Lexical Ambiguity: Definition & Examples

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Noam Chomsky: Biography & Quotes

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:00 Lexical Ambiguity
  • 0:36 Examples
  • 1:21 Revising for Clarity
  • 2:24 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

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.


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.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account