Fallacious Argument of the Month: misusing the ellipsis

fallacyTo contribute to the improvement of public discourse and debate, I feature a different fallacious argument each month.  I kicked off the series in July by spotlighting the straw man, a perennial favorite of lazy minds, and in August discussed the false analogy, including its most popular and persistent form, the Hitler/Nazi comparison.

It is my great pleasure to introduce you to September’s Fallacious Argument of the Month, the misused ellipsis, also known as the fallacy of exclusion and suppressed evidence.

What is an ellipsis? An ellipsis is an omission of words, usually indicated by a series of periods. We use ellipses all the time as a matter of convenience or emphasis — to  shorten text or oral statements when space or time is limited, drawing a reader or listener’s attention to what is relevant to the discussion at hand. When used properly, an ellipsis brings focus  or brevity without sacrificing meaning. But, like a kitchen knife, it can be twisted in service to a darker purpose.

In his satirical classic, Devil’s Dictionary, a work that maliciously mocks hypocrisy and the misuse of language, American author and journalist Ambrose Bierce defined “quotation” as  “[t]he act of repeating erroneously the words of another.” Bierce perhaps had the misused ellipsis in mind; in the hands of a rogue, the ellipsis can turn a speaker’s original meaning on its head. Simply take a quotation, neatly trim away the words that don’t support your argument while leaving in place those that do, and you have embarrassed your opponent and misled your audience. Sadly, the ellipsis, misused, can leave lasting effects; studies from psychology tell us that false statements are notoriously persistent and difficult to counter. Fortunately the misused ellipsis is easy to reveal; one need only consult the original material to reveal the truth.

Years ago when I practiced law, after filing a motion for summary judgment, I received my opponent’s response. To support his opposition to my motion, he quoted from a decision that I was not familiar with. Noticing the ” . . . ”  in the middle of the text he quoted, I immediately looked up the case and saw that he had conveniently omitted the critical word “not”.  In that moment, I found myself feeling sorry for his client.

I offer thanks for the inspiration for this month’s Fallacious Argument to that champion of straight talk and clear thinking, David Giacalone, who reminds me of an important piece of advice to leave you with, attributable to the man some call the Great Communicator:

Trust, but verify.

Remember that the next time you find yourself face to face with an ellipsis.

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