Definition of Ambiguity
Ambiguity or fallacy of ambiguity is a word, phrase, or statement which contains more than one meaning.
Ambiguous words or statements lead to vagueness and confusion and shape the basis for instances of unintentional humor. For instance, it is ambiguous to say “I rode a black horse in red pajamas,” because it may lead us to think the horse was wearing red pajamas. The sentence becomes clear when it is restructured “Wearing red pajamas, I rode a horse.” Similarly, same words with different meanings can cause ambiguity e.g. “John took off his trousers by the bank.” It is funny if we confuse bank which is a building to an edge of a river. Context resolves ambiguity in such cases.
Common Examples of Ambiguity
Below are some common examples of ambiguity:
- A good life depends on a liver – liver may be an organ or simply a living person
- Foreigners are hunting dogs – hunting dogs? Unclear whether dogs were being hunted or foreigners are spoken of as dogs.
- Each of us saw her duck. – Duck? Not clear if the duck refers to an action of ducking or duck that is a bird.
- The passerby helps dog bite victim- Is it helping dog to bite someone? Or helping a person bitten by a dog? Not clear.
- “Nurse required for a baby about twenty years of age.” – twenty years old baby?
Examples of Ambiguity in Literature
Although ambiguity is considered a flaw in writing, many writers use this technique to allow readers to understand their works in a variety of ways giving them depth and complexity. Let us analyze some examples in literature.
1. Read the following excerpt from “The Catcher in the Rye” by J. D. Salinger:
“I ran all the way to the main gate, and then I waited a second till I got my breath. I have no wind, if you want to know the truth. I’m quite a heavy smoker, for one thing—that is, I used to be. They made me cut it out. Another thing, I grew six and a half inches last year. That’s also how I practically got t.b. and came out here for all these goddam checkups and stuff. I’m pretty healthy though.”
The words “they” and “here” used by a character “Holden Caulfield” are ambiguous. But the readers are allowed to presume from the context that “they” might be the professionals helping out Holden and “here” might be a rehabilitation center.
2. A short lyric “The Sick Rose” written by William Blake is full of ambiguities:
“Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy;
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy”
Many of the words in above lines show ambiguity. We cannot say for sure what “crimson bed of joy” means neither can we be exact about the interpretation of “dark secret love”. The ambiguous nature of such phrases allows readers to explore for deeper meanings of the poem. Here “worm” spoils chastity of “rose” in her “crimson bed of joy” a reference to making love.
3. On a larger scale ambiguity may develop in a character or in an entire story. For instance, Hamlet is a morally ambiguous character. He kills to avenge his father’s murder. He is good because he wants to protect his mother but he is bad because he is willing to kill whom he must to achieve this end. The ambiguity in Hamlet’s character is seen when he is hurt by the death of “Ophelia” which is his personal loss, but he does not feel for the effect of his actions is going to have on others.
4. We find ambiguity in the first line of Keats’s “Ode to a Grecian Urn”:
“Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,”
The use of word “still” is ambiguous in nature. “Still” here may mean “an inanimate object” or it may be interpreted as “yet unchanged”.
Function of Ambiguity
Ambiguity in literature serves the purpose of lending a deeper meaning to literary work. By introducing ambiguity in their works, the writers give liberty to the readers to use their imagination to explore meanings. This active participation on behalf of the readers makes them involved in the prose or poetry they read.