Fallacy of Accent (Fearsome Fallacies 4)

The fallacy of accent is one of the fallacies of ambiguity, dealing not with the structure of an argument by the wording of arguments. The fallacy of accent occurs when the premise of an argument has words accented one way but the conclusion has them accent a different way (as to change the meaning).

For example the statement ‘Caesar praised the loyal framers,’ has multiple different meanings depending accent, i.e. ‘Caesar praised the loyal framers,’ ‘Caesar praised the loyal framers,’ ‘Caesar praised the loyal framers,’ and ‘Caesar praised the loyal framers,’ all have different meanings. Thus if this statement accented as ‘Caesar praised the loyal framers’ was used to draw the conclusion that Caesar did not praise anyone that was not a framer, the fallacy of accent would occur (it would not occur if the conclusion that Caesar did not praise the disloyal framer was formed from the statement accented as such).

As Copi and Cohen explain (1990):

The fallacy of accent may be constructed broadly to include the distortion produced by pulling a quoted passage out of context, putting it in another context, and there drawing a conclusion that could never have been drawn in the original context.

This broad construction also includes laying a different emphasis on a word or words in a quote and deliberately removing an author’s stipulation in a quote.

Image a series of debates between Brown and Green and consider the following examples of the fallacy of accent.

(Ex.1) Brown: I do not believe in free speech. Neither did the writers of the Constitution, I quote: “Congress shall make… law … abridging the freedom of speech.”

It is clear in this example Brown has made a fallacious argument by deliberately removing essential words in order to support a conclusion that the quotation does not support.

(Ex.2) Green: In conclusion I quote linguist John McWhorter: “… Each language… is a unique window on the world.”

This is a fallacy of accent on two counts. First, that quote is taken out of context and has deliberately removed stipulations. Second, emphasis is placed on a word that is not emphasised in the original, which changes the meaning.

(Ex.3). Brown: We should not speak ill of our friends.

Green: I believe my side has just won. My opponent admits that we may speak ill other people’s friends.

In (Ex.3) Green commits the fallacy of accent by moving the stress of the sentence from the word ill to the word our. 

Sources:

I. M. Copi and C. Cohen. Introduction to Logic. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1990, pp. 145-48.

J. McWhorter. “Why Save A Language?” Internet: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/07/opinion/sunday/why-save-a-language.html, [Oct. 28, 2015].

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