Seven Types of Ambiguity


The book, Seven Types of Ambiguity is a masterpiece of William Empson, a British writer who laid the foundation of the new school of criticism. He was an influential figure in New Criticism mainly because of this book. The book first appeared in 1930 and set the stage for this critical perspective. It presents seven types of ambiguity that writers insert in their writing, creating ambivalence as well as a multiplicity of meanings. Most of his comments revolve around poetry. The style of criticism presented in the book shows how Empson wants other critics to practice the art of criticism professionally.

Seven Types of Ambiguity ushered in New Criticism in the United States. In fact, it is a guide to a style of literary criticism practised by Empson. In the book, ambiguity is represented as a puzzle. We have ambiguity when “alternative views might be taken without sheer misreading.” Empson reads poetry as an exploration of conflicts within the author. The main point of the book, as he claims in the introduction, is “verbal analysis” based on T. S. Eliot’s criticism and the Zeitgeist movement. Both impacts were further supplemented by Freud to enable Empson to comment on different types of ambiguity and their role in poetic diction and its understanding.

Seven Types of Ambiguity

First Type of Ambiguity

The first type of ambiguity is the pronunciation or speech that comprises various alternate reactions due to verbal nuance. However, Empson suggests that it should not be stretched too far due to fear of its becoming absurd. Such meanings, he argues, come from the analysis of words. It is actually the problem of pronunciation and its understanding in a context  that depends on various comparisons through antitheses and similarities. The words causing such ambiguity are mostly comparative adjectives, rhythmic meanings, and subdued metaphors. He cites examples from Alexander Pope, Ben Jonson, Robert Browning, William Morris, Robert Spenser, and Christopher Marlow. Empson also adds an annexure about dramatic irony and its role in creating ambiguity through verbal nuances.

Second Type of Ambiguity

This ambiguity comprises two alternative meanings of a word. However, both of these alternatives resolve into one when compared. Empson has cited various examples of grammar from the sonnets of Shakespeare. Geoffery Chaucer has also used such a type of ambiguity in which a word may have double meanings, but they ultimately resolve into one. It happens because of the use of double metaphors simultaneously. He refers to examples from T. S. Eliot about his revisions of the Shakespearean language. This ambiguity emerges from A and B of C.

Third Type of Ambiguity

This ambiguity arises when two meanings that are apparently unconnected emerge simultaneously. Several puns of John Milton have double meanings that are not interconnected and yet they emerge simultaneously. William Empson cites other examples from Andrew Marvel, Dr. Johnson, and Alexander Pope. Even David Herbert, Thomas Gray, and William Shakespeare have used some type of generalized allegories. The most important point that Empson presents is that “when the two notions of the ambiguity
are most sharply and consciously detached from one another, that one finds oneself forced to question its value.”

Fourth Type of Ambiguity

This type of ambiguity arises when a word has two alternative meanings. Both or more of such meanings combine to clarify the intention of the writer through interpretation. Empson has presented several words from the poems of John Donne and William Shakespeare. Even John Donne and Anthony Hopkins have used such words. Although Empson also praises Alexander Pope for using such words, he states that William Wordsworth could not achieve this ambiguity, and his “Tintern Abbey” is a failed case in this connection.

Fifth Type of Ambiguity

Interestingly, Empson calls this type of ambiguity a fortunate confusion. He states that an author discovers such an idea when he is engaged in the act of writing and keeps this idea in mind. Even it occurs when the author is not writing. Shelley is an example of using such ideas. Often these ideas are in the shape of similes that lie halfway between two statements. He also cites an example of the argument put forward by Swinburne in his writings. Empson states that metaphysical poets were trying to use such ambiguity as Andrew Marvel and Vaughan did. The example of impression and meteor in “The Unfortunate Lover” by Andrew Marvel is a case in point.

Sixth Type of Ambiguity

This type of ambiguity happens when there is nothing relevant, or it is the use of tautology to say something, or it is a contradiction of what is said or something else, forcing the reader to invent his own meanings or interpretations. The interpretations of the readers often conflict with each other. In fact, it is a strategy to force readers to pay more attention. He cites examples from Alexander Pope, William Shakespeare, Alfred Tennyson, and David Herbert. Further down the road, he cites examples from W. B. Yeats because of the impact their ambiguity has had on nineteenth- century writing.

Seventh Type of Ambiguity

This is the most ambiguous ambiguity. It occurs because of a cleft in the mind of the writer due to having two opposite meanings of the word he uses. Although it is a late invention having a word containing contradictory ideas in it, it has happened earlier in the Latin language as well as in poetry. It is mostly used to create depth in meanings. Such contradictions of ideas in a word might not be interpretable but they are also not just words. Empson bases his argument on the Freudian dream analysis that a word might have the idea that you wish to put into it and you might have been successful. He cites different examples from John Keats, David Herbert, and William Shakespeare.


As the chief exponent of theoretical criticism, Empson concludes that ambiguity is highly valuable in a given condition to apprehend the real meanings of the words. Although not all are related to this theoretical criticism, as the references from Ben Jonson show, he states that verbal analysis is the mainstay of the criticism as a single word may be interpreted in several ways due to its multidimensionality. Also, such interpretations are necessary, he says, for us to “protect our sensibility against critical dogma.” In other words, reading poetry along these lines makes it amusing and worth reading.