Straw man

Straw man

A straw man is a component of an argument and is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent's position, twisting his words or by means of [false] assumptions.[1] To "attack a straw man" is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by replacing it with a superficially similar yet unequivalent proposition (the "straw man"), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.[1][2] Generally, the straw man is a highly exaggerated[citation needed] or over-simplified version of the opponent's original statement, which has been distorted to the point of absurdity. This exaggerated or distorted statement is thus easily argued against, but is a misrepresentation of the opponent's actual statement.



The origins of the term are unclear. One common (folk) etymology given is that it originated with men who stood outside courthouses with a straw in their shoe in order to indicate their willingness to be a false witness, but it is unlikely that individuals would publicly declare their willingness to commit a crime outside a courthouse.[3][4] Another more popular origin is a human figure made of straw, such as practice dummies used in military training. Such a dummy is supposed to represent the enemy, but it is considerably easier to attack because naturally, it neither moves nor fights back.

In the UK, the adversary is sometimes called Aunt Sally, with reference to a traditional fairground game.


The straw man fallacy occurs in the following pattern of argument:

  1. Person A has position X.
  2. Person B disregards certain key points of X and instead presents the superficially similar position Y. Thus, Y is a resulting distorted version of X and can be set up in several ways, including:
    1. Presenting a misrepresentation of the opponent's position.
    2. Quoting an opponent's words out of context — i.e. choosing quotations that misrepresent the opponent's actual intentions (see fallacy of quoting out of context).[2]
    3. Presenting someone who defends a position poorly as the defender, then refuting that person's arguments — thus giving the appearance that every upholder of that position (and thus the position itself) has been defeated.[1]
    4. Inventing a fictitious persona with actions or beliefs which are then criticized, implying that the person represents a group of whom the speaker is critical.
    5. Oversimplifying an opponent's argument, then attacking this oversimplified version.
  3. Person B attacks position Y, concluding that X is false/incorrect/flawed.

This sort of "reasoning" is fallacious, because attacking a distorted version of a position fails to constitute an attack on the actual position.


Straw man arguments often arise in public debates such as a (hypothetical) prohibition debate:

Person A: We should liberalize the laws on beer.
Person B: No, any society with unrestricted access to intoxicants loses its work ethic and goes only for immediate gratification.

The proposal was to relax laws on beer. Person B has exaggerated this to a position harder to defend, i.e., "unrestricted access to intoxicants".[1] It is a logical fallacy because Person A never made that claim. This example is also a slippery slope fallacy.

Another example:

Person A: Our society should be taxed less.
Person B: It is unjust to promote a society that neglects the poor.

In this case, Person B has transformed Person A's position from "less taxation" to "neglecting the poor", which is easier for Person B to defeat.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Pirie, Madsen (2007). How to Win Every Argument: The Use and Abuse of Logic. UK: Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-8264-9894-6. 
  2. ^ a b "The Straw Man Fallacy". Fallacy Files. Retrieved 12 October 2007. 
  3. ^ "Idioms of the Week, Week Beginning 5/3/98". Idioms around the world. Archived from the original on 25 June 2007. Retrieved 13 May 2009. 
  4. ^ Brewer, E. Cobham (1898). "Man of Straw (A).". Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Retrieved 13 May 2009. 

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • straw man — n: an intermediary for a transaction (as a conveyance of real property) Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of Law. Merriam Webster. 1996. straw man n …   Law dictionary

  • straw man — 1590s, doll or scarecrow made of bound straw, from STRAW (Cf. straw) + MAN (Cf. man). Figuratively, in debates, by 1896. Man of straw imaginary opponent is recorded from 1620s …   Etymology dictionary

  • straw man — A straw man is a weak argument that is easily defeated. It can also be a person who is used as to give an illegal or inappropriate activity an appearance of respectability …   The small dictionary of idiomes

  • straw man — noun count someone or something that is criticized or attacked but is not really important, powerful, or bad …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • straw man — straw′ man′ n. 1) a person whose function is only to cover another s activities; front 2) a conveniently weak or innocuous person, object, or issue used as a seeming adversary or argument • Etymology: 1895–1900 …   From formal English to slang

  • straw man — or party A front ; a third party who is put up in name only to take part in a transaction. Nominal party to a transaction; one who acts as an agent for another for the purpose of taking title to real property and executing whatever documents and… …   Black's law dictionary

  • straw man — n. 1. SCARECROW 2. a person of little importance; nonentity 3. a weak argument or opposing view set up by a politician, debater, etc. so as to be able to attack it and gain an easy, showy victory 4. a person used to disguise another s intentions …   English World dictionary

  • straw man — noun 1. an effigy in the shape of a man to frighten birds away from seeds • Syn: ↑scarecrow, ↑strawman, ↑bird scarer, ↑scarer • Derivationally related forms: ↑scare (for: ↑scarer) …   Useful english dictionary

  • straw man — /ˈstrɔ mæn/ (say straw man) noun 1. a figure of a man stuffed with straw, as for a scarecrow, target, etc. 2. an argument deliberately put up so that it can be knocked down, usually as a distraction from other arguments which cannot be so easily… …   Australian English dictionary

  • straw man — UK / US noun [countable] Word forms straw man : singular straw man plural straw men someone or something that is criticized or attacked but is not really important, powerful, or bad …   English dictionary