Rhetorical Ploys

Some argumentative techniques that have been traditionally called fallacious, are not really fallacies, at least as I have defined the term. In my view, a fallacy is a type of failed argument: it has a conclusion (stated or implied) and it has premisses (stated or implied) from which that conclusion follows. It is fallacious because the premisses from which the conclusion follows are themselves false, or at least in need of independent support.

However, while debates and persuasive conversations must involve the use of arguments, they may involve non-argumentative or extra-logical elements as well. Here are some of the classically-named rhetorical ploys that sometimes appear on lists of fallacies.


1. Definitional Retreat (Moving the Goal Posts)

The speaker avoids being refuted by stating a new position different from the one that had been the focus of the discussion. Sometimes he may even claim that the new position is the one that he held "all along." In any case, the new position is not refuted by the argument just given, so the speaker avoids the appearance of having been proven wrong. Such a move is not an argument (and therefore not a fallacy), but an attempt to re-frame the topic being argued about.

2. Loaded language

The speaker discusses the subject using emotional, colorful or inflamatory language. This may indicate that the speaker feels strongly, or it may provoke an emotional response from the opponent or the audience. However, while loaded language may be used in the service of specific fallacies, e.g. the Ad Hominem - Abuse, or the various emotional appeals, it is not itself an argument, and so not itself a "fallacy."

3. Poisoning the Well

The first person to speak tries to undermine the second speaker by impugning his integrity, e.g. by calling him a liar or saying that he is manipulative, or even by warning that he is "very persuasive." This may involve the use of abusive language--as in an Ad Hominem - Abusive--but it is not so much aimed at persuading the audience that the opponen't view is false (which would be an argument) as it is aimed at getting the audience to refuse to listen to the opponent's argument in the first place.

4. Pregnant Negative

The speaker introduces a discussion by referring to considerations that he will not mention, implying that such considerations are relevant, but saying that he will set them aside anyway. "I won't mention that my opponent is a pathological liar, since it is more important to focus on the errors in his logic." (Or, from Donald Trump, "While Bette Midler is an extremely unattractive woman, I refuse to say that, because I always insist on being politically correct.") Of course, this gives the opponent no opportunity to respond to the charge, since the charge was not technically brought up. The ploy is not a fallacy per se, since the presumed argument is...not really brought up.

5. Red Herring

The speaker introduces a new subject into the discussion that has a superficial similarity to the topic under discussion. The new subject is so emotionally charged that people cannot resist arguing about it, even though it is off the original subject. Raising the new topic does not really serve the goal of bringing the original subject to a conclusion (i.e. of getting the audience to accept the speaker's position). Rather, it distracts attention away from the original subject, preventing either side from supporting its conclusion. [The etymology of the term "red herring" is uncertain. A commonly accepted story is that smoked herring (which is reddish in color) was used to train dogs (or possibly horses) for fox hunting. The stinky fish was dragged across the path taken by the fox. Well-trained hounds would, of course, resist being diverted from the hunt by the smell of the fish and continue to follow the fox.]


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