Everything Logicians Need to Know about Linguistics, but are (Posited to be) Afraid to Ask—Keith Slater, Trey Jones,  and Two Anonymous Linguists from Omaha Collateral Descendant of Lingua Pranca Contents When Bad Informants Happen to Good Linguists—Michael M. T. Henderson

Logical Fallacies for Winning Arguments and Influencing Decisions

by F. “Al” Lacie, Ph.D.
Grand Old Party Linguist

Keeping to the approximately quindecennial pattern established by G.R.A.M.M.A.R., 1979 and Seely, 1993, I am pleased to provide a list of common logical fallacies and cognitive biases used in argumentation in the field of Linguistics (and elsewhere). However, it is not my intention to present these logical fallacies (with examples!) so that you, the dear reader, may learn to avoid them, but rather so that you may learn to use themif they didn’t work at least some of the time, no one would still be making these “errors”. You may also be able to recognize these errors in your opponents’ arguments, which will prevent them from beating you in a debate without really having a cogent argument either.

Actor-observer bias: “Anna, you are not fit to be an academic! I saw you copy the bibliography for your last paper from a journal article.” “Pat, what are you talking about? I learned that trick from watching you do it on your last paper!” “Yeah, but I was desperate!”

Appeal to motive: “Everyone knows that the only reason you got tenure, Swunhi, is that your thesis advisor was on the review committee.”

Appeal to ridicule: “It’s funny you think you know so much about language, Hanako, even though you’re not a linguist.”

Argumentum ad antiquitatem: “Listen, Zhangsan, if X-bar theory was good enough for my dad before me, and my granddad before him, then it’s good enough for me!”

Argumentum ad baculum: “Chelswu, if you were to prove that the underlying principles of generative linguistics were nothing more than a house of cards, linguists everywhere would call for you to be lynched, so clearly that claim is untrue!”

Argumentum ad crumenam: “Look, Faatu, if your theory of the polygenesis of language as an inevitable epiphenomenon of the phagotrophic endosymbiosis of mitochondria into pre-eukaryotic cells had any merit, wouldn’t you have tenure and be rich by now?”

Argumentum ad hominem tu quoque: “Bill, you claim that descriptive adequacy is theoretically insufficient, yet your recent article on Old Irish adjectives is purely descriptive.”

Argumentum ad hominem: “Look, John, you still thought Structuralism was a good idea in 1998, so your claim that Optimality Theory is nonsense is obviously wrong, too.”

Argumentum ad ignorantiam: “I can’t imagine that we’ll ever be able to reconstruct Proto-World, therefore it’s impossible.”

Argumentum ad lazarum: “Gianni has given up a chance for tenure at two different universities because he disagreed with the chairman over whether the department should teach Wrathful Dispersion in Ling 101.” “Yeah, he must be right if he’s willing to fight that hard.” “Yeah.. which side is he on again?”

Argumentum ad misericordiam: “Please, Professor Jones, if I don’t pass Historical Linguistics III with at least a C+ I’ll be kicked out of the Linguistics program!” “Hey, what do you know, Juan. I think your argument that the Proto-Indo-Europeans were all a bunch of drunk bastards makes a lot more sense now. B-.”

Argumentum ad nauseam: “Okay, Ivan, I will agree with you that your etymologies prove a clear path of descent back through Nostratic to Borean to Proto-Sapiens if you will just stop talking about it!

Argumentum ad novitatem: “Why are you still doing transformation grammar, Yenghi? Optimally Minimal Nano Syntacticons are the newest, bestest thing now.”

Argumentum ad odium: “If you publish your paper on sound symbolism, Zulfia, then those rotten phonosemanticists will only get more glory!”

Argumentum ad personam: “Mary, your analysis of Mohawk verbs is clearly wrong. After all, you’re ugly and your mother dresses you funny.”

Argumentum ad populum: “Nine out of ten linguistics undergrads think Peter is the best T.A., so it must be true. It’s not just that he gives out cookies and easy A’s.”

Argumentum ad temperantiam: “Lee says semantics is three times as hard as syntax. Leila says syntax is three hundred times harder than semantics. The geometric mean of 300 and 1/3 is 10, so syntax is ten times harder than semantics.” (Sotto voce: “Kill the mathematician!”)

Argumentum ad verecundiam: “Chomsky said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

Argumentum ex silentio: “Can anyone refute my claim that Henry Sweet travelled back in time and killed Rasmus Rask? What? You have nothing to say? I am proven correct by your silence!”

Argumentum in terrorem: “Either you agree with me, Dulmaa, that Ubykh is polysynthetic, or we have to throw out five years of analysis and start over!”

Association fallacy: “Chomsky is a linguist and a political anarchist wacko. So, all linguists must be political anarchist wackos.”

Better-than-average effect: 95% of linguistics undergrads think they are better than the median linguistics student at writing papers.

Bulverism: “Lisi wants Sandy’s analysis of Cherokee tone sandhi to be right just because it would embarrass Dorj, so surely Sandy is wrong.”

Chronological snobbery: “Grimm’s Law dates back to when people thought Sanskrit was unrelated to Latin and Greek, so it can’t be a full account of the facts.”

Diallelus: “Why?” ... “Why?” ... “Why?” ... “Why?” ... “Why?” ... “Why?” ... “Why?” ... “Why?” ... “Why?” ... “Why?” ... “Why?” ... “Why?” ... “Why?” ... “Why?” ... “Why?” ... “Why?” ... “Why?”

Egocentric bias: Professorial “co-authorship” on student papers.

Etymological fallacy: “Whatever, Ran. I could care less.” “You mean you couldn’t care less, Tarō.” “Right, that’s what I said.” “You said you could care less, which means the opposite.” “No, I said I couldcareless, all one word, idiomatic, compositionally opaque, means what I meant.” “Whatever.” “Exactly.”

Fallacy of the single cause: Universal grammar and the Language Acquisition Device.

False consensus effect: “Oh, yeah, everyone here at MIT thinks Chomsky is great! His theories have given us so much to work on! Linguists everywhere love Chomsky.”

Fundamental attribution error: “Wow, Abdu, I can’t believe you really believe in that frame semantics stuff!” “But Professor Smith, you gave me an assignment to come up with a pro–frame-semantics position!”

Ignoratio elenchi: “Janis, your explanation of the pragmatics of palindromic passivization does not take into account pan-vocalic red herrings, and thus cannot be correct.”

Ipse-dixitism: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to meanneither more nor less.”

Just-world phenomenon: “I heard Hannah’s laptop was stolen and she lost her entire thesis. Serves her right for doing sociolinguistics in the first place.”

Outgroup homogeneity bias: “Bunafsah, all you lexicalists are the same!”

Petitio principii: In English: to bring forth a proposition expressed in words of Saxon origin, and give as a reason for it the very same proposition stated in words of Norman origin. (Gibson 1908)

Pluralistic ignorance: “Oh, of course I think Chomsky is great. Sure.” I want tenure, don’t I?

Plurium interrogationum: “Hey Maria, are you still a Chomskyan Generativist?”

Poisoning the well: “Welcome to this week’s Linguistics Symposium. Our speaker today is Carol, whoeven though she is a dirty lexicalist doghas some fascinating ideas to share about the history of philology in Germany. A big round of applause for Carol, please!”

Reductio ad Hitlerum: “You know János, the Nazis thought transformational grammar was a good idea, too.”

Use of “Argumentum ad feminam”: “Pedro, you paternalistic jerk, your attack on Alice was a classic male argumentum ad feminam!” “Wait, Ana.. you know that Latin homo is gender neutral, right? You’ve just committed argumentum ad virum!”

Valence effect: “Hey, Atilla, was your paper accepted to the LSA conference?” “Not yet, Bob, but I think I have a really good chance, even though they didn’t accept my last 24 submissions.”

Wisdom of repugnance: “Listen to your gut, Mari: you know in your heart of hearts that infixation is morally wrong.”


G.R.A.M.M.A.R. 1979. “A Taxonomy of Argument Schemata in Metatheoretical Discussion of Syntax, or, Name That Tune”, Son of Lingua Pranca.

Seely, Dawn B. 1993. “Twenty Special Forms of Rhetoric”, Speculative Grammarian, CXLVII.3.

Gibson, William Ralph Boyce, and Augusta Klein. 1908. The Problem of Logic.

Everything Logicians Need to Know about Linguistics, but are (Posited to be) Afraid to Ask—Keith Slater, Trey Jones, and Two Anonymous Linguists from Omaha
When Bad Informants Happen to Good Linguists—Michael M. T. Henderson
Collateral Descendant of Lingua Pranca Contents