(also known as: emphasis fallacy, fallacy of accent, fallacy of prosody, misleading accent)
Description: When the meaning of a word, sentence, or entire idea is changed by where the accent falls.
Example #1: In the movie, My Cousin Vinny, Ralph Maccio's character, Bill, was interrogated for suspected murder. When the police officer asks him, "when did you shoot the clerk?" Bill replies in shock, "I shot the clerk? I shot the clerk?" Later in the film, the police officer reads Bill's statement as a confession in court, "Then he said, 'I shot the clerk. I shot the clerk.'"
Explanation: In the movie, it appeared that the police officer did understand Bill's question as a confession. So it did not appear to be a fallacious tactic of the police officer, rather a failure of critical thought perhaps due to a strong confirmation bias (the officer was very confident that Bill was guilty, thus failed to detect the nuance in the question).
Example #2: In the hilarious Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon, there is a musical number where one character is explaining how to bury "bad thoughts" by just "turning them off" (like a light switch). The character doing the explaining (in glorious song) is specifically explaining to the main character how to suppress gay thoughts when the main character's "bad thoughts" have nothing to do with being gay. After the instructions, the main character tries to make this clear by affirming, "I'm not having gay thoughts," to which the other characters respond "Hurray! It worked!"
Explanation: The stress on the "I'm" was ignored and confused for "Hey, I'm not having gay thoughts anymore!" Although this was comedy it portrayed an argument.
Tip: Our biases can cause us to miss the vocal nuance. Listen actively and critically, and try not to jump to conclusions. And you cannot turn off gay thoughts like a light switch.
Damer, T. E. (2008). Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments. Cengage Learning.Questions about this fallacy? Ask our community!
Master the "Rules of Reason" for Making and Evaluating Claims
Take the Online Course
Claims are constantly being made, many of which are confusing, ambiguous, too general to be of value, exaggerated, unfalsifiable, and suggest a dichotomy when no such dichotomy exists. Good critical thinking requires a thorough understanding of the claim before attempting to determine its veracity. Good communication requires the ability to make clear, precise, explicit claims, or “strong” claims. The rules of reason in this book provide the framework for obtaining this understanding and ability.
This book / online course is about the the eleven rules of reason for making and evaluating claims. Each covered in detail in the book.