, Volume 24, Issue 3, pp 283–317 | Cite as

Wrenching from Context: The Manipulation of Commitments

  • Douglas WaltonEmail author
  • Fabrizio Macagno


This article analyses the fallacy of wrenching from context, using the dialectical notions of commitment and implicature as tools. The data, a set of key examples, is used to sharpen the conceptual borderlines around the related fallacies of straw man, accent, misquotation, and neglect of qualifications. According to the analysis, the main characteristics of wrenching from context are the manipulation of the meaning of the other’s statement through devices such as the use of misquotations, selective quotations, and quoting out of context. The theoretical tools employed in the analysis are pragmatic theories of meaning and a dialectical model of commitment, used to explain how and why a standpoint is distorted. The analysis is based on a conception of fallacies as deceptive strategic moves in a game of dialogue. As a consequence, our focus is not only on misquotations as distortions of meaning, but on how they are used as dialectical tools to attack an opponent or win a dispute. Wrenching from context is described as a fallacy of unfairly attributing a commitment to another party that he never held. Its power as a deceptive argumentation tactic is based on complex mechanisms of implicit commitments and on their misemployment to improperly suggest an attribution of commitment.


Commitment Ambiguity Emphasis Misquotation Implicature Selective quotation Selection bias Special pleading Fallacy 



Douglas Walton would like to thank the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for a research grant, ‘Argumentation in Artificial Intelligence and Law’ that supported the work in this paper. Fabrizio Macagno would like to thank the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore of Milan for a research grant.


  1. A Freeper’s Introduction to Rhetoric. 2004. Retrieved from Free Republic: Accessed 4 May 2009.
  2. Baggini, J. 2003. Bad moves: Selective quotation. Retrieved from Bad Moves Entry: Accessed 4 May 2009.
  3. Boller, P. 1967. Quotemanship. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Carney, J., and R. Scheer. 1964. Fundamentals of logic. New York: McMillan.Google Scholar
  5. Copi, I. 1978. Introduction to logic. New York: Mac Millan.Google Scholar
  6. De Santillana, G. 1962. The crime of Galileo. New York: Time INC.Google Scholar
  7. Dunsky, M. 2001. Missing: The bias implicit in the absent. Arab Studies Quarterly 23: 1–30.Google Scholar
  8. Gingrich: CNN Misquote in Palin Interview Shows ‘The Fix Is In’. 2008. Retrieved from,2933,443712,00.html. Accessed 6 May 2009.
  9. Govier, T. 1992. A practical study of argument. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  10. Grice, P. 1975. Logic and conversation. In Syntax and semantics: Speech acts, vol. 3, ed. J.L. Morgan and P. Cole. New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  11. Hamblin, C. 1970. Fallacies. London: Methuen.Google Scholar
  12. Hispanus, P. 1990. Language in dispute (trans: Dinneen, F.). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
  13. Internet of Lies. 2005. Retrieved from Accessed 6 May 2009.
  14. Johnson, R., and A. Blair. 1983. Logical self-defense. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited.Google Scholar
  15. Limbaugh misquoted Obama on home values, used it as evidence of Obama “talking down the economy”. 2009. Retrieved from Media Matters: Accessed 6 May 2009.
  16. Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, Inc. et al. 1991. 501 U.S. 496 (Supreme Court of the United States January 14, 1991).Google Scholar
  17. Nooriala, C. 2004. Out of context and out of line. Retrieved from The Cyrus Report: Accessed 4 May 2009.
  18. Obama: Messianic or Just Misquoted? 2008. Retrieved from New York Daily Intel: Accessed 5 May 2009.
  19. Quayle quotes. 2007. Retrieved from Accessed 6 May 2009.
  20. Rescher, N. 1964. Introduction to logic. New York: St. Martin’s Press.Google Scholar
  21. Rigotti, E. 1997. Lezioni di Linguistica Generale. Milano: CUSL.Google Scholar
  22. Rigotti, E., and A. Rocci. 2001. Sens–non-sens contresens. Studies in Communication Sciences 1: 45–80.Google Scholar
  23. Robinson, D. 1947. The principles of reasoning. New York: D. Appleton-Century Co.Google Scholar
  24. Schipper, E., and E. Schuh. 1959. A first course in modern logic. New York: Holt.Google Scholar
  25. Sperber, D., and D. Wilson. 1986. Relevance. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  26. Straw Man. 2009. Retrieved from Webster’s Online Dictionary: Accessed 4 May 2009.
  27. Toulmin, S., R. Rieke, and A. Janik. 1979. An introduction to reasoning. New York: Mac Millan.Google Scholar
  28. Van Eemeren, F., and R. Grootendorst. 1984. Speech acts in argumentative discussions: A theoretical model for the analysis of discussions directed towards solving conflicts of opinion. Dordrecht: Foris.Google Scholar
  29. Van Eemeren, F., and R. Grootendorst. 1992. Argumentation, communication, and fallacies. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  30. Van Laar, J.A. 2003. The dialectic of ambiguity: A contribution to the study of argumentation. Ph.D. Dissertation. Groningen: University of Groningen.Google Scholar
  31. Walton, D. 1988. Burden of proof. Argumentation 2: 233–254.Google Scholar
  32. Walton, D. 1995. A pragmatic theory of fallacy. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press.Google Scholar
  33. Walton, D. 1996a. Fallacies arising from ambiguity. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.Google Scholar
  34. Walton, D. 1996b. The straw-man fallacy. In Logic and argumentation, ed. J. van Benthem, R. Grootendorst, and F. Veltman, 115–128. Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.Google Scholar
  35. Walton, D. 1999. One-sided arguments. Albany: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  36. Walton, D. 2006. Fundamentals of critical argumentation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  37. Walton, D., and E. Krabbe. 1995. Commitment in dialogue. Albany: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  38. Whately, R. 1963. Elements of rhetoric. London: Southern Illinois University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Wilson, D., and D. Sperber. 1998. Pragmatic and time. In Relevance theory, ed. R. Carston. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
  40. Wright, L. 1989. Practical reasoning. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Research on Reasoning, Argumentation & RhetoricUniversity of WindsorWindsorCanada
  2. 2.Department of LinguisticsUniversità Cattolica del Sacro CuoreMilanItaly

Personalised recommendations