Language is our principal tool for communication. We engage in arguments by language. Language consists of sentences and a sentence consists of words. If words are not used carefully, it will affect our communication and our ability to create and communicate correct arguments.
Sometimes the key words used in our communication are ambiguous or excessively vague. A word or term is ambiguous when it has two or more distinct meanings For example, the words like ‘pen’, ‘mad’, ‘mouth’ are ambiguous. The word ‘pen’ stands; for a writing instrument; but it also refers to an animal enclosure. The word ‘mad’ mean insanity; but it is also used to mean anger. ‘Mouth’ can refer to a person’s mouth or the mouth of a river. If the speaker uses a word in one sense but the hearer understands it in another sense, controversy is likely to arise.
Consider, for example, the following question: ‘If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, is there a sound?’ Conflicting answers to this question might be due to the ambiguity of the crucial word ‘sound’ in the question. The word ‘sound’ can mean sound waves or the sound sensation. If the word ‘sound’ is used to mean sound waves then there are sounds in the forest when the tree falls, whether or not someone is there to hear it.
Alternatively, if the word is used to mean the sensation of sound, then clearly there is no sound when no one is there to experience it.
Words in ordinary language are not only ambiguous; they are also often excessively vague. An expression is vague, if borderline cases for its application occur.
In other words, an expression is vague if it is unclear whether or not the expression is applicable in a particular context. Examples of vague terms include ‘kid’, ‘bald’, ‘old’, ‘happy’, ‘rich’, and ‘thin’. Another way that vagueness can occur is when an expression has several criteria that must be met for its correct application, and there is no specification of how many of the criteria must be satisfied, or to what degree.
Such controversies, which are due to either vague or ambiguous use of words, are needless controversies and should be avoided as far as possible.
Disputes arising out of either ambiguity or vagueness of words are verbal disputes. A verbal dispute can be avoided by stating the sense in which the key words are used. Once the parties to the dispute make clear the sense in which they are using the terms they will realise that their disagreement is on the meaning of their terms and the parties in the dispute might not be opposed to one another.
A verbal dispute would disappear once the parties involved in the distinction between different meanings of the important terms and agree on the meaning of these terms. We can save a lot of time, sharpen our reasoning ability, and communicate with each other more effectively if we watch for disagreements about the meaning of words and try to resolve them whenever we can.
But all disputes are not verbal disputes. Some disputes are genuine disputes in which there is some genuine disagreement between parties. Genuine or non-verbal disputes can be of two kinds. Such disputes involve either disagreement in attitude or disagreement in belief. Disagreement in attitude arises when two persons or parties express different feelings or attitudes the same situation.
For example, some people like eggs and some others do not like eggs. Those who like eggs would say that eggs are delicious, but those who do not like would disagree and say that eggs do not have good taste. Here they are expressing their disagreement in their attitude towards eggs. If two persons give different answer to the question whether eggs are good tasting or not, then the fact is that one of them likes its taste and the other does not like the taste.
No verbal dispute is involved here, since both the persons agree on the meaning of the words by means of which they convey their respective feelings. This is a case a genuine disagreement in the sense that they have different feelings towards the same situation.
There is an important type of dispute in which parties to the disputes disagree on what they believe to be true. These are factual disputes. People engaged in a factual dispute off agree on the meaning of the words by means of which they convey their respective positions, but they disagree over the truth of some specific proposition. Suppose one person asserts that a Spider has eight legs and another person disagrees and claims that spiders have six legs.
Further investigation of the matter will settle their dispute in support of the claim that spiders have eight legs, because spiders in fact have eight legs. There are, however, some factual disputes which are difficult to settle because we are not in a position to verify the facts, but in such cases we can say what would settle the issue.