What is Ambiguity?

Ambiguity Definition

Ambiguity is when a word, phrase, statement, or idea has more than one meaning or can be understood in more than one way. Ambiguity typically creates a feeling of vagueness, uncertainty, or even confusion. This can make a reader or audience feel doubt, suspense, and an active desire for clarity or resolution.

Use of Ambiguity in Literature

Since ambiguity allows for more than one interpretation, it is used by writers to create complex, uncertain, and even humorous experiences for readers. Writers may create ambiguity involving the following:

  • Words
  • Phrases
  • Characters
  • Plot points
  • Situations
  • Literary conventions or tropes

As the reader attempts to understand the meanings presented by the writer’s ambiguity, they become more involved and engaged with the writing itself.

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 helped the dog bite victim – Is the passerby helping a dog bite someone? Or is he helping a person who has been bitten by a dog? It’s not clear.

Types of Ambiguity

There are four major types of ambiguities as given below.

  1. Semantic Ambiguity: This ambiguity is about the semantics of a word or phrase when it is interpreted out of its context.  
  2. Syntactic Ambiguity: It occurs when a word or phrase has two or more possible meanings in the given sentence. It is also called structural ambiguity.
  3. Lexical Ambiguity: It occurs when a word or phrase has two or more possible meanings or there are two words having the same forms such as homonymy, homophony, or polysemy.  
  4. Narrative Ambiguity: It occurs in the plot due to unclarity about the actions of the characters or events or situations or even conflict.

Ambiguity vs. Vagueness

Ambiguity means having more than one interpretation. There is a multiplicity of meanings according to the perspective a person holds about a word or a situation. However, vagueness means it is indeterminacy about meanings. The situation is not clear and the readers face unclarity about the words, phrases, or even sentences. Whereas ambiguity is marked countability of meanings, vagueness is uncountable.

How and Why to Use Ambiguity?

When using ambiguity, a writer takes something out of context and fills it with likely meanings. It could be the use of puns, doublespeak, or tautology. This creates an ambiguity that the readers experience when reading that piece. A writer has various other strategies at hand such as rhetorical devices. Ambiguity is created to make the readers understand things in a different way when direct speech or direct meanings make situations untoward or make readers feel estranged from the writers.

How to Avoid Ambiguity and Why?

It is not difficult to avoid ambiguity. The first thing about avoiding ambiguity is to be explicit, direct, and careful in using adverbs. If verbs, pronouns, and parallelism in sentences are checked thoroughly and minutely, ambiguity is removed. Following steps in writing clear ambiguity.

  1. Correct grammar
  2. Correct punctuation
  3. Shorten your sentences
  4. Write step by step

It is better not to use ambiguity in the technical writing and manuals as they create confusion to the readers. It could also be misleading and confusing to follow the instructions and make things work.

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 the literature.

Example #1: The Catcher in the Rye By J. D. Salinger

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 By William Blake

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 ” bed of crimson 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 believes that “Has found out thy bed / Of crimson joy” refers to making love.

Example #3: Hamlet By William Shakespeare

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
  • 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: Ode to a Grecian Urn By John Keats

We find ambiguity in the first line of Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn:

“Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness…”

The use of the word “still” is ambiguous in nature. Here, it 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 readers to use their imagination to explore meanings. This active participation of the readers involves them in the prose or poetry they read.

Synonyms of Ambiguity

Ambiguity, as a literary device, has several synonyms or distant meanings. They are equivocation, ambivalence, vagueness, doubtfulness, uncertainty, puzzle, dubiety, doublespeak, abstruseness, and obscurity.

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