I didn't mean to kill him. I didn't mean to kill him. I didn't mean to kill him. I didn't mean to kill him. I didn't mean to kill him. Which one of these did I mean?

This is a fallacy that goes all the way back to Aristotle. He came from a culture interested in finding the answers to all of life's questions through logical argument. Naturally, he was on the look-out for ways that language could lead to fuzzy-thinking, and this is one of the ways. The accent fallacy, or misleading accent, uses ambiguous prosody to cover meaning.

Advertisement

Prosody is generally only studied by poets, who need to control the rhythm, stress, and intonation of their creations in order to be effective, but this particular pitfall has been explored by all kinds of genres. It's well known in comedies, especially comedies that deal with social awkwardness. Characters are always unclear on what other characters mean when they say things ‚ÄĒ "Did he say 'I like her,' or did he say 'I like her.'" The accent fallacy can also appear in courtroom dramas, because of the versatility of the "I didn't mean to kill him," sentence.

There are all kinds of words that can increase or introduce this fallacy into a sentence. For example, "After watching Into the Woods I never want to see another musical," means no more musicals for me, and "After watching Into the Woods I never want to see another musical," means "Into the Woods is the only the musical for me, because I love it so much." Temporal words introduce ambiguity. "He did his work on Wednesday" is very different from "He did his work on Wednesday." Mostly, accent fallacy is a kind of ambiguity we're all familiar with, because we've all run into situations in our lives when how someone said something is even more crucial than what they said.

Ever had a mix-up due to the accent fallacy in your life? Ever obsessively questioned a friend first about what someone said, and then, even more urgently, how they said it? Ever used that ambiguity on someone else? Spill!

Advertisement

[Via Fallacies and Pitfalls, Accent Fallacy]