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What is Accent?

The fallacy of accent depends for its effectiveness on the fact that the meaning of statements can change, depending on the stress put on the words. The accenting of certain words or phrases can give a meaning quite different from that intended, and can add implications which are not part of the literal meaning:

 

Light your cigarette.

(Without accent it looks like a simple instruction or invitation.)

Light your cigarette.

(Rather than the tablecloth, or whatever else you feel in the mood to burn.)

 

Light your cigarette.

(Instead of everyone else’s.)

 

Light your cigarette.

(Instead of sticking it in your ear.)

 

Even with so simple a phrase, a changed accent can give a markedly changed meaning.

 

We read that men are born equal, but that is no reason for giving them all an equal vote.

(Actually, we probably read that men are born equal. Born equal carries an implication that they do not remain equal for long.)

 

Accent is obviously a verbal fallacy, for the most part. Emphasis in print is usually given by italics, and those who supply them to a quotation from someone else are supposed to say so. In speech, however, unauthorized accents intrude more readily, bringing unauthorized implications in their wake. The fallacy lies with the additional implications introduced by emphasis. They form no part of the statement accepted, and have been brought in surreptitiously without supporting argument.

The fallacy of accent is often used to make a prohibition more permissive. By stressing the thing to be excluded, it implies that other things are admissible.

 

Mother said we shouldn’t throw stones at the windows.
It’s all right for us to use these lumps of metal.

(And mother, who resolved never to lay a hand on them, might well respond with a kick.)

 

In many traditional stories the intrepid hero wins through to glory by using the fallacy of accent to find a loophole in some ancient curse or injunction. Perseus knew that anyone who looked at the Medusa would be turned to stone. Even villains use it: Samson was blinded by the king of the Philistines who had promised not to touch him.

Your most widespread use of the fallacy of accent can be to discredit opponents by quoting them with an emphasis they never intended. (‘He said he would never lie to the American people. You will notice all of the things that left him free to do.’) Richelieu needed six lines by the most honest man in order to find something on which to hang him; with skilful use of the fallacy of accent you can usually get this down to half a line.

It is particularly useful when you are advocating a course of action which normally meets with general disapproval. Accent can enable you to plead that your proposed action is more admissible. (‘I know we are pledged not to engage in germ warfare against people in far-away lands, but the Irish are not far away.’)

When trying to draw up rules and regulations, bear it in mind that there are skilled practitioners of the fallacy of accent quite prepared to drive a coach and six through your intentions. You will then end up with something as tightly worded as the old mail monopoly, which actually spelled out that people shouting across the street could be construed as a breach of the mail monopoly. (They did only say the street, though.)

The above article is from the book How To Win Every Argument by Madsen Pirie. The article is only for educational and informative purposes to explain and understand formal logic and logical fallacies. It is a great book, definitely worth a read!