Dictionary



From etyl fr amphibologie, from late etyl la amphibologia, earlier amphibolia, from etyl grc ἀμφιβολία.


  • a UK /amfɪˈbɒlədʒi/


  1. Amphiboly.
    • 1603, John Florio, translating Michel de Montaigne, Essays, Folio Society 2006, vol. 1 p. 133:
      In Athens men learn'd [...] to resolve a sophisticall argument, and to confound the imposture and amphibologie of words, captiously enterlaced together [...].

Extensive Definition

Amphibology or amphiboly (from the Greek amphibolia) is an ambiguous grammatical structure in a sentence.
Some examples:
Teenagers shouldn't be allowed to drive. It's getting too dangerous on the streets.
This could be taken to mean the teenagers will be in danger, or that they will cause the danger.
Amphiboly can be used humorously. For example:
I once shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I'll never know.
A famous quotation by Groucho Marx from the comedic film Animal Crackers, it is unclear if the speaker shot the elephant while wearing pajamas or if the elephant was in the speaker's pajamas.
Amphiboly occurs frequently in poetry, owing to the alteration of the natural order of words for metrical reasons; for example, Shakespeare, in Henry VI: The duke yet lives that Henry shall depose. (1.4.30).
Marlowe in Edward II provides an equally famous example:
Edwardum occidere nolite timere bonum est.
Depending on how the reader punctuates this line, this can be interpreted as Edward's death sentence, or as an order to preserve Edward's life
Fear not to kill the king, 'tis good he die... kill not the king, 'tis good to fear the worst. (5.4.8-11)

Other examples of amphibology

  • Dog for sale. Will eat anything. Especially fond of children.
  • Used cars for sale: Why go elsewhere to be cheated? Come here first!
  • At our drugstore, we dispense with accuracy!
  • Eat our curry, you won't get better!
  • (Professor to student, on receiving a fifty-page term paper): "I shall waste no time reading it." (Often attributed to Disraeli)
  • No food is better than our food.
  • Child’s Stool Great for Use in Garden.
  • Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana.

Historical word usage

In reference to his Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to John Adams stating:
"We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphibologisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves."

Outside formal logic

Apart from its use as a technical term in logic, "equivocation" can also mean the use of language that is ambiguous, ie equally susceptible of being understood in two different ways. There is usually a strong connotation that the ambiguity is being used with intention to deceive.
This type of equivocation was famously mocked in the porter's speech in Shakespeare's Macbeth, in which the porter directly alludes to the practice of deceiving under oath by means of equivocation.
"Faith, here's an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God's sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven."
(Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 3)
See, for example Robert Southwell and Henry Garnet, author of A Treatise of Equivocation (published secretly c. 1595) — to whom, it is supposed, Shakespeare was specifically referring. Shakespeare made the reference to priests because the religious use of equivocation was well-known in those periods of early modern England (eg under James VI/I) when it was a capital offence for a Roman Catholic priest to enter England.
A Jesuit priest would equivocate in order to protect himself from the secular authorities without (in his eyes) committing the sin of lying. For example, he could use the ambiguity of the word "a" (meaning "any" OR "one") to say "I swear I am not a priest", because he could have a particular priest in mind who he was not. That is, in his mind, he was saying "I swear I am not one priest" (eg "I am not Father Brown who is safely in Brussels right now".) This was theorized by casuists as the doctrine of mental reservation.
According to Malloch (1966) , this doctrine of permissible "equivocation" did not originate with the Jesuits.
Malloch cites a short treatise, in cap. Humanae aures, that had been written by Martin Azpilcueta (also known as Doctor Navarrus), an Augustinian who was serving as a consultant to the Apostolic Penitentiary. It was published in Rome in 1584. The first Jesuit influence upon this doctrine was not until 1609, "when Suarez rejected Azpilcueta's basic proof and supplied another" (Malloch, p.145; speaking of Francisco Suárez).


amphibology in Catalan: Amfibologia
amphibology in Spanish: Anfibología
amphibology in French: Amphibologie
amphibology in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Amphibologia
amphibology in Italian: Anfibologia
amphibology in Hebrew: אמפיבולה
amphibology in Polish: Amfibolia
amphibology in Portuguese: Anfibologia
amphibology in Russian: Амфиболия
amphibology in Finnish: Amfibolia
amphibology in Ukrainian: Амфіболія
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