Ambiguity Definition

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 black 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 one meaning of “bank” which is a building, to another meaning, being “an edge of a river”. Context usually resolves any ambiguity in such cases.

Common Ambiguity Examples

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 – It is unclear whether dogs were being hunted or foreigners are being spoken of as dogs.
  • Each of us saw her duck – It is not clear whether the word “duck” refers to an action of ducking or a duck that is a bird.
  • The passerby helps dog bite victim – Is the passerby helping a dog bite someone? Or is he helping a person bitten by a dog? It’s not clear.

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 ambiguity examples in literature.

Example #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 the speaker 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.

Example #2

“The Sick Rose”, a short lyric written by William Blake, is full of ambiguities:

“O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy;
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy”

Many of the words in the 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.

Some of those who have analyzed this poem believe that “Has found out thy bed, Of crimson joy” refers to making love.

Example #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 appreciate the effect that his actions are going to have on others.

Example #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 unmoving object” or it may be interpreted as “yet unchanged”.

Function of Ambiguity

Ambiguity in literature serves the purpose of lending a deeper meaning to a literary work. By introducing ambiguity in their works, writers give liberty to the readers to use their imagination to explore meanings. This active participation of the readers involves them in the prose or poetry they read.

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5 comments for “Ambiguity

  1. dineo
    October 25, 2015 at 9:46 am

    what’s the ambiguity of
    1he gave her cat food
    2.Siswe hit the man with an umbrella
    3.She was on the phone
    4 .Put the box in the table in your room

    • Lulu
      October 27, 2015 at 6:00 am

      Sentence no 1: its not clear whether the cat food was given to her, its as if the food for cat was given to someone who is a female. The sentence becomes clear when it is restructured ” he gave food to her cat”

    • Em
      October 29, 2015 at 8:39 pm

      1- It is unsure whether he gives the cat food or if he gives the woman cat food
      2- You can’t tell if they hit a man who was holding an umbrella, or if they used an umbrella to hit a man.
      3- She was talking through the phone, or was she actually on top of the phone?
      4- You don’t know if there is a box on a table that you should put in your room of if there is a box that you should put the it on a table that is inside your room.

      • Em
        October 29, 2015 at 8:42 pm

        oops^^^ that should say for sentence 4 that you don’t know if there you should put the box(that is on top of a table) in your room, or if you should put the box on top of a table that is inside your room/

  2. john
    November 14, 2015 at 12:51 pm

    he saw the boy with binoculars

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