Ambiguous vs. Ambivalent

Commonly Confused Words

Indicisive woman
"As a general rule, statements and assertions can be ambiguous, ... and people can be ambivalent." Robert Allen, Common Errors and Problems in English (Penguin, 2008). Sdominick/E+/Getty Images

The adjectives ambiguous and ambivalent both involve a degree of uncertainty, but the two words are not interchangeable.

Definitions

The adjective ambiguous means doubtful or unclear, open to more than one interpretation.

The adjective ambivalent means holding opposing attitudes or feelings toward a person, object, or idea.

Examples

  • "Hold on. 'Bimonthly' is an ambiguous term. Do you mean every other month or twice a month?"
    (Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, 2008)
  • "Even if we only briefly consider multiple meanings of ambiguous words, it is somewhat puzzling that we do it at all. After all, in most contexts only one of a word's meanings is relevant."
    (David Carroll, Psychology of Language, 2008)
  • "Americans have always had an ambivalent attitude toward intelligence. When they feel threatened, they want a lot of it, and when they don't, they regard the whole thing as somewhat immoral."
    (Vernon A. Walters, Silent Missions, 1978)
  • "Thematically, film noir is typically said to be characterized by moral ambiguity: murky distinctions between good guys and bad guys, ambivalence about right and wrong, conflicts between law and morality, unsettling inversion of values, and so on."
    (Aeon J. Skoble, "Moral Clarity and Practical Reason in Film Noir." The Philosophy of Film Noir, 2006)

Usage Notes

  • Susanna: I'm ambivalent. In fact, that's my new favorite word.
    Dr. Wick: Do you know what that means, ambivalence?
    Susanna: I don't care.
    Dr. Wick: If it's your favorite word, I would've thought you would.
    Susanna: It means "I don't care." That's what it means.
    Dr. Wick: On the contrary, Susanna. Ambivalence suggests strong feelings . . . in opposition. The prefix, as in "ambidextrous," means "both." The rest of it, in Latin, means "vigor." The word suggests that you are torn . . . between two opposing courses of action.
    Susanna: Will I stay or will I go?
    Dr. Wick: Am I sane . . . or, am I crazy?
    Susanna: Those aren't courses of action.
    Dr. Wick: They can be, dear--for some.
    Susanna: Well, then--it's the wrong word.
    Dr. Wick: No. I think it's perfect.
    (Winona Ryder and Vanessa Redgrave in Girl, Interrupted, 1999)
  • "Both ambivalent and ambiguous may connote duality:
    - To adopt the Committee's own ambivalent phrasing, that may or may not be the result.
    (Wall Street Journal, 1 April 1955)
    - But, like the bearded lady of the fair ground, it wears an ambiguous appearance.
    (Iain Colquhoun, New Republic, 18 October 1954)
    But they are seldom really confused because ambiguous tends to stress uncertainty and is usually applied to external things while ambivalent tends to stress duality and is usually applied to internal things."
    (Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, 1994)

    Practice Exercise

    (a) "The stammerer is _____ about communicating with others: he desperately wants to communicate, but is afraid of revealing himself." (Ted Morgan)

    (b) "Journalists do not like to report on uncertainties. They would almost rather be wrong than _____."
    (Melvin Maddocks)

    Answers to Practice Exercise

    (a) "The stammerer is ambivalent about communicating with others: he desperately wants to communicate but is afraid of revealing himself." (Ted Morgan)

    (b) "Journalists do not like to report on uncertainties. They would almost rather be wrong than ambiguous." (Melvin Maddocks)

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    Your Citation
    Nordquist, Richard. "Ambiguous vs. Ambivalent." ThoughtCo, Nov. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/ambiguous-and-ambivalent-1689537. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, November 2). Ambiguous vs. Ambivalent. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ambiguous-and-ambivalent-1689537 Nordquist, Richard. "Ambiguous vs. Ambivalent." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ambiguous-and-ambivalent-1689537 (accessed January 20, 2018).