You may have heard of a “red herring” being used in faulty arguments, or even in suspenseful literature. No, it’s not another way to say that your writing smells fishy!
In writing, and in rhetoric more generally, a red herring or “red herring fallacy” refers to an argument or plot line that is used to divert an audience’s attention, either from the real argument (in nonfiction), or perhaps from the true culprit of a mystery novel (in fiction).
The Red Herring Fallacy
The red herring fallacy got its name from the red herring (a cured and salted fish) that was often used by fugitives to divert bloodhounds with its pungent smell.
Red herrings are often used in thriller and suspense novels to mislead audiences or direct them toward false conclusions, so that when the truth is finally revealed, the impact of the twist is more significant.
However, the red herring fallacy can be used by anyone as a way out of a losing argument. See the examples below for a better understanding of how red herrings work.
Red Herring Examples
Below are several examples of the red herring fallacy at play in everyday situations.
Reporter: “Mr. President, your opponent, Walter Mondale is considerably younger than you. Do you think that with the threat of nuclear war, age should be an issue in this campaign?”
President Reagan: “Not at all. I am not going to exploit my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
The real exchange above, which took place during a presidential debate in 1984, shows Ronald Reagan’s wit as he turned the question of age back on his opponent.
Teacher: The assignment was due last night, why haven’t you submitted it yet?
Student: I know I should have, but I was so busy last night working on my poem that won first prize at the poetry contest this morning.
Teacher: Wow, that’s fantastic news, Greg!
In this exchange between a teacher and student, the student diverts attention from the fact that he didn’t finish his assignment by delivering news that he knows will make his English teacher proud. While the news does excite the teacher, it still doesn’t address the fact that the assignment hasn’t been completed.
Red Herrings in Literature
Red herrings are often used in fiction, especially in thriller, suspense, and mystery novels.
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
"You've forgotten the nursery rhyme. Don't you see there's a clue
there?" She recited in a meaning voice: "Four little Indian boys going
out to sea; A red herring swallowed one and then there were three."
She went on: "A red herring—that's the vital clue. Armstrong's not
dead... He took away the china Indian to make you think he was. You
may say what you like—Armstrong's on the island still. His
disappearance is just a red herring across the track..."
In this excerpt from Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, the character of Vera recalls a verse from the nursery rhyme “Ten Little Soldiers” that makes a reference to a red herring (the fish). The murderer in this story plants several red herrings to throw the 10 house guests (whose numbers soon begin to dwindle) off of his trail.
Sherlock Holmes: Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
As is typical of mystery novels, Sherlock Holmes: Hound of the Baskervilles uses a red herring to throw readers off the trail of the real killer, leading them instead to suspect an escaped convict and Barrymore. Later, the character of Beryl confesses that her husband was behind the murders.
The Withdrawing Room by Charlotte Macleod
In Charlotte Macleod’s The Withdrawing Room, one of the characters seems to fall from a subway platform to his death. But while we’re first led to believe that it was an accident, it soon becomes evident that it was in fact a murder, with the killer planning the death beforehand and cleverly using a red herring to divert suspicion.
Learn to Recognize Red Herrings
Whether you’re reading a mystery novel or talking with someone who likes to bring up irrelevant arguments, learning to identify red herrings can be quite helpful.
For a little extra practice, check out our list of the best thrillers of 2019 and see if you can identify any red herrings in these hair-raising novels!
Did you find this post helpful? Let us know in the comments below!