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Chapter 4

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Chapter 4: What Words or Phrases Are Ambiguous?
Identifying the precise meaning of key words or phrases is an essential step in deciding whether
to agree with someone’s opinion. If you fail to check for the meaning of crucial terms and
phrases, you may react to an opinion the author never intended
You cannot react to an argument unless you understand the meanings (explicit or implied) of
crucial terms and phrases -> how these are interpreted will often affect the acceptability of the
Before you can determine the extent to which you wish to accept one conclusion or another,
you must first attempt to discover the precise meaning of the conclusion and the reasons.
The Confusing Flexibility of Words
We often misunderstand what we read or hear because we presume that the meaning of words
is obvious
A term or phrase is ambiguous when its meaning is so uncertain in the context of the argument
we are examining that we need further clarification before we can judge the adequacy of the
Whenever you are reading or listening, force yourself to search for ambiguity; otherwise you
may simply miss the point
Because we rely on words to get our points across when we communicate, there is no way to
avoid ambiguity
o When someone is trying to persuade us to believe or do something, that person has a
responsibility to clarify an potential ambiguity before we consider the worth of the
Locating Key Terms and Phrases
The first step in determining which terms of phrases are ambiguous is to use the stated issue as
a clue for possible key terms
o Key terms or phrases will be those terms that may have more than one plausible
meaning within the context of the issue; that is, terms you know must be clarified
before you can decide to agree or disagree with the communicator
Ambiguity refers to the existence of multiple possible meanings for a word or phrases
The next step in determining which terms or phrases are ambiguous is to identify what words or
phrases seem crucial in determining how well the author’s reasons support her conclusion; that
is, to identify the key terms in the reasoning structure. Once you locate these terms, you can
determine whether their meaning is ambiguous
When searching for key terms and phrases, you should keep in mind why you are looking
Keep in mind: the more abstract a word or phrase, the more likely it is to be susceptible to
multiple interpretations
Abstract: a term becomes more abstract as it refers less to particular, specific instances (e.g.
aggression, equality)
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