How to Avoid Equivocation
In theory, since equivocation is a deliberate act of deception it should be easy to avoid – just don’t be deceitful! However, in practice equivocation can sometimes slip in where you don’t realize it. In formal essays, this can be a problem, as even an accidental equivocation can undermine your entire argument.
The easiest way to avoid this is simply to define your terms at the beginning, which is a good technique anyway! If you clearly define all the terms in the early stages, then you can be sure that you are on the same terms as your reader. In addition, this gives you a point of reference – as you write, you can go back to these definitions and double-check that you are, in fact, using each key term as defined. If you find that the meaning of these terms is shifting around over the course of the paper, then it’s time to either revise the argument or change the way you’ve defined your terms.
When Equivocation is Appropriate
Although you should always avoid equivocation in your own writing, it may be appropriate to have your characters equivocate, especially if they’re involved in politics, law, media, crime, or other areas where it might be beneficial to deceive others through ambiguous speech.
One of the most common forms of equivocation in literature is the speech of oracles. In classic Greek tragedies, in was very common for an oracle to deliver seemingly good news to a main character – but by the end of the story, the true meaning of that news would be revealed, to tragic consequences. Modern storytellers since Shakespeare have frequently adopted this trope to increase the dramatic effect of their stories.