Lexical Ambiguity Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Lexical ambiguity is the presence of two or more possible meanings within a single word. Also called semantic ambiguity or homonymy. Compare to syntactic ambiguity.

Lexical ambiguity is sometimes used deliberately to create puns and other types of wordplay.

According to the editors of the MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences (2001), "True lexical ambiguity is typically distinguished from polysemy (e.g., 'the N.Y. Times' as in this morning's edition of the newspaper versus the company that publishes the newspaper) or from vagueness (e.g., 'cut' as in 'cut the lawn' or 'cut the cloth'), though the boundaries can be fuzzy."

Examples and Observations

  • "You know, somebody actually complimented me on my driving today. They left a little note on the windscreen; it said, 'Parking Fine.' So that was nice."
    (English comedian Tim Vine)
  • "'Do you believe in clubs for young people?' someone asked W.C. Fields. 'Only when kindness fails,' replied Fields."
    (Quoted by Graeme Ritchie in The Linguistic Analysis of Jokes. Routledge, 2004)
  • Donald Ressler: The third guard, he's in the hospital. Berlin cut his hand off.
    Aram Mojtabai: No, no. It's a lexical ambiguity. "He cut his hand off."
    Elizabeth Keen: Berlin cut off his own hand?
    ("Berlin: Conclusion." The Blacklist, May 12, 2014)
  • "Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend; inside it's too hard to read."
    (Groucho Marx)
  • The Rabbi married my sister.
  • She is looking for a match.
  • The fisherman went to the bank.
  • "I have a really nice stepladder. Sadly, I never knew my real ladder."
    (English comedian Harry Hill)

Lexical Ambiguity and Context

"[C]ontext is highly relevant to this part of the meaning of utterances. . . . For example

They passed the port at midnight

is lexically ambiguous. However, it would normally be clear in a given context which of the two homonyms, 'port1' ('harbor') or 'port2' ('kind of fortified wine'), is being used—and also which sense of the polysemous verb 'pass' is intended." (John Lyons, Linguistic Semantics: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 1995)

Characteristics of Lexical Ambiguity

"The following example, taken from Johnson-Laird (1983), illustrates two important characteristics of lexical ambiguity:

The plane banked just before landing, but then the pilot lost control. The strip on the field runs for only the barest of yards and the plane just twisted out of the turn before shooting into the ground.

First, that this passage is not particularly difficult to understand in spite of the fact that all of its content words are ambiguous suggests that ambiguity is unlikely to invoke special resource-demanding processing mechanisms but rather is handled as a by-product of normal comprehension. Second, there are a number of ways in which a word can be ambiguous. The word plane, for example, has several noun meanings, and it can also be used as a verb. The word twisted could be an adjective and is also morphologically ambiguous between the past tense and participial forms of the verb to twist." (Patrizia Tabossi et al., "Semantic Effects on Syntactic Ambiguity Resolution" in Attention and Performance XV, ed. by C. Umiltà and M. Moscovitch. MIT Press, 1994)

Lexical Ambiguity and the Processing of Words

"Depending on the relationship among the alternative meanings available for a particular word form, lexical ambiguity has been categorized as either polysemous, when meanings are related, or homonymous, when unrelated. Although ambiguity is graded, for words that are at one or the other end of this spectrum and thus are easy to classify, polysemy and homonymy have been shown to have differing effects on reading behaviors. Whereas related meanings have been shown to facilitate word recognition, unrelated meanings have been found to slow processing times . . . .." (Chia-lin Lee and Kara D. Federmeier, "In a Word: ERPs Reveal Important Lexical Variables for Visual Word Processing." The Handbook of the Neuropsychology of Language, ed. by Miriam Faust. Blackwell, 2012)