Many people may have experienced situations (often online) where someone dismisses another's argument not on the merits of the argument, but because of a grammatical (or, more generally, mechanical) error. Instead of errors that could actually confuse the meaning of a statement, I'm thinking of errors like using "that" to refer to a person rather than "who," where the ability to process meaning is not disrupted.

Generically, I guess it might be considered an ad hominem ("What do you know? You can't even use a comma correctly!"), but I'm just curious if there's a more specific term for such a thing.

  • 2
    The more specific term is "dead wrong", as using that to refer to a person is fine, and has been forever. We have prior questions on that. More to the point, it's in the Bible, and thus licensed by Lord Himself.
    – RegDwigнt
    Feb 14 '14 at 22:31
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    I wouldn't use the descriptor logical for your fallicies (yes, I know everyone does it) because it's not an argument in logic that's taking place. If someone uses the argument of error in grammar therefor error in argument, it's a red herring - it has nothing to do with the validity of your argument. If someone attacks your integrity or intellect on the basis of a grammatical error, it's an ad hominem fallacy (a type of red herring). The fallacies are numerous/overlapping, and are best studied if you want use them (shady but done all the time), identify them, and to avoid mislabeling them . Feb 14 '14 at 22:58
  • Compilers frequently pull this stunt because of a single missing bracket or semicolon in a line of code. In situations where precise communication is required such rejection is not a fallacy at all, it's a feature. That said, most human to human communication does not require that level of accuracy. Feb 15 '14 at 0:22
  • With regard to using that/who in reference to a person: that has the pleasure of being the older relative pronoun. In fact, the man who was blatantly incorrect Old English.
    – Anonym
    Feb 15 '14 at 4:11

This seems as least similar to the continuum fallacy

The fallacy causes one to erroneously reject a vague claim simply because it is not as precise as one would like it to be. Vagueness alone does not necessarily imply invalidity.

It also could be characterized as a fallacy of misdirection or a red herring

Attempting to redirect the argument to another issue that to which the person doing the redirecting can better respond. While it is similar to the avoiding the issue fallacy, the red herring is a deliberate diversion of attention with the intention of trying to abandon the original argument.


If they meant it, then yes. Most often (and slightly more on topic for this site, since it does actually relate to the use of the English language), it's not a fallacy, but a rhetorical technique.

If I reason from the grammatical error, then (barring some cases where e.g. the person is claiming to be speaking from expert knowledge of grammar) that is likely a logical fallacy (though see Douglas Neil Walton and Charles Taylor for cases were ad hominem reasoning is not fallacious).

If I argue from the error though it might be because of that, or it might just be rhetorical technique where I don't necessarily believe it demonstrates my point, but it may convince others. This rhetorical technique is also called ad hominem, and in fact the term was used for this rhetorical technique before it was used as the logical fallacy.

I might also not expect readers to not believe my argument, but for it to still work. This is a combination of two rhetorical techniques; ad hominem and humour (or ioci if you really like your rhetorical techniques to have Latin names): I don't actually make an argument but I (or I do, but I also...) make fun of the opponent and so increase support for my position.

This is also often combined with a rhetorical stance, that doesn't have a Latin name, as far as I know, called "not putting up with this shit any more".

As I said above, referencing irrelevant features of someone's general stance isn't always a fallacy (especially if not taken as sole evidence), so all three can coexist. E.g. when the English Defence League tweeted "who's street's", then of course many of us pointed out the grammatical error. This is a combination of:

  1. Ironic humour; they're called the "English Defence League" and literally can't write two words of grammatical English.
  2. Argument by ad hominen; their making that mistake doesn't prove them wrong, though it is part of a pattern of their being idiots.
  3. Not putting up with this shit any more; because they're fascist shit-heads, that mock everything that is good in England every time they open their mouths.

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