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Analyze this question: “Where’s the timer?”

Doh! Two possible meanings: either we’re missing a device, or an 8-year old. The word “timer” is ambiguous. That’s why I far prefer the words “timepiece” and “timekeeper.”

There are many types of ambiguity: Wikipedia says there are seven types, I learned four types for a logic exam once (lexical, syntactical, let’s see… Oh well. I guess I get a 50 now, sorry Dr. Mitchell), and this lengthy but entertaining article opens by pointing out how the meaning of ambiguity is ambiguous. Sheesh.

Ambiguities Hurt Debate Over Time

The first people to use a term a certain way know what they’re doing. The second, third, and fourth generations have to guess. Eventually they stop guessing and think they know. Vis a vis, “value debate” and “LD debate” are synonymous in many people’s minds.

Then the fifth and six generations start to make reverse logic points, like “you can’t argue values in team policy.” ::facepalm:: This shocking lack of understanding that a policy has a central “why” behind it – and should never be enacted without a deeper reasoning, worldview, value, goal, or whatever you want to call it – actually has perfectly harmless origins. No one set out to prove that values can’t be used in policy discussions (in rhetoric, this would be like saying that judicial fact finding may not be used in deliberations)… but because we identify LD and Value Debate as the same thing in our minds, we start to draw false conclusions.

So one must participate in a healthy dose of disambiguation from time to time. Here are a few doses, actually, of the most pervasive and common ambiguities I see harming debaters at worst, or at least causing those who actually understand to cringe.

Significance vs. Significantly

Significance, the stock issue, and Significantly, a word found in many debate resolutions, are often confused. I’ve heard debaters say “your plan isn’t significant” and be just as confused as I was as to whether that meant, either:

A) The plan solves no demonstrable need, and has negative consequence (significance the stock issue)


B) The plan’s change to policy is so slight, it shouldn’t even be considered as supportive of the resolution

While some resolution writers help us out here by using that kinder word “substantially” in debate topics, even then the theory seems to often live on.

Root cause: Learning the stock issue of significance as some sort of “rule” rather than understanding the stock issue. If you understand that “all issues concerning why/why not end up in a net effect, called Significance,” then you’re not tripped up by the presence of the word “significantly” also referring to the amount of change the resolution demands.

Key takeaway: There are two unrelated concepts at work. One deals with why a policy is needed, the other deals with whether that policy shifts enough from current policy.

Value Debate vs. Value in a Case vs. Value in a Resolution

Value as in, the logical burdens required to prove a resolution phrased X>Y (e.g. privacy ought to be valued over security), value as in the key concept you argue the audience should use to weigh every impact (e.g. “use the value of JUSTICE to weigh the arguments in this round”), vs. the named value in a resolution (e.g. the resolution states liberty vs. security, and liberty seems to be a value…).

This is the most challenging one, because there are THREE applications of this word “value” that people mash together.

Origins: In two leagues (I’m looking at you NCFCA, and you, Stoa), even though they were originally based on a league called NEDA that used to do LD-policy and Team-value (among other formats), many people think “LD” means value debate. It doesn’t. LD is just a format – it means 1v1. As opposed to team debate, based on the cross-examination format of 2v2. Value is a type of resolution, where you’re comparing and contrasting the value of two named things. Usually you do this by introducing some other value that helps determine the value of those two named things.

But in a policy debate, two plans (the AFF plan and the Status Quo, for example) are also compared and contrasted. Why not determine the best way to compare and contrast them? The root word is “evaluate,” but you’ll need a form of determining “value” to do that, and a value goes a whole long way to concretely identify what’s important. If AFF plan gets you peace, but Status Quo gets you money, only what is valued will help you decide – so values are a crucial part of every policy decision.

Lectern vs. Podium

You stand ON a podium and speak FROM a lectern. To stand on a lectern is ridiculous… only papers go “on” a lectern. But I know many people who claim to speak from a podium.

Dr. Farris infected me with this one at debate camp in 2002. Now I’ve infected you. #sorrybutnotsorry

Tag vs. Tag

Tag, the pithy statement at the beginning of a point (as in, the headings in this post… like “Tag vs. Tag”), or Tag, the sentence in a printed brief that tells you what the quotation contains. I like to call these a “brief tag” or “evidence tag” if it’s on printed paper, and a “claim” or “claim tag” if it’s something that comes out of your mouth.

Origins: “Tag” is often used to teach 4-point (or 5-point) refutation. After you’ve identified your opponent’s argument, you “tag” your own. That means give the claim of your response a great label, such as “biased source,” “prices soar,” or “China will get mad.” Then you prove that claim with supporting argument, of which one handy type is a quotation. When we learn this meaning of “tag,” we can forget the other meaning.

Tag also just means label your evidence. This one is killer. Poor briefs force you, during prep time, to reread the quotation to know what it contains! It’s probably tagged something like “China will get mad,” along with 7 other quotations with a similar tag (evidence tag, that is). Useless.

Instead, tags in evidence should contain the warrants the evidence will supply so that you can support the argument you’re making in your speech (your claim tag).

But just because you’ve got a long tag on your printed briefs doesn’t mean you’ll be an effective communicator when you use those words to “tag” your argument. In fact, your argument will be nigh impossible to flow, because it will have a label 14 words long. Yuck.


If you had no idea any of these existed, probably be thankful that you didn’t learn debate poorly. If you have more ambiguities to contribute, by all means add to the vagaries!

Is the timer ready?

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