Motivational Nano Library

Accent -How To Win Every Argument

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 or the windows. It’s all right for us to use these lumps of me

(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 fallacy of accident supposes that the freak features of an exceptional case are enough to justify rejection of a general rule. The features in question may be ‘accidental’, having no bearing on the matter under contention, and may easily be identified as an unusual and allowable exception.

We should reject the idea that it is just to repay what is owed. Supposing a man lends you weapons, and then goes insane? Surely it cannot be just to put weapons into the hands of a madman?

(This fallacy, used by Plato, lies in not recognizing that the insanity is an ‘accident’, in that it is a freak circumstance unrelated to the central topic, and readily admitted to be a special case.)

Almost every generalization could be objected to on the grounds that one could think of ‘accidental’ cases it did not cover. Most of the general statements about the consequences which follow upon certain actions could be overturned on the grounds that they did not cover the case of a meteorite striking the perpetrator before the consequences had occurred. To maintain this would be to commit the fallacy of accident.

It is a fallacy to treat a general statement as if it were an unqualified universal, admitting no exceptions. To do so is to invest it with a significance and a rigour which it was never intended to bear. Most of our generalizations carry an implicit qualification that they apply, all other things being equal. If other things are not equal, such as the presence of insanity or a meteorite, the exceptions can be allowed without overturning the general claim.

‘ You say you have never met this spy. Can you be sure he was never near you in a football crowd, for example’

‘Well, no.’ 

‘When was this occasion, and what papers passed between you?1 

(If I did meet him, it was an accident.)

Accident is a fallacy encountered by those in pursuit of universal. If you are trying to establish watertight definitions of things like ‘truth’, justice’ and ‘meaning’, you must not be surprised if others spend as much energy trying to leak the odd accident through your seals.

Plato was searching for justice. John Stuart Mill, trying to justify liberty except where there is harm, or serious risk of harm, to others, found himself forever meeting objections which began, ‘But what about the case where …? ‘ It is an occupational hazard. If you are to avoid accidents, avoid universal.

Promises should not always be kept. Suppose you were stranded on a desert island with an Austrian count who was running an internationa spy-ring. And suppose there was only enough food for one, and you promised him…

(The only amazing feature of these lurid stories is that anyone should suppose such freak cases to make the general rule any less acceptable.)

One of the famous examples of the fallacy is a schoolboy joke:

What you bought yesterday you eat today. You bought raw meat yesterday, so you eat raw meat today.

(With the generalization referring to the substance, regardless of its ‘accidental’ condition.)

The fallacy of accident is a good one for anarchists because it appears to overturn general rules. When it is claimed that you are breaking the rules, dig up the freakiest case your imagination will allow. If the rule does not apply in this case, why should it apply in yours? (‘We all agree that it would be right to burn down a tax office if this were the only way to release widows and orphans trapped in the cellar. So what I did was not inherently wrong…’)

Accent -How To Win Every Argument

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