What words or phrases are ambiguous in the death penalty

Chapter 5: Critical Thinking

Which Words or Phrases Are Ambiguous?

  1. Course Objectives:

The course will enable students to:

  1. Analyze the structure of an argument.
  2. Understand the way language is used to influence thinking, feelings and behavior.
  3. Identify ambiguities, assumptions, values, and fallacies in reasoning.


When something is ambiguous, it means that there could be more than one meaning. Ambiguous means that something could be uncertain or indefinite.

At this point, you should be able to identify the issue, the conclusion, and the reasons, which are the structural elements of an argument. Once you have determined that an argument is structurally complete, you can begin to evaluate the quality of its content. In order to begin to evaluate the quality of an argument you must make certain that you do understand the content. You must be sure that you understand the meaning of the elements of the reasoning structure.

Content, context, or meaning of the key terms and phrases associated with the issue, conclusion, and reasons of an argument is crucial in understanding the argument itself. The acceptability or value of the communicator’s reasoning is completely dependant upon the interpretation of key words and phrases.

Did you ever miss the point that someone was communicating to you? Did you ever have to ask for clarification? If this has happened to you, and you know it has, the problem was probably because of ambiguity.

Read the following passage once, without stopping, and let us see what happens.

The boy’s arrows were nearly gone so they sat down on the grass and stopped hunting. Over at the edge of the woods they saw Henry making a small bow to a girl who was coming down the road. She had tears in her dress and tears in her eyes. She gave Henry a note, which he brought over to the group of young hunters. Read to the boys, it caused great excitement. After a minute, but rapid examination of their weapons, they ran down to the valley. Does were standing at the edge of the lake, making an excellent target. (Source unknown.)

Confusing Flexibility of Words

No pun intended but the above passage should give you pause to think and that is the point. We have a tendency to both speed-read and to assume that the meanings of the words that we encounter are obvious.

In some instances, words are spelled the same way but have different pronunciations and different meanings. (Tears in eyes, tears in dress). In some instances, words are spelled the same, pronounced the same but have a different meaning dependant upon context. (Jam the door, jam on bread).

Abstractness can also lead to ambiguity. Consider the word obscenity. American society spent a good portion of the second half of the twentieth century attempting to define this word. With the changing of societal values came a challenge to what was deemed to be obscene. United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall noted that one man’s art is another man’s pornography. When asked if he could define obscene material Justice Marshall was alleged to reply, “I know it when I see it.”

Loaded language, and its intentional use, is another contributing factor, which leads to ambiguity. Loaded language is a favorite tool of politicians and advertisers. No politician will tell you that they are going to raise your taxes, but if they want to increase “revenue enhancements” then that is what their going to do. A car dealer will tell you that there is no money down and sixty “easy” monthly payments of $350.00. When was the last time you “easily” spent $350.00 on a regular basis?

You should now be aware that not all words have a single meaning. If that were the case, communication would be highly effective and there would be no misunderstandings. Take your time when you listen or when you read and make sure that you do understand the content and context.


*Check the Issue for Key Terms

Once you have identified the issue you should check it for key terms or phrases. Ask yourself if you truly understand the meaning. Could another meaning be substituted which would change the nature of the argument?

*Check the Reasons and the Conclusion for Key Terms

Do you understand the meanings of the key terms and phrases in the reasoning structure? Could another meaning be substituted?

*Check for Abstract Words and Phrases

The more abstract a word, the more meanings you can discover. Be wary of encompassing words, words that can have multiple meanings.

*Use Reverse Role Play

Play devil’s advocate. If you were opposed to the author, how might you define key terms and phrases?

Ambiguity and the Sources of Meaning

Meanings of words usually come in one of three forms: synonyms, examples, and definition by specific criteria. Searching for these sources of meaning while looking for ambiguities can make the process easier. You want to find the most likely meaning of a word when you identify a key term or phrase and knowing the sources of meaning will benefit you.

This is the question

What words or phrases are ambiguous in the death penalty article?

Can you refute them with quality evidence?

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