Some time back, I had read a specific phrase used to refer to situations where some "evidence" can be interpreted either way.

For example: Person A dies in a hospital and a syringe is found close to the body.

  • Argument 1: Person A was killed by a doctor/nurse.

  • Argument 2: Person A committed suicide via injection/drug overdose.

Other arguments can be made, but the gist here is: due to the ambiguity of this "evidence" it can be argued for the innocence of Person A just as well as it can be argued for Person A having harmed their self.

Q: Is there such a phrase in jurisprudential or legal thought?
If I remember correctly, Avicenna, when discussing logic, had used a specific phrase for such instances. But hoping there will be equivalent phrases in English speaking word too?

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    – Greendrake
    Commented Feb 15, 2022 at 8:25
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    The weapon by itself might not prove anything, but we live in times where fingerprints and how certain medicines effect the dead body are well known! the prints on the syringe or lack thereof (gloves) are for example an indicator together with where the syringe was found and so on. It can get complicated but you need to always see evidence in the circumstances.
    – Trish
    Commented Feb 15, 2022 at 10:55
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    "Circumstantial" is indeed incorrect, but not by much. It is popularly understood to be a rough synonym of "weak," it instead refers to evidence that implies the truth of a fact, rather than evidence that states conclusively that a fact is true. Circumstantial evidence will therefore typically be ambiguous, but the ambiguity itself is not what the word denotes.
    – bdb484
    Commented Feb 15, 2022 at 12:37
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    “Cuts both ways” Commented Feb 15, 2022 at 19:49
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    Are you not describing "equivocal" evidence? Doesn't that literally mean what you wanted? Commented Feb 16, 2022 at 21:41

6 Answers 6


While not a "one word answer", the phrase that I most frequently see for that concept is "susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation".

The concept, by the way, is widely used in the law. There are many kinds of rulings which can only be made if the evidence is not susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation. When it is, the facts must be determined by the finder of fact (the jury in a jury trial, and the judge in a bench trial) in an evidentiary trial on the merits of the issue to be decided.

This standard is pertinent in pre-trial dispositive motions (motions to dismiss, motions for judgment on the pleadings, motions for summary judgment). It is also applied in on appeal to review of a ruling by a court on a motion to either enter judgment, or to dismiss a claim or charge, prior to a jury verdict, or contrary to a jury verdict (either on liability or on damages in a motion for vacateur), because no reasonable finder of fact could reach a contrary conclusion.

The example in the question, however, seems to refer to the related concept of "reasonable doubt".

I am not a big fan of Avicenna's (a.k.a. Ibn Sina's) logic, but one relevant term his system is sometimes translated from the 11th century Arabic as "indeterminate", and that may be term you are looking for.

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    Thank you for your contribution, @ohwilleke! I am inclining to the possibility now that there is indeed no one word answer. Just asking some experts offline too - if I find an answer, will share here, otherwise will accept yours or Inaki's response :) (unless some other experts here come up with another) Commented Feb 16, 2022 at 7:52
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    Off-topic, but appreciate the reference to an early source of the concept of indeterminacy. It appears consistent with the modern-definition, though Wikipedia cites a much later author.
    – Nat
    Commented Feb 16, 2022 at 17:43

Is there such a phrase in jurisprudential or legal thought?

In those instances it is common to say that the evidence is inconclusive. Accordingly, it is unavailing because that evidence does not prove the party's allegation.


It's not a technical legal term, but most lawyers would refer to this using the same word you did: as "ambiguous" evidence.


The word the question immediately made me think of is "equivocal". For which the first result in a dictionary search was "open to more than one interpretation;".


...situations where some "evidence" can be interpreted either way...


Interpretation of (some forms of) evidence is often the realm of the Expert Witness who has a duty:

to help the court to achieve the overriding objective by giving opinion which is objective and unbiased, in relation to matters within their expertise. This is a duty that is owed to the court and overrides any obligation to the party from whom the expert is receiving instructions.

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    -1 In some cases an expert may be asked to help interpret ambiguous evidence, but not all opinion evidence deals with ambiguous evidence, nor is all ambiguous evidence suitable for expert interpretation, so opinion evidence is NOT the same as ambiguous evidence, and "opinion" is not a correct answer to this question. Commented Feb 16, 2022 at 0:49

If a fact is consistent with both conclusions, then it is circumstantial. If a fact does not favor one conclusion over another, then it is non-probative. (But in reality, a syringe is more consistent with suicide than murder, as a murderer would remain alive afterwards and therefore be capable of removing the syringe.) Non-probative evidence is somewhat of an oxymoron; if it's non-probative, it isn't really evidence. Circumstantial is different from non-probative; something can be consistent with both conclusions, but more likely given one, and thus be probative despite being circumstantial.

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    -1 "Circumstantial" is a term used for evidence of the conditions or Circumstances that may lead to a conclusion, as opposed to eyewitness evidence. Circumstantial evidence may clearly favor one side, or be ambiguous, so it is NOT the term wanted here Commented Feb 16, 2022 at 0:22
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    Yes I read it at least three times. It is simply incorrect, that is not what "circumstantial" means in a legal context. If you think I am wrong, please cite a source in your answer. Commented Feb 16, 2022 at 0:35
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    What is wrong is that you have used the word "Circumstantial" in an incorrect sense. That word simply does not mean what your answer says it means. Commented Feb 16, 2022 at 0:40
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    I have answered, twice. What you said that was incorrect was to use the word "circumstantial" for a meaning that it does not, in a legal context have. At least that is my understanding of the legal meaning of "circumstantial". See dictionary.law.com/Default.aspx?selected=191 where it says "evidence in a trial which is not directly from an eyewitness or participant and requires some reasoning to prove a fact" Commented Feb 16, 2022 at 0:59
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    What is wrong is that your answer claims that "circumstantial" has a meaning that it does not, in fact, have. I have now cited 4 sources on this. Commented Feb 16, 2022 at 3:11

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