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Lexical Ambiguity: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 Lexical Ambiguity
  • 0:36 Examples
  • 1:21 Revising for Clarity
  • 2:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Margaret Stone

Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English.

This lesson focuses on lexical ambiguity, a writing error that can lead to confusion for readers. Sentences containing this type of error are easily revised to eliminate confusion. Let's explore the definition in more detail and look at some examples.

Lexical Ambiguity

Lexical ambiguity is a writing error that occurs when a sentence contains a word that has more than one meaning. This problem, which is also called semantic ambiguity, obscures the writer's intent and confuses the reader. Lexical ambiguity is sometimes used intentionally to create a pun, which is a play on words, often to be funny.

For example, what has four wheels and flies? A garbage truck.

Let's take a look at the way common words can lead to lexical ambiguity.

Examples

For example:

I saw bats.

This short, simple sentence could be interpreted in four different ways.

  • I used a tool with a sharp blade to slice through baseball bats.
  • I viewed some nocturnal flying mammals.
  • I viewed baseball bats.
  • I used a tool with a sharp blade to slice through nocturnal flying mammals.

Viewed without the context of adjacent sentences, this sentence is easily misinterpreted.

Here's another example.

Insurance salesmen are frightening people.

It is not possible to determine exactly what this sentence is attempting to convey. Are insurance salesmen scaring people into buying their insurance? Or are the salesmen themselves scary?

Revising for Clarity

Writers should always proofread with an eye toward finding passages that can be confusing to readers. In both of our examples, it is possible that the sentences would not be confusing when viewed within the context of a paragraph or an essay in which they appear.

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