Ambiguity in Literature: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 What Is Ambiguity?
  • 1:10 Ambiguity In Conversation
  • 2:00 Ambiguity In Literature
  • 2:50 Examples In Literature
  • 3:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katie Surber

Katie has a Master's degree in English and has taught college level classes for ten years.

In this lesson, we will define ambiguity and discuss how our everyday conversations may be ambiguous. We will also look at ambiguity in literature, including why an author may choose to use it as a literary device and how it may affect the audience.

What Is Ambiguity?

If you have ever watched Jay Leno, then you probably have seen his segment 'Headlines'. During this portion of his show, Leno took newspaper headlines with funny errors or interpretations and read them for a laugh. Some examples of these headlines are: 'Kids Make Nutritious Snacks', 'Eye Drops Off Shelf', and 'Queen Mary Having Bottom Scraped'. What makes these headlines funny is that they are ambiguous.

When a sentence is ambiguous, it has at least two different interpretations. For the examples above, the first sentence could mean that kids eat good food, or it could be interpreted as eating kids is nutritional. For the second, one could read it as buying eye drops off the shelf, while another sees it as an eye falling off a shelf. Finally, for the third one, it could be read that the boat Queen Mary is being cleaned, while another reading could be more comical as Queen Mary, a person, having her bottom scraped.

Ambiguity can be found in everyday conversation and in literature. A sentence can become ambiguous just by a single word, or by a misplaced statement. This is why it is so important to match correct phrasing while writing.

Ambiguity in Conversation

The most common form of ambiguity is found in word choice. Most of the words in the English language have more than one definition. There are many nouns and adjectives that may have different meanings depending upon the usage. For example, the word 'break'. As a noun, it could mean an interruption, a piece of good luck, a separation, a pause, or a breaking of a bone. As a verb, it could mean to terminate, separate, move away, or scatter. These are just a few of the definitions. If not used correctly and clearly in the sentence, break could become an ambiguous word choice.

Like 'break', there are many words that can become ambiguous in conversation. Because of this, we hear ambiguity daily with each other, on television, even when reading newspapers or social media.

Ambiguity in Literature

Ambiguity may used in literature through wording, symbol, or action.

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