Understanding and Avoiding Logical Fallacies in Writing
You don’t have to be as obsessed with logic as Mr. Spock is, but you should know enough about flawed logic to be able to avoid it in writing. Writers make points in various ways, some of which are better than others. Here’s an explanation of the following fallacies to avoid: strawman, faulty cause and effect, hasty generalization, false analogy, either/or reasoning, and begging the question.
- Strawman, or ad hominem, means attacking an opposing view by attacking the holder of that view instead. This happens often in politics, when one candidate insults another rather than the opponent’s ideas. Stick to refuting arguments rather than opponents themselves to maintain credibility and fairness.
- Faulty cause and effect, or post hoc, ergo propter hoc, assumes that two sequential events also have a cause-effect relationship, write Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen in Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum (30). If I started drinking more water last week and notice I’ve lost weight, drinking water didn’t necessarily cause the loss because maybe I happened to exercise more or eat less that week. Good writers consider multiple causes when explaining complex phenomena.
- Hasty generalization is similar to faulty cause and effect because it makes a conclusion based on insufficient information (Behrens and Rosen 32). Just because one vegetable tastes bad to you doesn’t mean all vegetables taste bad. Use multiple sources to support a claim, and generalize with caution.
- False analogy is a form of hasty generalization applying to compare-contrast reasoning. Comparisons are usually insightful but not when differences between two concepts are more significant than their similarities. Arguing for quarantining people with AIDS because that helped prevent smallpox from spreading disregards a key difference between the two diseases: contagion (Behrens and Rosen 32). The analogy is illogical. Consider the implications of analogies you write.
- Either/or reasoning disregards issues’ complexity by boiling them down to two options or sides. Nearly every problem has more than two solutions, and nearly every issue has gray areas (Behrens and Rosen 31). Consider all alternatives, and don’t be afraid to offer a mixed solution to a problem.
- Begging the question, or circular reasoning, is the equivalent of parents’ response to children’s question “Why?”: “Because I said so!” You can repeat your claim in different words to vary your language but not to prove it.
It may be hard to recognize these six logical fallacies in your own writing, but knowing about them, thinking through your ideas, and letting someone else read your work should help. You can also recognize logical fallacies in others’ writing to assess its effectiveness and avoid being persuaded by a poor argument.
Work Cited: Behrens, Laurence, and Leonard J. Rosen. Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum: Brief Edition. 2nd ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007. Print.
Photo: JD Hancock, Flickr Creative Commons
About Darla Word
I'm a writing tutor and editor from Michigan. My favorite subject to write about is writing because making better writers is my calling. I also enjoy reading, singing, swimming, and cardmaking.