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The Appeal to Definition Fallacy: When People Misuse the Dictionary

An example of the appeal to definition

"We should ignore the theory of evolution because the dictionary says that a theory is just an opinion that you have about something you can't prove."

The person using this fallacy is basing their statement on a specific definition of the word "theory" while ignoring alternative definitions that will better capture the meaning of the term as it's used in a scientific context.

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The Appeal to Definition Fallacy: When People Misuse the Dictionary

The Appeal to Definition Fallacy: When People Misuse the Dictionary

https://effectiviology.com/appeal-to-definition/

effectiviology.com

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Key Ideas

The argument from dictionary

The argument from a dictionary is a logical fallacy and happens when someone's argument is based, in a problematic way, on the definition of a particular term as it appears in a dictionary. The problem with these arguments:

  • Dictionaries are descriptive, meaning that they attempt to describe how people use the language. It is not prescriptive in that it instructs them how to do so in a definitive manner.
  • Dictionaries don't always reflect the meaning of words as they're used by people.
  • Different dictionaries can list different definitions for a given term, and may even have several definitions for the same word.

Appeal to definition: when the process becomes fallacious

Not every use of a definition is necessarily fallacious. If the definition is properly justified and is selected in a properly justified way, it is generally not fallacious. However, it is fallacious when at least one of the following conditions are true:

  • There is no valid reason for using the definition.
  • The definition was cherry-picked out of a range of possible definitions.

Responding to an appeal to definition

When responding to appeals to definition, it is useful to know the terms denotation, which is the literal meaning of a word, and connotation, which is a feeling the word evokes beyond its denotation.

  • Explain why the use of the definition is inappropriate in this case.
  • Explain why the proposed definition is flawed. Other dictionaries may offer different meanings than the one your opponent has chosen.
  • You can sometimes benefit from using specific and relevant examples to show why such arguments are problematic.
  • You can ask the person using the fallacy to correctly justify their reasoning in light of your criticism.

Modern dictionaries

The structure and use of dictionaries have changed as new technologies developed.

  • Easily available online dictionaries make it easier for people to use and cherry-pick preferred definitions in their arguments.
  • Dictionaries can be quickly updated with new words or new meanings of existing words.
  • Dictionaries are able to list a wider range of meanings and connotations.

Types of definitions

  • Reportive definitions aim to accurately capture the meaning of a term as it's ordinarily used.
  • Precising definitions add relevant criteria to a reportive definition to make it more precise for a specific purpose.
  • Stipulative definitions are used to establish a specific purpose. For example, "for the purpose of the present document, the term 'contract' means..."
  • A persuasive definition is a stipulative definition that is dressed up as a reportive definition or as a claim in an argument. The terms are redefined to present one's preferred definitions as facts.
  • Ostensive definitions are based on examples of the word that is being described. For example, "liquid" could be "things like water and oil."
  • Misleading definitions relies on misleading language so that its intended meaning is different than the meaning that most people will use.
  • Operational definitions are used to define certain measures where an exact, reproducible definition is needed, such as in scientific studies.

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