What is Ambiguity in Literature?

Sasha Blakeley, Katie Surber
  • Author
    Sasha Blakeley

    Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University and a TEFL certification. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for seven years.

  • Instructor
    Katie Surber

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

Discover ambiguity in literature. Study the definition of ambiguous, view examples of ambiguity in literature and poetry, and learn why ambiguity is used. Updated: 10/05/2021

Table of Contents


What is Ambiguity?

What is ambiguity? Ambiguity is the quality of having multiple meanings or multiple possible interpretations. If something is ambiguous, it might be understood in two or more different ways. It is essential for media literacy to spot ambiguity and parse it, as examples of ambiguity exist in literature, poetry, film, news media, and even conversation.

Definition of Ambiguous

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the ''ambiguous'' definition is something that is ''able to be understood in more than one way'' or that has ''more than one possible meaning.'' Something ambiguous can also be something that is not clearly expressed or understood. ''Ambiguous'' is the adjectival form of the word, while ''ambiguity'' is the noun. It is important to note that ambiguity can be deliberately created by a speaker or writer or created unintentionally through vagueness or mistaken meaning.

Lexical Ambiguity vs. Syntactic Ambiguity

A panda eats shoots and leaves: this statement has the potential to be ambiguous.

Ambiguity examples are often humorous

At the sentence level, two types of ambiguity can easily trip up readers. These are called lexical and syntactic ambiguity. Lexical ambiguity refers to unclear or plural meanings in individual words. Such ambiguity is often the source of comedy, as in the following examples:

  • ''Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend; inside of a dog it's too dark to read.'' This quote, commonly attributed to Groucho Marx, plays on the ambiguity of the word ''outside,'' in this case meaning both ''besides'' and ''on the outside of.''
  • ''I have a really nice stepladder. Sadly, I never knew my real ladder.'' Attributed to comedian Harry Hill; this joke plays on the two meanings of ''step:'' a stepladder as in a ladder with a few steps, and a stepladder as in a step-father.
  • ''The priest is going to marry me'' plays on the two meanings of the verb ''to marry:'' to get married to someone, and to marry someone to their spouse in the role of an officiant.
  • ''The fisherman went to the bank'' is based on the ambiguity of the word ''bank,'' which in this case could mean a financial institution or the side of a river.

Syntactic ambiguity, sometimes called structural ambiguity, occurs when the structure of a sentence creates several possible meanings or ambiguous meanings. News headlines are prone to syntactic ambiguity, as in the following humorous examples:

  • ''Kids Make Nutritious Snacks,'' means that kids are making nutritious snacks; not eating children is nutritious.
  • ''Queen Mary Having Bottom Scraped'' refers to a boat, the Queen Mary, being refitted, not a person.
  • ''Eye Drops Off Shelf'' means that eye drops have been taken off the shelf, rather than body parts falling to the ground.

Other examples of syntactic ambiguity include sentences that can alter their meaning through punctuation. For instance, consider this joke: A panda walks into a bar. He eats a sandwich, shoots the waiter, and then leaves. The restaurant patrons are surprised to see a panda acting so strangely, but when they look pandas up in a badly punctuated encyclopedia, they find an entry that says that a panda ''eats, shoots and leaves'' instead of the correct punctuation, which would be ''eats shoots and leaves.'' Another example is the difference in meaning between the sentences ''Let's eat Grandma!'' and ''Let's eat, Grandma!''

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Ambiguity Examples

There are hundreds of ambiguity-examples found in literature, poetry, and even conversation. There are also many reasons why people make use of ambiguity. Some do so unintentionally in conversation, creating confusion. Others use ambiguity in their writing to create humor, mystery or leave elements of a work open to multiple interpretations. Some writers have even used ambiguity to avoid censorship. Ambiguity serves many purposes, and it cannot be ignored: it demands that readers either choose an interpretation or deliberately accept the ambiguous nature of an idea.

Ambiguity in Literature

Vonnegut used literary ambiguity in Slaughterhouse Five.

Ambiguity in literature can have many potential purposes

Writers commonly employ ambiguity in literature for a wide variety of reasons. The literary ambiguity definition usually applies to ambiguous instances in word choice, character action, and symbolism. Ambiguity examples in literature sometimes spark significant debate among readers. Some examples of ambiguity in literature include:

Work and Author Context Quote Purpose of Ambiguity
Hamlet by William Shakespeare Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, responds poorly to his mother and uncle marrying shortly after his father's death. He may be going insane, or he may be faking insanity; the play is ambiguous on that score, and different productions have to make choices about how to portray Hamlet's madness ''Rosencrantz: He does confess he feels himself distracted; / But from what cause he will by no means speak.'' The purpose of ambiguity in Hamlet is to create intrigue and to make Hamlet a more fascinating and mysterious character.
The Charioteer by Mary Renault Ralph Lanyon, an English schoolboy, is talking to a fellow student called Laurie (nicknamed Spud) shortly before he knows he will have to leave school because of a scandal. ''That's all, goodbye. What is it, then? Come here a moment... Now you see what I mean, Spud. It would never have done, would it? Well, goodbye.'' This scene is very oblique, but the implication may be that the two characters in the scene kiss in the ellipsis of this quote. Renault was writing a book with gay characters but had to be very ambiguous in her writing style to avoid censorship, as The Charioteer was first published in 1953.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut The protagonist of the novel suffers from PTSD because of his experiences in the bombing of Dresden. As such, his story is ambiguous, leaving many elements to audience interpretation. ''All this happened, more or less.'' This is the opening line of the book. It serves to establish audience expectations and to allow readers to connect more deeply to the topic.

There are many reasons writers include ambiguity in their work and many different effects that ambiguous writing can have on readers.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What does ambiguity mean?

Ambiguity refers to instances where a sentence, literary work, or piece of media can have multiple possible interpretations. It can also refer to instances where meaning is not clear or is misunderstood.

What are some examples of ambiguity?

Examples of ambiguity include garden path sentences, lexical ambiguity, syntactic ambiguity, and literary ambiguity. There are also many examples of ambiguity in film, poetry, and even news media.

What is an ambiguous sentence?

An example of an ambiguous sentence might be ''James got lunch ready for his daughter wearing a summer dress.'' The sentence is not clear on whether James or his daughter is wearing the dress.

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