LITERARY TERMS & THEMATIC ELEMENTS
EILAND'S ONLINE ENGLISH CLASSES
This site is a brief (certainly not exhaustive) discussion of common errors in
argumentation and criticism. Please keep in mind that this refers primarily to the
analysis of Literature, Literary Criticism and related arguments. For a Logic and
Semantics discussion, this will likely fall short. But for a Composition/Critical Thinking
class, this should give you a good idea what the basic elements are in terms of fallacies in
arguments presented in a course like this.
A fallacy, or weak argument, is a response to an idea, whether a literary work or a
philosophical idea, that is flawed in some way that makes the conclusion weak or illogical.
Commonly, fallacious arguments are used successfully in political campaigns to alter voter
perception of an issue or candidate. In literary discussions, they are used to present
responses to a literary work that often distort the author's intentions. In a course like
this, your job is to find these arguments and explain why they are fallacious. The various
types of fallacious arguments are listed below in groups. The use of this information is
We will examine the most common fallacies first, and then we will discuss how discovering
fallacies in literature itself has different rules and precepts.
- to find fallacies in criticisms of the literary works one reads, and
- to find fallacious arguments in the primary works themselves (a much more daunting task).
CONDENSED LIST OF BAD (FALLACIOUS) ARGUMENTS
- AD HOMINEM
Literally "to the man," a rebuttal argument that focuses on character of
opponent, rather than the argument of opponent...usually used when opponent has strong
argument: (Jones is a thief, and because Jones said it, it must be wrong).
- AD POPULEM
Literally "to the people," an argument that declares an opinion is correct
merely because a great number of people believe it: (UFO's). Used when actual statistics
and/or evidence is lacking or unknown.
- AD VERICUNDIUM
Loosely "to wisdom," it is the belief that something said by a great person is
true, even if time has changed or proven them wrong. Added to this is tendency for people in
one field to make commentary about areas outside their expertise...the most common being actors
commenting on political situations...essentially using their celebrity to gain free publicity for
their particular cause.
- STRAW MAN
A method of argument in which an opponent creates a weakened, incomplete, and often distorted
version of an argument, then destroys it.
- FAULTY COMPARISON
- INCOMPLETE COMPARISON: Involves selecting the items of an argument that are
easily refuted, ignoring the more compelling aspects of that argument. This is slightly
different from STRAW MAN in that there is no distortion of the facts, just omission of
some of them.
- FALSE ANALOGY: Commonly called "comparing apples and oranges," this is a
comparison that is designed to show weaknesses in an opponent's thinking, but is skewed by
comparing it to something that has little relation logically.
- HASTY (FAULTY): drawing conclusions about groups that apply to every individual
with no consideration for variability (All computer technicians are nerds). This is the
category that includes stereotyping. These arguments are easily refuted with one exception to
the generalization made. Usually the qualified statements are more supportable, using words
like "most," "seldom," "usually" and the like.
- MISAPPLIED: this occurs when a generalization, qualified or not, is
applied to a group or situation that clearly does not apply.
- RHETORICAL FALLACIES
These are arguments used in place of sound reasoning, usually in an argument and not
necessarily limited to the response to an argument.
- SEMANTIC AMBIGUITY: using a term that may be taken more than one way...and not
clarifying which meaning is intended (Winston: it's only natural-what is natural, tobacco
or the need to smoke it?).
- ABUSE OF VAGUENESS: Lack of precision or clarity in language (typical liberal,
toothpaste helps fight tartar).
- SLANTING: using language that is designed to get an emotional response; using
pejorative (tree hugger, eco-warrior, both refer to environmentalist).
- WORD GAMES: deliberate misuse of language to create confusion and obscure
- MISUSE OF JARGON: use technical terms unnecessarily, often creating odd or unconventional
- ABUSE OF EUPHEMISM: polite ways of saying unpleasant things (downsizing=fired,
passed away=died, withhold information=lying).
- ASSUMPTION LOADED LABELS: use of pejoratives...see SLANTING
- FALSE DILEMMA: stating or implying there are only a few or two extreme choices,
when there are many of varying degrees. (Do you want Commies in your bed, or will you give
up your rights?)
- BEGGING THE QUESTION
- QUESTION-BEGGING DEFINITIONS: (I trust him because he is trustworthy.)
- COMPLEX OR "LOADED" QUESTIONS: (Have you stopped beating your wife?)
- RHETORICAL QUESTIONS: Rhetorical questions are usually used to get the listener to
ponder a concept, as opposed to actually answering the question. As they are not designed to
be answered, rhetorical questions can be used as an effective way to cast doubt about an
opponent's argument without giving the opponent an opportunity to respond.
- RHETORICAL INCONSISTENCY
- DISTINCTION WITHOUT DIFFERENCE
- POST HOC: Making the claim that since one thing preceded another, that the first
was the cause of the second. (Marijuana leads to harder drugs because most people who are
heroin addicts tried marijuana. By the same token we could assert that carrots causes car
accidents since most people who are in car accidents have eaten carrots in the recent past.) A better
argument might mention the likelihood a marijuana user will come in contact with harder drugs as these
illegal substances are obtained from the same sources.
- NON SEQUITUR: Literally "It does not follow," this is an argument whose
cause and effect relationship is not logical.
- AVOIDING THE QUESTION: Usually used in verbal argument/debate, this is avoidance of
admitting a weakness by not answering the question, either by asking a question as a
response or by bringing up another subject.
- ARGUMENT TO IGNORANCE: It hasn't been proven wrong so it must be true (UFO's).
FALLACIES IN LITERARY WORKS
When attempting to find weaknesses in a literature work, you are limited to what you
can call weak, for the foibles and weaknesses and prejudices of a character are part of a
story. The only valid fallacies are, then, the author's and you must show that, say, an author
is sexist, rather than merely effectively showing sexist tendencies in a well-drawn character.
Likely fallacies are:
In order to show the last fallacy you need to demonstrate the author's beliefs are quite
clearly presented in the story in order to distinguish these beliefs from those of a character,
such as the difference between Margaret Atwood's feminism and some of her clearly non-feminist
- creating stereotypical, poorly-drawn characters that reflect author's bigoted
- failing to effectively complete a pronounced theme by forcing an unlikely plot
development, character change or ending, and/or
- making broad social observations through the work that are founded on any number
© T. T. Eiland, January 1998
Last modified: March 30, 2000