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Is there a word or phrase for describe the action (or the actor) of pursuing a losing argument,not conceding any points, but rather trying to win on legalisms or pedantry?

I don't mean starting out on pedantic points, but from a sincere position, which, through the course of the argument, became clearly untenable, with the other side clearly more persuasive on its merits. But the proponent, instead of conceding, instead switches tactics and tries to score points against the other side about legalism, minor mistakes, etc., tries to make their argument as presentable as possible, etc. Basically going through the motions of arguing, and doing it well, but not actually conceding.

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    I'm thinking a good phrase would begin with "resorting," such as "resorting to technicalities." Maybe "Realizing the facts didn't support him, he began resorting to trivialities." As I re-read this now, I'm not so sure I like them, but they were my first thoughts. – bob Aug 5 '16 at 17:29
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    Lawyering. See: english.stackexchange.com/questions/253475/… – MetaEd Aug 5 '16 at 17:39
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    I detect the abuse of a cadaverous equine. – Hot Licks Aug 5 '16 at 17:57
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    @HotLicks Give us the link. Not that I enjoy the redolence of putrefied tissues. – Centaurus Aug 5 '16 at 18:53
  • @HotLicks - seconded. "Beating a dead horse" still is not among the answers here. – stevesliva Aug 5 '16 at 20:52

10 Answers 10

5

cavil - to oppose by inconsequential, frivolous, or sham objections

There's also quibble, which is very similar. But I think that more strongly implies avoiding the main issue by focusing on minor details, so it doesn't work very well if the subject has already effectively ceded the main argument, and is simply stringing out nitpicky details (often it's little more than a way of showing that the person is unhappy about losing the argument).

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    I'm upvoting for quibble. – J.R. Aug 5 '16 at 18:02
  • @J.R.: Yeah. It's significantly more common today. Perhaps the fact that relative prevalences were reversed a couple of centuries ago is all that accounts for the nuance of difference I recognize. I'd rarely use cavil myself in speech, but in a careful written context I might use it for the very distinction outlined. – FumbleFingers Aug 5 '16 at 18:08
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One expression not yet suggested is grasping at straws. From Christine Ammer, The Facts on File Dictionary of Clichés, second edition (2006):

grasp at straws, to To make a hopeless effort to save oneself. The term comes from the ancient image of a drowning man clutching at insubstantial reeds in an attempt to save himself, and it was often put as to catch or clutch at straws. It appeared in print as early as the seventeenth century and soon was regarded as a proverb. ...

If you're embroiled in an argument and you begin to see that your position is untenable, you may experience the intellectual equivalent of drowning; and at that point, it's hard to resist grasping at straws—even the flimsiest or most insubstantial of arguments—to stay afloat.

2

This works nicely: -

Arguing for the sake of arguing

Arguing simply to be difficult or contrary

Free Dictionary

2

That would be a case of sticking to one's guns.

From dictionary.com:

  1. stick to one's guns, to maintain one's position in the face of opposition; stand firm:

They stuck to their guns and refused to submit.

Also, stand by one's guns.

From macmillandictionary.com:

  1. stick to your guns INFORMAL

to refuse to change what you are saying or doing despite the opposition or criticism of other people

They tried to persuade me, but I stuck to my guns.

Synonyms and related words: To not change, or to refuse to change your opinion:hold to, remain, have the courage of your (own) convictions...

1

"I don't mean starting out on pedantic points, but from a sincere position, which, through the course of the argument, became clearly untenable..."

If you're looking for idioms, both "not to concede defeat" and "not to throw in the towel" seem to fit.

Examples:

"She never concedes defeat, that's why I call her Mrs Wright."

"No one is going to think the less of you if you concede defeat now."

"Don't be such a mule. It's time you threw in the towel.

"He lost the election but refused to throw in the towel. He says he is running for mayor next time."

1

From comments, in an effort to encourage answering in the answers section:

  • I'm thinking a good phrase would begin with "resorting," such as "resorting to technicalities." Maybe "Realizing the facts didn't support him, he began resorting to trivialities." As I re-read this now, I'm not so sure I like them, but they were my first thoughts. – andy

  • Lawyering. See: english.stackexchange.com/questions/253475/…MetaEd

  • The Cambridge English Dictionary defines “beat a dead horse” to mean “waste effort on something when there is no chance of succeeding” — but, yes, every other site that I checked narrows it down to continuing a discussion that’s been resolved. – Scott

  • A very loosely related idiom is “throw(ing) good money after bad.”   It (fairly literally) refers to continuing to invest in a project or investment, in which you’ve already spent (lost) some amount of money, in a (presumably futile) attempt to turn a profit.  It would be a very small stretch to use it to mean “continuing to spend resources in an attempt to succeed/prevail in an endeavor where losing is a foregone conclusion.” – Scott

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The loser is hoping to win a Pyrrhic victory. They have lost everything so far but hope. Having actually lost completely it is not Pyrrhic except to assuage one's feelings.

0

Throwing punches:

A boxer begins by attempting the good fight but once battered, he will throw ineffective punches till the end rather than conceding.

  • Grasping at straw(s): Since there is ultimately no real wood left to fuel the fire of the argument, he tries to gather as many flimsy pieces of cellulose as he can, in a futile attempt to project the persona of choice (his hands look full for the moment). Inevitably though, the straw will slip to the ground because there is no structure to support it. – self.dreamer Aug 8 '16 at 16:18
  • Refusing to abandon a sinking ship: Rather than jumping, he expends all his energy flailing about. – self.dreamer Aug 8 '16 at 16:22
  • "Grasping at straws" might be a not-bad answer to the question, but Sven Yargs gave it two days ago.  And are you actually claiming that it has something to do with fueling a fire? P.S. If you want to extend you answer, you should edit it.  Comments sometimes go away. – Scott Aug 8 '16 at 16:38
  • The original answer was 3 minutes from Sven's so when adding comments my screen was likely not updated to show the other "grasping at straws". I tried to edit rather than comment, but somehow it wouldn't work. "Fueling the fire" wasn't meant to make any particular claim, with "to keep things kindling" being more what I had in mind. Sven's "staying afloat" states it with less room for interpretation, so yeah likely the better descriptor. – self.dreamer Aug 23 '16 at 14:50
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The switching of tactics, attempts to use legalisms and exploit minor mistakes I would classify as using "straw man tactics".

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Infusing skepticism:

Abandon the initial course of logic and attempt to disrupt the flow of it from the opponent by trivial or off-point tactics so that the winner of the debate will not win so dramatically and the loser will not appear to completely fail by concession.

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