Definition and Examples of Ambiguity

An illustration of a syntactically ambiguous conversation
"Call me a cab" is an example of an ambiguous phrase. Getty Images

Ambiguity (pronounced am-big-YOU-it-tee) is the presence of two or more possible meanings in a single passage. The word comes from a Latin term which means, "wandering about" and the adjective form of the word is ambiguous. Other terms used for ambiguity are amphibologia, amphibolia, and semantic ambiguity. In addition, ambiguity is sometimes regarded as a fallacy (commonly known as equivocation) in which the same term is used in more than one way.

 

In speech and writing, there are two basic types of ambiguity:

  1. Lexical ambiguity is the presence of two or more possible meanings within a single word
  2. Syntactic ambiguity is the presence of two or more possible meanings within a single sentence or sequence of words

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "Brave men run in my family."
    – Bob Hope as "Painless" Peter Potter in The Paleface, 1948
     
  • "As I was leaving this morning, I said to myself, 'The last thing you must do is forget your speech.' And, sure enough, as I left the house this morning, the last thing I did was to forget my speech."
    – Rowan Atkinson
     
  • "I can't tell you how much I enjoyed meeting your husband."
    – William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity, 1947
     
  • "We saw her duck is a paraphrase of We saw her lower her head and of We saw the duck belonging to her, and these last two sentences are not paraphrases of each other. Therefore We saw her duck is ambiguous."
    – James R. Hurford, Brendan Heasley, and Michael B. Smith, Semantics: A Coursebook, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2007
     
  • Roy Rogers: More hay, Trigger?
    Trigger: No thanks, Roy, I'm stuffed!
     
  • Pentagon Plans Swell Deficit
    – newspaper headline
     
  • I can't recommend this book too highly.
     
  • "Leahy Wants FBI to Help Corrupt Iraqi Police Force"
    –headline at CNN.com, December 2006
     
  • Prostitutes Appeal to Pope
    – newspaper headline
     
  • Union Demands Increased Unemployment
    – newspaper headline
     
  • "Thanks for dinner. I’ve never seen potatoes cooked like that before."
    – Jonah Baldwin in the film Sleepless in Seattle, 1993
     

Because

  • "Because can be ambiguous. 'I didn't go to the party because Mary was there' may mean that Mary's presence dissuaded me from going or that I went to sample the canapes."
    – David Marsh and Amelia Hodsdon, Guardian Style. Guardian Books, 2010
     

Pun and Irony

  • "Quintilian uses amphibolia (III.vi.46) to mean 'ambiguity,' and tells us (Vii.ix.1) that its species are innumerable; among them, presumably, are Pun and Irony."
    – Richard Lanham, A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. University of California Press, 1991
     
  • "An ambiguity, in ordinary speech, means something very pronounced, and as a rule witty or deceitful. I propose to use the word in an extended sense: any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language... We call it ambiguous, I think, when we recognize that there could be a puzzle as to what the author meant, in that alternative views might be taken without sheer misreading. If a pun is quite obvious it would not be called ambiguous, because there is no room for puzzling. But if an irony is calculated to deceive a section of its readers, I think it would ordinarily be called ambiguous."
    – William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity, 1947
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    Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Ambiguity." ThoughtCo, Apr. 1, 2018, thoughtco.com/ambiguity-language-1692388. Nordquist, Richard. (2018, April 1). Definition and Examples of Ambiguity. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ambiguity-language-1692388 Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Ambiguity." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ambiguity-language-1692388 (accessed May 21, 2018).