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Equivocation refers to confusion of possible meanings - for example abusing the fact that words can be polysemous, homographs, metaphors, or such.

Can be intentional or accidental.

Also regularly mentioned in the context of rhetoric, where it refers to using a word in two of its meanings to make an argument seem more logical than it is.


Amphibology (also amphiboly) is similar to equivocation, but often considered the grammatical variation of it: Offering sentences (or fragments) easily interpreted in more than way because of syntax, punctuation or such. For example: "I once shot an elephant in my pajamas",

There are very similarly confusing (and amusing) sentences that problematic in the details than in their grammar. For example, "Dog for sale. Will eat anything. Especially fond of children." is more about assumptions and priming than about referents or grammar; "Enraged cow injures farmer with axe" works out more or less how you thought, except you're led to think for a second that the cow might've been wielding it somehow.

Garden path sentence

A garden path sentence (named for the expression 'to be led up the garden path', to be misled) is one for which the most obvious partial parse while reading will lead to an interpretation that becomes obviously wrong (syntactically, semantically/pragmatically, and not always).

Often caused by a structure that, in reading, interacts badly with our mostly one-directional interpretation.

Happens more in written text, because spoken text tends to have more prosody (stress, tone, pauses) to suggest one interpretation as the intended one.

For example:

  • "The old man the boat"
    • initially partially understood as "The man, who is old...", running into trouble with 'the', because you were probably expecting a verb.
    • ending up with "The boat is manned by the old people".
  • "The horse raced past the barn fell"
    • initially: "There was a horse racing past a barn..." (racing as a main verb)
    • finally: "There was a horse, that was being raced past a barn, and that horse fell over"
    • helped by the lexical category ambiguity in 'raced' - can be a past-tense verb, or a passive participle
  • "Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana"
    • also demonstrating that interpretation is subject to semantic/pragmatical knowledge

Note that using too few commas can lead to this (e.g. "You are right there are many...", ), though it's so common and expectable that you don't really have to backtrack very much.