Devil’s Advocate—How to Argue Effectively

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Alison Page

Alison has worked full-time in the writing industry for over ten years, using her knowledge and life experience to create online content, fiction and non-fiction. Alison has published two novels and has ghost-written several non-fiction equestrian books for a client. Alison has been a full-time professional content writer for almost ten years and loves her work as a wordsmith.

Devil’s advocate is an idiom that refers to a person who presents an opposing viewpoint during a debate, aiming to test the strength of an argument through lively opposition.

In the English language, idioms such as devil’s advocate are expressions or phrases with meanings that cannot be understood from the individual words they comprise. They are used figuratively rather than literally to make everyday speech more interesting and descriptive.

In this guide, I will delve into the idiom’s deeper meaning, origin, and correct usage. I will also provide tips on how to use it effectively, examples of the idiom’s use, and related terms and phrases. At the end, you can take a short quiz to test your knowledge of the idiom. Let’s get started!

What Does the Idiom Devil’s Advocate Mean?

When someone plays devil’s advocate, they take a position or argue a viewpoint that one may not personally believe in but do so for the sake of debate or to thoroughly explore the argument. 

The person playing devil’s advocate does so to expose the weak points in an argument or philosophy, provoking a deeper examination of the matter. The devil’s advocate doesn’t try to win the argument; he simply tries to examine a problem from all sides.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines devil’s advocate as “someone who pretends, in an argument or discussion, to be against an idea or plan that a lot of people support, in order to make people discuss and consider it in more detail.”

For example, during a recent committee meeting at our local squash club, a proposal was floated to procure a bank loan for some much-needed refurbishments. I stepped into the role of the devil’s advocate, bringing up the fact that our existing membership fees would not cover the cost of loan repayment, potentially leading us into a financial quagmire. This conversation prompted us to explore more financially sound methods of raising the funds we require.

How Is Devil’s Advocate Commonly Used in Context?

The idiom devil’s advocate is a popular expression used to describe a person who intentionally takes a contrary position in a debate or discussion. This individual challenges the prevailing viewpoint, not necessarily because they believe in the opposing stance, but to scrutinize and strengthen the presented arguments.

In the following sections, we’ll explore the various ways this idiom is used, offer tips for effective usage, and provide examples to illustrate its application in different contexts.

What Are the Different Ways to Use the Idiom Devil’s Advocate?

The idiom devil’s advocate can be used in various contexts, including:

  • Exploring alternatives: “I understand the benefits of implementing your policy, but I must play devil’s advocate and ask if we have considered the potential drawbacks.”
  • Provoking critical thinking: “I get the strengths of our current approach, but playing devil’s advocate, I would ask, what are the weaknesses? How can we address them to ensure our campaign is successful?”
  • Testing an argument: “I understand your reasons for the proposal, but I must play devil’s advocate. I mean, can we be confident that the plan is robust enough to withstand scrutiny?” 
  • Balanced decision-making: “I must play devil’s advocate here. Although I support the idea of focusing on entertainment, did we consider how to balance that with education? Let’s be sure we cater to a diverse range of interests within our community.”

What Are Some Tips for Using the Idiom Devil’s Advocate Effectively?

Here are some tips for effectively using the phrase devil’s advocate in written and spoken English:

  • Know your audience: Ensure they are receptive to diverse views.
  • Declare intent: Make it clear that you’re playing devil’s advocate to avoid confusion.
  • Use judiciously: Overuse may be perceived as negative or argumentative.
  • Maintain respect: Always be respectful while challenging ideas, not individuals.
  • Serve a purpose: Use it to stimulate deeper discussion, not to create conflict.
  • Welcome responses: Be ready for debate and open to counterpoints.
  • Stay informed: Equip yourself with enough knowledge to argue effectively.

Where Can You Find Examples of the Idiom Devil’s Advocate?

You can find the idiom used in various media, including movies, books, and speeches by public figures, as well as online.

Here are examples of the idiom’s use in some online publications:

A devil’s advocate might say it’s possible the former employers intentionally fed the managers bad advice to undermine their new teams. (The Wall Street Journal)

“Our job with each other is to be completely impolite and play devil’s advocate,” Cuaron says. “We know that whatever we say is out of caring.” (Variety)

The 58-year-old artist spoke slowly through a German translator as Liao played devil’s advocate with his line of questioning. (The Guardian)

What Is the Origin of the Idiom Devil’s Advocate?

devils advocate Ngram
Devil’s advocate usage trend.

The idiom devil’s advocate entered the English language in the 18th century, deriving from the Latin term advocatus diaboli. In Roman Catholicism, the advocatus diaboli was a designated role tasked with revealing any information about a candidate for canonization that might contest their elevation to sainthood.

How Did the Idiom Evolve Over Time?

With the passage of time, the idiom devil’s advocate morphed in its application. Today, it denotes someone who, instead of striving to win an argument, seeks to scrutinize an issue from all perspectives. The goal of playing devil’s advocate is to foster constructive, vibrant discussions by examining all sides of a problem.

What Are Some Related Terms to Devil’s Advocate?

Here are some synonyms and antonyms that can help illustrate when to use the idiom correctly and appropriately:


  • Contrarian
  • Skeptic
  • Critical analyst
  • Critic
  • Dissenter
  • Doubter


  • Advocate
  • Supporter
  • Proponent
  • Champion
  • Backer
  • Ally
  • Defender

Devil’s Advocate: Test Your Knowledge!

Choose the correct answer.

What Have We Learned about the Idiom Devil’s Advocate?

We have learned that the idiom devil’s advocate refers to someone who plays the contrarian during debates to spark lively discussions that might lead to a more positive outcome.

It originated from the Latin advocatus diaboli and is generally used figuratively rather than literally and could be construed as being confrontational or even offensive if used out of context. For that reason, it’s best to use the phrase in a company you know well and with an audience whose first language is English. 

That said, using the idiom sparingly and in the right situations can bring more interest and power to your casual speech and writing.